How Holding Company CEOs Are Addressing Systemic Racism Internally

Adweek spoke with five to find out if, and how, they plan to hold themselves accountable

The CEOs of five holding companies discussed their plans to address racism internally. WPP, IPG, Getty Images

As protesters across the country continue to march against racism and police brutality, many hope that advertising agencies will have their moment of reckoning by finally addressing racist systems and power structures—and enact change after decades of stagnation.

“It is appalling that in this industry, where we pride ourselves on being the most creative people on the planet, that we can’t mobilize a creative response to addressing the disparities of race inside the companies that we operate,” a senior agency employee told Adweek. “We’re using this moment to make some real demands from leadership, and the gift of the moment is that leadership is listening.” 

Over the past few weeks, holding company CEOs have sent memos to staff addressing the May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. In these memos, they’ve largely pledged to hire more people of color at all levels and make working environments more inclusive and equitable. 

"We have to move past what we’ve done in the past. Saying that we don’t agree with discrimination is one thing. We have to focus our programs as anti-discrimination."
John Wren, chairman and CEO, Omnicom

Of course, the argument is that talk is cheap, evidenced by many years of op-eds, conferences and initiatives that people feel have yielded little in the way of actual change. Advocates worry that if or when momentum for Black Lives Matter begins to subside, promises made by industry leaders will prove to be little more than meaningless platitudes.

Adweek understands the importance of our role in holding these companies accountable for moving forward. As a start, we invited seven of the major holding companies to talk to us—Dentsu Aegis Network, Havas, Interpublic Group, MDC Partners, Omnicom, Publicis Groupe and WPP—and requested interviews with their CEOs.

The chief executives of Interpublic Group, Omnicom, Publicis Groupe and WPP agreed to interviews. Havas CEO Yannick Bolloré answered questions via email sent through a company spokesperson. Dentsu Aegis Network and MDC Partners declined to participate, but sent statements found at the bottom of this article.

During each interview, we focused on what concrete steps the holding company CEO has taken and what decisions they’ve made to ensure real change ensues. We’ve outlined them below, but for transparency, we’ve put the full interviews with each CEO on AgencySpy

Supporting Black employees in the short term 

We asked each CEO to discuss what they’re actively doing to support Black employees right now, as many are reeling from Floyd’s death, as well as the March 13 killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky., and countless other racial injustices.

Havas: In a memo sent to employees on June 1, the Havas leadership team asked staff to use June 5 as a “day dedicated to reflection and solidarity” and were given a guide with resources to help understand unconscious bias and sympathize with the experience of racial injustice. 

Bolloré said the company’s “key priorities these past few weeks” have also involved bespoke assistance programs for Black employees, as well as inclusive leadership and action training with diversity, equity and inclusion experts for more than 550 leaders across North America.

Yannick Bolloré, chairman and CEO of Havas

(Read Yannick Bolloré’s full interview at AgencySpy.)

IPG: CEO Michael Roth dedicated June 5 as a “Day of Healing,” offering the day off to IPG’s corporate employees and encouraging its agencies to implement similar measures. Roth also said IPG is making “significant monetary contributions” to Amnesty International, Campaign Zero, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

In addition to weekly companywide messages from Roth, IPG started holding “office hours” discussions led by its equity, diversity and inclusion teams. They have hosted “neighborhood conversations” with employees of color in the U.S. and the U.K. as well as sessions with allies and CEOs. 

This week, IPG held sessions for parents that included therapists explaining how to discuss racism with children. It also had a Safe Space Conversation for Creative Leadership session co-hosted by svp-chief diversity and inclusion officer Heide Gardner and FCB global chief creative officer Susan Credle. 

(Read Michael Roth’s full interview at AgencySpy.)

Omnicom: In an internal memo sent out to all Omnicom employees on June 1 addressing racism and the police murder of Floyd, Omnicom CEO John Wren said the holding company remained committed to “upholding the highest standards of respect and inclusion.” 

Wren has designated Juneteenth (June 19) as “a companywide day off from work to reflect and engage.” Additionally, svp-chief diversity officer Tiffany R. Warren is curating a session for June 18, with more details to come next week. Wren is encouraging all Omnicom agencies to participate. 

(Read John Wren’s full interview at AgencySpy.)

Publicis: Chief diversity officer Ronnie Dickerson Stewart led a virtual roundtable attended by over 2,100 employees to discuss racism on May 29. The first session was followed by another session last Friday, with over 1,500 participants. 

In a video address to all employees on June 7, Publicis Groupe CEO Arthur Sadoun said June 17 would be dedicated to addressing systemic racism issues within the organization and thinking through ideas, solutions and actions. He asked U.S. agencies that had not already done so to give employees a day off before the 17th.

(Read Arthur Sadoun’s full interview at AgencySpy.)

WPP: Last week, WPP held two “safe room” town halls for its U.S. employees. CEO Mark Read discussed these town halls in a LinkedIn post on June 2, stating he was moved by the “heartfelt contributions of the panelists and candid comments from participants.” 

Additionally, he said WPP and its agencies are matching donations made by employees; for instance, Ogilvy U.S. is matching contributions up to $1,000 to a “select group of organizations that are playing an important role in fighting racial inequality.”

(Read Mark Read’s full interview at AgencySpy.)

Long-term plans to address racism

Days of reflection, donations and roundtables help, but how are holding companies dismantling the very systems that have made it difficult for people of color to join, and better yet, succeed? We asked each CEO to discuss how they plan to fight systemic racism internally. 

Havas: At this time, it’s somewhat unclear. Bolloré pointed to many of the holding company’s diversity and inclusion programs that are already in place, such as Havas All, a two-year-old global effort that “represents a cross-section of initiatives that serve underrepresented communities,” as well as Black at Work, a platform established by its team in Chicago that sheds light on racial bias in the workplace. 

“These types of programs have been very impactful for us, and we’ll look to broaden their reach while also designing new programs that focus on the advancement and development of people of color specifically,” Bolloré said.

Michael Roth, chairman and CEO of IPG

IPG: Roth said the agency would increase its investments in business resource groups that report to him, including those devoted to Black people and other minority groups. He also said IPG would reexamine and further the diversity goals to which CEOs at IPG agencies are held financially accountable, asking its diversity council to come up with additional action items “to enhance our accountability.”  

He stressed the importance of tying executive financial compensation to diversity and inclusion goals to make leaders accountable for change, suggesting that those goals, (which initially focused on diverse representation in recruitment and hiring when first implemented 13 years ago) and subsequent executive accountability, would be moved to “a whole different level.” 

Omnicom: While he couldn’t point to new initiatives implemented in the wake of widespread protests against racism, Wren said Omnicom was bringing a new intensity to what it had already been doing around the issue. 

“We have to move past what we’ve done in the past,” he said. “Saying that we don’t agree with discrimination is one thing. We have to focus our programs as anti-discrimination. So we’re going to up the game here a bit as we go forward.”

He said that Omnicom is working on anti-bias and anti-discrimination training across its agencies.

“Even though we’ve had these programs in place for the past least five years at least, there’s a whole cross-section of the employee population who might have been looking at it and not truly paying attention to it or taking it a little bit too lightly,” Wren said. “I think they are truly affected by what’s happened [recently], and as a result, I think we’re going to get more and more buy-in to the things that we do.”

Publicis: Sadoun highlighted the upcoming June 17 sessions, which he said would amount to “pragmatic actions impacting our day-to-day life as a company,” but did not elaborate much further.

He explained that Dickerson’s team would be leading the sessions and stressed the importance of staff participation and engagement in the process. 

Arthur Sadoun, chairman and CEO of Publicis

“We all are engaged in making this not a moment of success, but a consecutive process where we are driving for change within our organization,” she said.

The June 17 sessions will focus on ways of addressing four core questions: how to provide more opportunities for Black people at Publicis Groupe and its agencies; ways the holding company can foster a culture of growth and progress leading to more Black leaders in senior leadership positions; how it can ensure white employees become active partners to Black colleagues; and how to help support all minorities around the world.

WPP: Perhaps the biggest, but arguably most vague, action that WPP plans to take is the formation of a global Inclusion Council.

Read said the council would “develop a series of policies and a coherent approach that each of our agencies can follow,” giving WPP a way to track progress centrally. He said it will be modeled off of WPP’s U.K. Inclusion Board—which was formed two years ago by U.K. country manager Karen Blackett—and comprises CEOs, talent leaders, and members of agency and client leadership teams. 

Additionally, WPP is rolling out updated online ethics training that will be mandatory, as well as new “global conscious inclusion training” that will only be required for WPP’s leadership and people teams, at least for the time being. 

Read also pointed to WPP’s recent backing of Keith Cartwright’s eponymous agency, calling it a “pretty good concrete example of what we’re doing” in terms of investing in Black talent.

Transparency in numbers

We asked each CEO whether they track employee diversity data internally, and if they share those numbers publicly or plan to. In an open letter to agency leadership recently signed by more than 600 Black advertising professionals, they outline 12 steps that executives can take immediately, one of which is: “Track and publicly report workforce diversity data on an annual basis to create accountability for the agency and the industry.”

Havas: Because Havas is a French company, Bolloré said it is “prohibited for us to collect global personal data related to ethnicity.” (According to The Guardian, in France it is illegal to classify people by ethnicity or to ask census questions on race or origins.) 

When asked if agencies such as Arnold Worldwide, which is owned by Havas but solely operates in the U.S., can collect this type of data, a company spokesperson said: “Our U.S. teams have collected data, but it is an optional response in our talent systems, so we need to work with our teams to encourage them to select.”

IPG: IPG shared that African American representation among senior and executive management, first- and mid-level management and professionals categories are 2.6%, 4.3% and 7.2% respectively in the U.S. Roth said the company’s board is 40% women and includes a person of color. 

Earlier today, the company released its full 2019 EEOC data (graphic below) that outlined Black, Asian, White and LatinX representation.


@ErikDOster Erik Oster is an agencies reporter for Adweek.
@Minda_Smiley Minda Smiley is an agencies reporter at Adweek.