Diversity Efforts Are Often Whitewashed and Dulled Down. Here Are 5 Ways to Improve These Initiatives

Advertising has rebranded the term, and it isn’t a positive change

Illustration of different white men and women
Agencies and brands can champion being inclusive while not actually acknowledging ethnic or racial minorities in their efforts. Getty Images
Headshot of Belinda Smith

As we round out July, I am taking refuge in the fact that we’ve survived another round of the International Festival of Press Releases, sometimes referred to as Cannes Lions.

This year’s festival followed the patterns of years past. The biggest spending, hottest and most powerful of the advertising industry went to France to ensure they beat their chests about the things that are critically important to them, things they talk about once a year at Cannes. C-suite and svps took to LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook to show themselves holding microphones and waxing poetic about the on-trend topics. In many ways, this year was largely about diversity.

Following along from home, I saw a slew of new and renewed initiatives aimed at tackling diversity in advertising. And what I mean by that is I saw many high-ranking white men and white women making the case for why it’s a grave issue that there are not more women in advertising and the advertising industry, especially in leadership roles. A statement I don’t necessarily disagree with. The Female Quotient showed up again, promoting conversation around the GEM score (gender equality measure) and spoke about diversity with leaders of the industry’s biggest brands. The ANA’s #SeeHer came back for another year, also with support from big entertainment brands. The UN Women’s Unstereotype Alliance garnered a lot of ink, especially with their executive director being awarded the Cannes Lion Heart.

Diversity has now been co-opted to simply mean “women,” and most often to mean “white women.”

Being black, I’ve always been excited to hear companies commit to diversity. It is the singular initiative in many companies that directly relates to me. As an industry, we don’t talk about black people—or the lack of them—or why we need to include them or why we should make products for them or advertise to them or acknowledge them, unless we’re specifically talking about diversity. So, in theory, I would have been very excited for the programming at Cannes this year, except for one thing: Diversity has now been co-opted to simply mean “women,” and most often to mean “white women.”

The ad industry has rebranded diversity, and while I’m furious about it, I can’t say that I’m surprised. It’s as sad as it is clever. Now companies can commit to diversity by championing a non-minority population. They can go to Cannes and say they are committed to facing the hard conversations about representation, inclusion and belonging without having to acknowledge racial, ethnic or socioeconomic minorities. The saddest part is that many of the initiatives I mentioned above do touch on intersectionality (that is to say, women of color), but when their panels, messages and hashtags spread widely, that nuance is lost.

You know what sucks? Being the only black person in a company, building, department or team and feeling incredibly out of place, isolated, devalued and misunderstood every day. It sucks to be in that situation and to get excited when someone unveils a new diversity initiative before realizing that these diversity efforts are not aimed at acknowledging you but instead will be considered successful if their outcome is getting more white women into leadership positions.

In the rarer places where diversity is used more broadly, it often focuses on entry-level talent or new job applicants. It’s a game to increase numbers or percentage points that can be shown in an annual report without thinking through the experience minorities will have when they come to work each day. It ignores if they are fairly compensated and given high-visibility opportunities to succeed and be promoted. It doesn’t show if they are able to access mentors and champions, have their voices heard or impact the business in a tangible way. It is incomplete.

But hope is not lost. Here are five ways we can fix our diversity problem.

Hire racial and ethnic minorities at the highest levels of your organization

In many organizations, change comes from the top. Executive leaders set the culture of the organization, play a big role in recruiting and developing talent and, most importantly, are empowered to make decisions about the business. We need to stop focusing on entry-level talent who are not empowered to affect change.

What if H&M, Gucci, Pepsi and others had minority leaders who were able to make decisions on their products and advertising? Would they have found themselves in such compromising and seemingly tone-deaf positions that left us to question their commitment to diversity? Having a diverse workforce is not meaningful if your diverse employees don’t have a say in the decisions that are made to run the business.

Assign high-visibility and impactful work to your minority employees

Minorities lack the powerful networks, mentors and champions that propel careers forward. Let’s acknowledge that by assigning some of your most crucial, valuable and important work to minority candidates. This gives them an opportunity to gain exposure and experience across the organization so they can be seen, heard and receive feedback from important stakeholders. It’s a way to develop and nurture talent without having to create another mentorship program.

Identify where decisions are made and increase minority representation there

This could be newsroom meetings, oversight or review committees, leadership councils, etc. Having a diverse array of representation in these places makes the work and outcomes of those meetings and committees more diverse. Just how initiatives like Free the Bid improve representation and portrayals of women when women are involved in the production and decision-making process, the same is true for minorities.

Promote the minorities that already work for you

Diversity doesn’t have to always be about hiring. It is equally important to show your commitment to empowering the diverse voices that already exist in your organization. Why bring in new talent if they don’t have leaders they can look to about how to grow and advance. If focusing on hiring is talking the talk, then promoting the people you already have is walking the walk.

Bring compensation for minorities up to par with white counterparts

Many companies or hiring managers explain differences in pay between people at the same level by saying the candidates have different experience. That may be true, but if two people are hired to do the same type and level of work, then they should be compensated according to the job. Otherwise you could be penalizing minorities for lacking access. Access to the best schools, ability to take unpaid internships, recommendations from or relationships with the C-suite and the ability to afford executive coaches or be assigned coveted projects. Paying someone less for systematic exclusion from opportunity only serves to perpetuate the cycle.

The fact is there is a lot we can do today to address these issues. There is a lot we can do without kicking off a new campaign, project, education series, mentorship program or other things that are high in visibility and low in impact. If there were an award category, panel, case study or even yacht party around the companies that were able to make significant progress against these five issues, I would certainly reconsider my Cannes-never policy.

@bjstech Belinda Smith is a marketing and media veteran with stints at AT&T, the IAB, Dentsu Aegis and currently at Electronic Arts.