The Challenges Facing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Leaders

Industry leaders share the DE&I hurdles they've come up against at MAIP Summit 2020

a panel of speakers
The panelists agree it's difficult to prioritize diversity and inclusion, and feel they have to continue justifying their roles. Credit: Margarita Corporan
Headshot of Minda Smiley

Diversity and inclusion are two areas the advertising industry has prioritized in recent years, not only with help from organizations like the 3% Movement and Adcolor, but also internally via executive positions dedicated to the causes.

Each of the major holding companies has a chief diversity officer or a position akin to it. A number of agencies, including TBWA\North America and R/GA, have also implemented similar roles in the past decade.

At this year’s MAIP 2020 Summit, a two-day conference put on in New York by the 4A’s Foundation for alumni of its Multicultural Advertising Intern Program, a group of panelists discussed their experience working in these types of roles. While the work can be rewarding and eye-opening, it comes with its fair share of setbacks.

Tiffany R. Warren, svp/chief diversity officer at Omnicom Group and founder and president of Adcolor, kicked off the discussion by sharing some criticisms that people who work in diversity and inclusion face. For instance, she said she’s heard “they don’t have the power they need to make a difference” and that “other leaders aren’t on board with what they’re doing.”

Regardless, each of them shared why they still push for progress—and how others can help make the case for why these roles are important.

The next step is equity

The responsibilities of chief diversity officers and the like have changed over the years. Early iterations of the role primarily focused on getting talent from various backgrounds through the door, but it now encompasses far more.

During the panel discussion, Anomaly’s diversity and engagement lead Jezz Chung said equity, or “creating equal opportunities,” is what many diversity advocates are now prioritizing.

“For a while, people were trying to prove diversity is essential. Then it was about why inclusion is valued,” she said. “Now, it seems we’ve moved into this conversation of equity. We’ve realized that the systems of power in place right now don’t allow for equal opportunity.”

Xavier Jernigan, head of cultural partnerships at Spotify, said he’s personally experienced inequitable environments throughout his career. For example, he once stayed at the same title—and salary—for seven years, despite consistently receiving praise for his work.

“I worked for a lot of [record] labels that had a lot of black artists, so you would think automatically it’s diverse and inclusive,” Jernigan said. “You see a lot of black execs at the top, but beneath that, I could tell you 30 people at every label that might have stayed at the same title for six or more years.”

Making the business case

Countless studies show the business case for improving diversity and inclusion: Last year, a study conducted by the Wall Street Journal found a link between diverse workforces and business success.

Warren, who joined Omnicom Group as chief diversity officer in 2009, approaches her work from a business perspective. She “learned a long time ago” that she can’t guarantee that each and every stakeholder will genuinely care about the issues at stake, but what she can do is illustrate how diversity, inclusion and equity are good for business.

“You have to be strategic,” Warren said. “Caring only lasts so long.”

Even so, justifying the work can still be a challenge, regardless of data that shows the impact that investing in these areas can have. Daisy Auger-Dominguez is the founder of Auger-Dominguez Ventures, an organization that helps companies “reduce the gap between the values that they espouse and the experience of their employees.” Auger-Dominguez held diversity-oriented roles at Google, Walt Disney Television and Moody’s earlier in her career

“You constantly have to prove not just why you exist, but why the work exists,” she said. “While you are really working hard at creating space and opportunity for others, you are desperately trying to hold on to your seat at the table.”

Take Chung, who created her role at Anomaly a year ago after serving as a copywriter at the agency. While she was able to design the position around her “passions and interests,” Chung said the lack of precedent can make it particularly challenging, and lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation.

“It’s uncharted territory,” she told attendees. “There is no blueprint for this role, so it’s really hard to prove my value. I put so much pressure on myself to perform.”

How to be constructive when offering help

Many employees want to help with their companies’ diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, even if it’s not technically part of their job responsibilities. Chung said it’s helpful when employees who have the bandwidth and are passionate about the issue come to her with actionable ways they can assist, such as offering to design flyers for an event.

“If you have a DE&I person in your company, ask them: What can I help you with? What kind of support do you need?” Chung said. “That’s more helpful language than, ‘Let me know if you need help.’ Because then it puts the burden on them to reach out to you.”

Words of appreciation also go a long way. Chung said even simply sending a note to a diversity, equity and inclusion leader who expresses affirmation for the work they’re doing is useful, as these types of messages can be shared with a company’s leadership team and therefore show the role’s value.

“Help advocate for them, so they can advocate for you,” she said.

@Minda_Smiley Minda Smiley is an agencies reporter at Adweek.