Q&A: IPG CEO Michael Roth Addresses Systemic Racism in Advertising

By Erik Oster 

Adweek invited the CEOs for each holding company to participate in a discussion regarding systemic racism in the advertising industry and what steps they are implementing to promote diversity, inclusion and equity at their agencies. We asked the same set of questions of each CEO. Below is IPG CEO Michael Roth‘s interview.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. 

Adweek: What are you doing to communicate with and support Black employees at this moment as a holding company? What are you doing personally as a CEO?


Michael Roth: We, as company, have been communicating about diversity and inclusion now for many years. We made diversity and inclusion part of the DNA of our company. And and as a result of Covid-19, we’ve been communicating on a regular basis on a worldwide basis. Every Friday, I send out notes to all of our employees, addressing you know, working from home, all the issues we’re dealing with, and now Black Lives Matter.

But on top of that, I think the most important thing that we’re dealing with now is that we’re holding what they call “office hours” every day where we have tough conversations. Our diversity, equity and inclusion teams host these chats with employees of color around the country and the world, as well as with allies and with CEOs, to discuss issues that they have to be addressing right now. We’ve actually been leading our industry in addressing these issues, but what’s happened now is it’s moved to a whole different level.

We’ve also been hosting sessions for parents of young children with therapists on phone calls to discuss how to have conversations around these issues with younger children. We’ve had conversations where we have a safe space for conversations with our creative leadership because, let’s face it, our industry has a role to play in terms of the creative work that we do. I’m personally vice chair of the Unstereotype Alliance with the United Nations Group of Women, focusing on how diverse individuals are portrayed in the work that we develop.

What actions are you taking as a holding company to address systemic racism?

We hold our CEOs financially responsible for diversity and inclusion in their goals. And we’ve been doing that for [13] years now. It’s part of their compensation and we set objectives as part of their talent review. It’s part of our effort to have IPG viewed as a company where we want all individuals to feel comfortable and want to work here and for our clients to do business with us.

How are the actions taken to address systemic racism at this time different from what you’ve been doing before?

We’re going to move on our accountability measurements to a whole different level. Initially the focus on our accountability measurements were just representation, in terms of staffing.

What we’ve agreed to and what we’re working on is what’s the next level of accountability. And it goes to the issue of understanding. There’s unconscious bias, we know that there’s unconscious bias, and we have training on unconscious bias. We’re going to move up the accountability levels, to make sure that there’s a better understanding of what people are facing in their everyday lives. It’s not enough to just tick a box that we’ve recruited X amount of people. We have to really make it part of the culture and inclusivity of the organization and make individuals comfortable in the workforce and working and dealing with our clients.

[Last Friday], I asked us to use the day off at corporate, in which a lot of our agencies joined in, to ask our allies to take a day of opportunity to learn, volunteer, have conversations. On top of that we made some contributions to organizations that we previously had not contributed to: Campaign Zero, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Amnesty International. We asked our people to also participate in contributing.

These conversations that we’re having on a regular basis is leading us to understand how we have to be able to change in the way we operate from a business perspective. We have a CEO diversity counsel that I’m the chair of that we’ve been doing for years. We’ve embraced inclusivity as an organization many years ago, and what this has done, is move it up a notch.

We also have one of our global clients now working with us to see how we can transform their brand purpose and we’re also doing pro bono work  in this environment. The use of our creative talent is critical, because they’re the ones who actually can create work that embraces change which is necessary, and we have our clients adopting along those lines.

But the key for us as a company is to have conversations and listen to our people. What I’m proud of is our people are willing to talk. To have these conversations and hear people talk about how they have the talk with their children, to hear that and experience that brings it home in terms of how their lives are different and and what they have to deal with. So it’s taking those experiences, listening to those experiences and seeing how we, as a company, can make these individuals comfortable to have those conversations.

We have Business Resource Groups for African Americans and other minority groups and these resource groups actually meet with me and talk to me in terms of what money they need to fund programs, and I don’t think I’ve said no to any of them. That will be ratcheted up as well.

The good news for IPG is we have an infrastructure that is part of our process. It’s a lot different if you’re starting from scratch. We have mechanisms already in place that will help us prioritize it and hold people accountable.

What are you doing to ensure that this continues to be a priority?

Our board of directors is actively involved in this. This isn’t something that we just put on the calendar. Every year we have a presentation to the board on what progress we’re making on diversity and inclusivity and equity. So this is not something new.

We [also] have a talent review with our board of directors. What happens is our organization does a talent review for me and other senior management for every one of our agencies, and then myself and senior management present the reviews of talent across all of our agencies, and inclusivity is part of that review. So the question of whether this is going to be ongoing is taken care of at IPG. Every conversation I have with my board addresses those issues.

Does your D&I lead report directly to the CEO or to another executive? Is that structure being reconsidered? 

[SVP, Chief Diversity Officer Heide Gardner] reports directly to me. And by the way, she always has reported to me. That’s not something we had to change. She works very closely with our chief operating officer Philippe Krakowsky.

We’re not taking anything for granted. We know that change has to occur. We know that we have a lot more work to do. But it doesn’t hurt that you already have a senior officer who’s in charge of diversity for years now. We already have an existing dialogue with a board of directors around it, and we hold our people financially accountable. It’s not just that we’re paying lip service. We’re agreeing to action items to make the difference. This is part of our culture and we’re just going to ratchet it up.

Do you believe there are systemic problems with regards to racial equity within your holding company? What are you doing to address them?

Of course there are. You wouldn’t be seeing what you’re seeing right now if that wasn’t the case. Any company that tells you there isn’t a systemic problem in their company have their head up their behinds. We’re a company that embraces this and I know we have the problems. So I can imagine what companies that don’t embrace it have. It’s a societal problem and it has to change. And it’s unfortunate that this awareness took place as a result of these tragedies, but I’m glad [that awareness] has taken place. I hope and I believe that all of this is going to make a difference and we are going to change. At IPG of course we have problems and it’s on a worldwide basis; it’s not it’s not just in the United States.

Do you plan to further invest in and hire Black talent moving forward? How will you go about doing this?

We’ve been doing it, we will continue to do it and we’ll do it better. I think we’re the only company in our industry to have that accountability [around diversity and inclusion goals]. When we instituted it, I remember being in Cannes talking about it, and some of our competitors just looked at me like I had two heads.

What percentage of leadership roles at your agencies are held by Black people? By people of color more broadly? Are you content with this level of diversity? What concrete actions are you planning to address this issue and improve that percentage?

[Following the interview, IPG shared that 2.6% of its senior- and executive-level leadership positions were held by African Americans.]

I don’t know how to emphasize this enough. I’m doing the talent reviews right now and in the talent reviews they go through every position; every open position and every position in the company. They have a separate section on diversity, where they show diverse individuals: what roles they have, what opportunities they will have, how many have been promoted, how many have been recruited, what opportunities were filled by diverse candidates, what are we doing from a recruiting point of view in terms of interviewing diverse candidates. That’s part of the talent review that we do with our agencies. I then summarize all of these reviews and have a presentation with a board of directors.

There’s [also] a section in there on if they lost any diverse candidates, why they lost them. Candidly, the answer usually is that clients have recruited them.

This is part of the process. If you don’t have a foundation through a process, it’s going to be very difficult to get it up and going. We have the process. Now, the problem is does the process work 100% and the answer is no. But at least we have a process that we can build on. Even when we’re cutting back because of the environment [due to the coronavirus pandemic], we don’t cut back on that.

Do you track your diversity numbers now, i.e., how many people of color you employ and how often they are promoted compared to white colleagues? Have there been conversations about potentially sharing these numbers externally to be transparent?

We share it with clients and we share it with the government because we have government [agencies] as clients. It’s part of our pitch process to put forth our diversity numbers.

We’ll take a look at how to disseminate that information [more publicly], but it’s obviously something we track.

[IPG followed up to share with Adweek that its African American employees’ representation for EEOC Senior and Executive management, First- and Mid-level Management and Professionals categories is 2.6%, 4.3% and 7.2%, respectively.]

The industry has been aware of issues around diversity and inclusion for decades, but change has historically been very slow. Talent of color have been vocal in the past week about feeling agencies are quick to talk but frustratingly slow to act on this topic. So how will you ensure that your Black employees and other talent of color within the industry will believe that your holding company’s commitment on these issues is serious and will actually yield change in the short term? How will you hold yourselves accountable?

Well, I already do [hold us financially accountable]. We have surveys with our people and we do it regularly and we take actions from our surveys. We do a survey of all of our people in terms of whether they feel comfortable, any issues they may have dealing with their immediate bosses, whether they feel racism in the work environment. We study all of this. I’m held accountable, because my promise to our employees is that we will take action based on the survey results that we get. So we monitor that and we’ve moved it up.

We’re not perfect but we understand the importance of this. And so the way we hold everyone accountable is because I’m accountable. And if I’m accountable, I can assure you that everyone else is accountable.

A good part of my compensation is based on variable performance and in that are what we call high-priority objectives. And in the high-priority objectives is advancement in diversity, inclusivity and equality.