Q&A: Publicis Groupe CEO Arthur Sadoun and Chief Diversity Officer Ronnie Dickerson Address 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 Publicis Groupe CEO Arthur Sodun‘s interview. Publicis Groupe chief diversity officer Ronnie Dickerson also participated in the 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?


Arthur Sadoun: We’re making sure that we check in on everyone at our level and below and make sure that people are following and talking to people individually and in groups, because I think we are in the stage where what really matters is to listen and to learn. Also being available at Q&A sessions. We already had one 10 days ago where we started to talk about these topics. Next Friday is going to be the same, 3,000 leaders from all around the world. This is all leading up to the day of June 17 [which Publicis Groupe announced as a day devoted to discussing new measures to address racism and promote diversity and inclusion at the holding company]. So I’m listening, learning, being there for my people and thinking about what actions can really have an impact.

Ronnie Dickerson: We had over 2,100 people join our “Brave Spaces” conversation two Fridays ago but even up to this past Friday, we have another “Brave Spaces” led by the men of color in our company that had over 1,500 participants. We’re doing all of that in addition to taking action and working toward what Arthur shared in his video.

Sadoun: The level of participation shows the commitment we have always had on diversity and inclusion, and most importantly shows now the sense of urgency our people are feeling. It is sad that we had to go through this moment to create this sense of urgency, but it obliges us now to move even faster in what we’re doing.

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

Sadoun: Diversity and inclusion have always been at the heart of Publicis Groupe, well before me. Our internal motto for the last 20 years has been “Viva la Difference.” We have always put inclusion and diversity at the core of our company. This is true of gender balance as well. It’s not something new for us; it’s just that this is coming at a moment where we need to do more, we need to do better and we need to involve everyone.

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

Sadoun: What matters isn’t what we’ve done in the past, it’s what we’re going to do next. The question is what impact we will have in the coming months and years on this topic. What are we going to do to make sure things change radically? We actually formulated four key questions that we need to resolve over time. [Those questions, as shared in the aforementioned video, are: how to provide more opportunities for Black people at Publicis Groupe and its agencies, how it can foster a culture of growth and progress leading to more Black leaders in senior leadership roles, how to ensure white employees become active partners to their Black colleagues’ success, and how to help support all minorities around the world.]

First, we need to listen, we need to ideate and we need to make sure that it’s transformed into something that will have an impact.

Dickerson: We have a full spectrum of things we’ve done over time. We had a well-structured diversity, equity and inclusion practice well before I was in this role. Right now the focus is what happens next and what we’re doing next. Where we’re really orienting our time right now is taking specific actions [to answer the questions presented in Sadoun’s recent video address], to focus on building what’s next and to do more.

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

Sadoun: It will have an impact on the long term as long as it is pragmatic actions that impact our day-to-day life as a company and as long as it is shared by everyone and considered as a priority. This is why the day of the 17th is so important. You need a team to lead that, and Ronnie’s team is the one leading the charge there to make sure that everyone can participate, be engaged, have a voice and make sure that we do the right thing. But you need the buy-in from the entire team to make that happen because we are a business that is run by agencies everywhere in the world. What matters is that whatever we decided to do is something that is actionable and bought by everyone.

Dickerson: This is an orientation toward our talent, engagement and inclusion team in partnership with our leadership. Our leaders are engaged in helping to make that day successful and to make sure that our people are there and prepared to be there. 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.

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

Sadoun: Yes, she reports directly to me.

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

We have said everything we need to say on that. So I won’t add anything from what we have said so far. Everything is in [last Sunday’s] film. As I said in my film, racism, and injustice in general, is way beyond us. The question is how can we have an impact? How can we help at our level? Our role is to find solutions for our people, for our duty, for our ecosystem. Our role is to focus on our people and to bring solutions to those four questions that we have raised, which are extremely important questions. We should focus on that and nothing else.

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

Come back to the four questions and you will see that we will take strong action on those four points. But we’re going to do it step by step. We’re going to first listen, learn, discuss and share ideas. We are not talking about something that we’re going to fix in days. We’re talking about months, years. You need to start from the right place.

This is a discussion we had in January. It was part of the plan anyway, but that is accelerating.We need to put everyone together to decide on the action plan and then we need to execute. We are doing all of this very transparently.

Dickerson: We’re directed on our people right now and taking action and doing things at our pace and not even just making sure that everyone’s involved but that everyone’s accountable.

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?

I’m not going to point to any specific job. I will invite you to look for yourself and you will see that there are many things that have been done in terms of diversity. You just have to look at who’s running these companies. A lot of progress has been made, but it’s not enough. That’s the point. And by the way, it was not enough before this crisis. We need to accelerate on what we were already doing and do it in a very committed way, engaging everyone.

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?

This is very personal information and not something that we share externally. [Publicis Groupe followed up to clarify that it will measure and share progress on any initiatives that are put forth as a result of the June 17 session. For other data, the holding company is working through what is possible to share within the legal limitations that vary from country to country, including France, where the holding company is headquartered, which has legal restrictions on collecting information about employee ethnicity.]

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?

Our employees are expecting us to move, not to talk. This is being addressed also at the local level, by our local leaders. Now it’s about acting.