We Need to Spell Out What ‘Cultural Affinity’ Means

Breaking down the chemistry meeting

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Chemistry meetings could foster unconscious bias. Kacy Burdette
Headshot of Sanjay Nazerali

I love pitching for new business. However, as someone of color, I flinch slightly whenever I hear “chemistry meeting.” Pitch scorecards may be dreary and mechanistic, but at least there is a sense of rationality and transparency about the scores. The strategy wasn’t robust? Fine. The media planning was fanciful? Fine. Those knocks are part and parcel of daily life for all of us.

When I discover that the chemistry wasn’t good, there isn’t a scorecard I can refer to. It’s a qualitative judgement. Sadly, that makes it a fertile breeding ground for unconscious bias. I once received the feedback that although our work was better, the client felt more “cultural affinity” with the other agency. That troubled me because I had no way of holding those words to account.

Conscious bias doesn’t bother me. I went to my first-ever job interview after sending out a zillion applications. I was told by a global media director that “You. Speak. Very. Good. English.” Indomitable as I am, I was happy to reply, “So. Do. You.” I can live with that kind of visible Neanderthalism which, in fairness, has now probably rotted away in our industry. What hasn’t rotted away is less visible: unconscious bias.

It’s fine to say that we want “cultural affinity,” but we need to spell out what we mean by that.

At a conscious level, we’ve made real strides in media, and there is some cause for optimism. Barely a creative meeting goes by without us asking the right questions about diversity and inclusion. Bipoc representation in advertising has doubled in the last three years. We’re also increasingly conscious of portrayal in editorial content, where it’s not always the Black kid who gets stopped by the police or the Asian family who runs the corner shop.

We now urgently need to extend this progress into all areas of our industry which judge people by “qualitative,” unaccountable criteria. Including chemistry meetings.

The fact is, we are programmed to prefer people like us. Renowned Stanford neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky writes that “Humans universally make Us/Them dichotomies along lines of race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status and so on. Briefly flash up the face of someone of a different race, and there is preferential activation of the amygdala, a brain region associated with fear, anxiety and aggression.”

In short, the most liberal of us are programmed to like people like us and to feel less positively about “the other.” Even in dating, the notion that opposites attract is proven to be a myth. Add to this a history of unassailed white privilege, systemically embedded within our organizations, and we get to the situation in advertising where 95% of agency leadership is white. And according to the IPA, that figure is getting worse.

Identify areas where qualitative, murky judgments about people are likely to be made. It’s fine to say that we want “cultural affinity,” but we need to spell out what we mean by that. Do we mean “informal” or “youthful” or “analytical” or “evidence-based” or “democratic”? In the absence of being transparent about that, there is room for it to potentially mean “white.” We need to take active steps to ensure that unconscious bias doesn’t enter the frame.

As an inherently creative and liberal industry, I believe the future is bright if we can come together to develop a clear plan to address our appalling record in racial diversity. For me, the starting point is to ensure that “chemistry” isn’t an unconscious way of saying “white.”


Sanjay Nazerali is global managing director and chief strategist at DentsuX.
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