CMOs Have Lost Focus on DEI Initiatives, MediaLink Report Finds

Hitting hard business goals is now the top objective for top marketers

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In the tumultuous summer of 2020, when Black Lives Matter protests proliferated in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, one portent of social change came from corporate America. One by one, companies promised to beef up their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts, pledging upward of $50 billion to do it, according to figures from the Congressional Black Caucus.

Nearly four years down the road from those grand pronouncements, it’s clear that many companies have come up short. Data from workforce database Revelio Labs revealed that DEI positions actually declined by 5% in 2023. Forty-three percent of Black executives surveyed by CNBC last year said the number of Black employees in their companies has stayed the same, while 9% reported it has fallen. In a 2021 report, noted human-resources analyst Josh Bersin observed that, when it comes to diversity initiatives, “companies are just going through the motions and not holding themselves accountable.”

But while corporate backsliding on DEI efforts has been clearly documented, what’s less evident is exactly why those efforts haven’t hit the mark.

Experts have advanced a variety of causal factors ranging from labor pressures to a social backlash. But a recent report from management consulting firm MediaLink brings a new factor into the picture: the chief marketer.

The Marketers’ Forecast 2024, which surveyed 400 top marketing leaders, revealed that marketing leaders are increasingly facing “a demand for more accountability to the bottom line,” which appears to have nudged DEI efforts down on the priority list.

Marketing chiefs’ focus on operational efficiency, for example, rose 12% between 2022 and 2023, with 39% of respondents ranking it as a top priority. By contrast, DEI now ranks near the bottom of the priority list, well behind objectives including financial performance and growth and product innovation. In fact, only 18% of marketing leaders said DEI was of major importance to them.

“With only 18% of respondents citing diversity, equity [and] inclusion … as top priorities,” the study notes, “momentum is stalling.”

Marketing chiefs are clearly aware of the resulting optics. Nearly a third of respondents (30%) said they were concerned that their brand would be “called out” by their own employees for failing to prioritize DEI.

DEI enhances financial performance and growth. It enhances operational efficiency and product innovation.

Lola Bakare, CMO advisor

A MediaLink representative who declined to be quoted was quick to point out that the report’s findings don’t mean that chief marketers care little about diversity, but rather that a variety of social and economic pressures have made them less vocal about it.

Vocality aside, however, it seems that the manifold pressures brought to bear on CMOs have compromised the time they can devote to any objective.

“The role of the CMO has broadened to the point where there are so many things that seem to like come under their purview,” said Richard Swain, principal at branding agency DesignStudio, who’s had extensive experience in working with top brand marketing executives. “It’s almost like their heads are split in lots of different ways.”

But veteran CMO advisor Lola Bakare disagrees with the notion that CMOs’ increasing operational and financial responsibilities should be considered separately from DEI initiatives because, she argues, these objectives are inherently interrelated.

“If treated correctly, DEI enhances financial performance and growth. It enhances operational efficiency and product innovation,” she said. Prioritizing financial performance, she added, “involves how you incorporate more diversity, equity, inclusion and representation into what you make.”

Studies underscore her point. For example, the 2023 Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Report published by global management consulting firm DDI stated that “overall, companies with greater gender and racial/ethnic diversity tend to outperform their peers financially.” McKinsey & Company has reported that “top-quartile companies for racial and ethnic diversity were 35% more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians.”

MediaLink’s findings suggest that many CMOs already know this correlation, even if they’re not giving diversity efforts priority treatment.

“These figures likely tell a more nuanced story,” the study notes. “Many marketers now consider DEI as a critical means to achieving growth.”

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