Holding Company DE&I Leads Share How They’re Spurring Change and What Comes Next

IPG, Omnicom and WPP execs discuss how they’re leveraging a turning point in the industry

Photos of Tiffany R. Warren, Adrianne Smith, Heide Gardner and Judy Jackson
Clockwise from left to right: Tiffany R. Warren, Adrianne Smith, Heide Gardner and Judy Jackson. Omnicom, IPG
Headshot of Minda Smiley

Inkwell Beach, a weeklong event dedicated to bringing diverse perspectives to Cannes Lions, debuted last year with speakers including CBS This Morning’s Gayle King and actress Gabrielle Union.

Due to Covid-19, this year’s Inkwell Beach took place virtually. One of the sessions brought together three of the industry’s top diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) leaders to discuss how they’re spurring change internally as holding companies continue to share their plans to fight systemic racism.

WPP’s global head of culture Judy Jackson, IPG’s senior vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer Heide Gardner, and Omnicom’s senior vice president and chief diversity officer Tiffany R. Warren, who’s also founder and president of ADCOLOR, discussed their individual approaches and what more needs to be done.

The talk was hosted by Adrianne Smith, the founder of Cannes Can: Diversity Collective, an organization dedicated to bringing young people of color to Cannes Lions. Earlier this year, Smith joined WPP as its first global director of inclusion and diversity.

Out with the old

Gardner has long advocated for diversity in the ad industry. Prior to joining IPG in 2003, she worked at the American Advertising Federation in Washington, D.C., where she played an instrumental role in lobbying the Clinton administration to sign an executive order that mandated that federal ad contracts fairly represent minority ad agencies.

During the discussion, Gardner explained why the industry can’t continue to do what it’s done in the past if it wants to spur real change. At IPG, she said she’s implementing a test-and-learn approach that involves “using the knowledge we have about what has and hasn’t worked” in terms of achieving diversity, equity and inclusion internally.

“The kind of accountability that I’m working towards within IPG is more around informed hypotheses for specific actions, using design thinking and having everyone at the table to solve problems,” she said, noting that this involves measuring results in a short timeframe to see what is working before scaling.

Gardner is wary of implementing “unproven strategies and interventions” just for the sake of taking action; she praised the work of Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt, a social psychologist at Stanford University who advocates for evidence-based practices that yield results.

For instance, she said she’s familiar with the work of many companies with “deep pockets” that have invested millions of dollars in social scientists, organizational psychologists, technology and more to try and combat systemic racism, only to come up dry.

“Those companies are in the same boat we are with their Black, indigenous and people of color, meaning we have a lot of work to do and a lot of innovation and a lot of intention that we have to apply,” she said.

New blood

Unlike Gardner, Jackson only became WPP’s global head of culture last year, shortly after Mark Read became CEO of the holding company. As the company continues its three-year turnaround plan under Read’s leadership, Jackson said the industry’s reckoning with race has given her a renewed sense of strength and commitment to her role.

“For the first time in a long time, I feel powerful,” she said. “I feel that I have access and the ability to invoke change.”

For Jackson, change involves bringing in new people with fresh ideas. Since she took on the role in early 2019, she’s hired Adrianne Smith as WPP’s first global director of inclusion and diversity, as well as Kai Deveraux Lawson, who serves as global director of community engagement.

“What I love about the team that we’re building at WPP—which is all new—is that Adrianne, Kai and others on my team that are just joining don’t know the word ‘no’ know yet,” she said. “They haven’t been burned by corporate America. That’s the beauty of it, because they’re breaking the rules.”

Jackson believes the industry is at a turning point. During “safe room” discussions that WPP conducted following the May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, she said white people were asking questions that they would have never asked beforehand.

“The conversations are something I’ve never heard in my 30-plus years in this business,” she said. “It is different. And I do think there needs to be a new group of people that come on board that are not afraid, that are bold and are able to break things.”

Redefining the role

Warren said recent weeks have been “sobering” for her, but also less lonely.

“I feel right now like the ‘it girl,’ like all of a sudden people have discovered what we do,” she said. “We’ve been doing it all along: laying the bricks in the foundation for organizations and for the community that we see rising up to actually do that unencumbered, to share their voice and say, ‘This is what we’re looking for.’”

As holding companies begin devoting time and resources to fighting systemic racism, Warren thinks now might be a good time to reassess what DE&I roles entail and how they can evolve to become more effective. 

Ever since she became chief diversity officer, Warren said there have been many instances where she’s also felt as though she also had to step into the role of crisis manger, counselor-in-chief, head of internships and more. She said this points to a need for more collaboration so DE&I executives can carry less of the burden and essentially get out of their own way.

“We have to look at the mechanics of what is expected of the role,” she said. “One thing I hope that this process unearths is what it really takes to do not only this role, but to make the changes, because we haven’t solved [this issue] for society.”

@Minda_Smiley minda.smiley@adweek.com Minda Smiley is an agencies reporter at Adweek.