The Advertising Industry Must Reimagine How Work Gets Done to Ever Really Become Diverse

Get over the strikes we traditionally count against people

The industry doesn’t have enough people of color, and there are hardly any women at the top.
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The advertising industry knows it has a problem. For years now, ad executives have been having an ongoing discussion about diversity in the industry, or really the lack thereof.

Even before clients started handing out ultimatums demanding agencies start looking more like the markets they’re meant to serve, the industry knew they weren’t working with enough people of color and that there were lots of women in the middle ranks but hardly any at the top.

Libby Delana

None of this is open to debate. In fact, denying it at this point is likely to put you out of a job. From the ad trades to conference panels, diversity is as hot a topic in 2017 as it was in 2016 or the year before that. Advertising Week saw many panels focused on the issue, bringing both big brand marketers and agency representatives together to discuss the need for diversity in the industry at large and the place of activism within it, especially in the context of our political environment.

Endless op-ed pieces have been written on the subject, and larger agencies have even hired diversity departments to try to shake up the talent pipeline and bring in people of different backgrounds.

All of this is good and well intentioned, but as the years go by, it’s apparent we as an industry don’t have much to show for all the talk. When the 3% Conference was founded in 2011, it took its name from the fact that only 3 percent of creative directors were female. Now, due in part to the attention the highly influential conference has focused on the issue, that number is up to 11 percent. It’s a huge improvement, to be sure, but still a dismal number for an industry that is almost perfectly divided between men and women.

By looking at diversity as a whole instead of dividing gender from race, agency leaders are asked to look at the systemic issues that have made inclusion an entrenched problem for so long.

The conference’s focus this year has shifted from the advancement of women into creative leadership roles to the broader theme of a “business event about the importance of diversity to creativity.” This is perhaps the best of many good ideas that have emerged from the conference in recent years.

By looking at diversity as a whole instead of dividing gender from race, agency leaders are asked to look at the systemic issues that have made inclusion an entrenched problem for so long. It asks all of us to rethink how we work, who we hire or promote and why, what qualifies as good creative work, and who gets to decide that.

recent study concluded that diversity and inclusion drive better decision making, which forces us to think about our biases, and to consider that if we’re sold on raising up one group, we’d better be thinking up ways to include everyone else at the same time.

To start, we need to reevaluate the hiring practices that have kept the industry dominated by one or two cohorts for so long. By checking the same boxes and hiring people with the usual degrees, multiple internships, a straight line up the advertising ladder, we’ll never build a more diverse workforce.

We need to get over the strikes we count against people—living far from the office, a gap on their resume, an unconventional education, the lack of a portfolio or work in another language—and find new ways to measure creativity, commitment and work ethic that includes people who might not look exactly like the traditional “desirable” candidate. Coming up with new metrics shouldn’t be so difficult for an industry so obsessed with creativity.

Secondly, we need to adjust how we ask people to work. The structured hours of the modern work environment were created for very different jobs than the ones we do today—and certainly not creative ones. The 9-to-5 was created for shift workers on the factory line, and most of those people were men.

At the time, this new way of working certainly seemed like progress, but for those of us living in the modern era, with kids, long commutes, aging parents to care for, or creative interests outside of the office, highly structured work hours (and in the case of many advertising firms, long hours and weekends) can act as a barrier to some of the best creative minds out there.

There are a number of initiatives underway to address this issue. For example, nonprofit startup OpenWork is focused on inspiring and helping employees and employers work together at the team level to reimagine how work gets done for the betterment of all.

The industry needs to create flexible working environments that invite more people in and allows them to balance their work and their lives no matter what those lives look like. If we’re going to ask people from outside the same old groups, lifestyles or neighborhoods to come and give us their ideas and knowledge, we need to play by their rules as much as we ask them to play by ours.

In order to make an impact on the larger systems that make it harder for women and people of color to succeed, we need to stop talking and start changing our own systems in a real way. These ideas are not difficult to implement if the will is really there.

Real inclusion is not just about trying to hire people with different backgrounds, genders or ethnicities, it’s about creating an industry that actually values their ideas and their contributions, and creates a space where they can be themselves.

Libby Delana (@parkhere) is a founding partner and creative director of design at Mechanica.

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