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Agencies, Diversity, #BLM, and New Business: What Will You Do?

Posted by Kirsten Meyer on Jun 24, 2020 6:10:00 AM
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Since George Floyd was killed, the curtain has been pulled back for everyone who has the privilege of experiencing a different reality, forcing the acknowledgement that something is wrong. Horribly, bigly wrong. Recent events—while not new—have registered widespread outrage, affecting people of all different backgrounds, inspiring them to speak up and take action.

George Floyd

The conversation has grown beyond police brutality, as people consider what it means to walk through this world as someone whose life is valued differently. Which, in advertising, is about opportunity, parity, agency culture, representation, systemic racism, "evergreen" racism, and microaggressions (a.k.a., “death by a thousand papercuts”).

I’ve watched with great interest as the advertising industry has responded to these issues, feeling out their roles and responsibilities, managing the optics, and talking about what we can and should do as individuals and organizations.

While people have been moved by the blatant injustice, there are different opinions on how to respond. Those who reacted quickly might as easily have been viewed as opportunistic as they were brave. Others continue to speak loudly through their silence.

“...while most people in our industry seem progressive, it’s in moments like these that it’s revealed to us that many actually uphold conservative views or superficial stances by choosing to remain silent and declining to take action in our work and workplaces. Jumping on the bandwagon for our clients and for our own social reputations is dishonest and disingenuous when internally, we’re still abetting the problem.”

—Terry Lee (in Adweek)

Here are some agencies I’ve noticed making clear statements about George Floyd or supporting Black communities on their websites:


More importantly, these 30 agencies have committed to publishing their diversity data, which is a critical step in the process of moving toward substantive change. Many agencies have also committed funds to organizations working for racial justice. Others have said they will direct more resources to diversity and inclusion initiatives, indicating plans for greater accountability.

no lives matter

While listening, reading, and taking everything in, here are some of the questions I’ve been thinking about:

  • What is an agency’s responsibility to respond to current events and to work towards better diversity and inclusion (D&I)? 

  • Why do some seem to regard the statement “Black Lives Matter” as controversial? Will taking a stand cost agencies business? Further, if it does, is that business they would want anyway?

  • Why do some organizations feel compelled to speak up for #BLM and reinforce their commitment to diversity right now, even when it may not authentically represent their position? 

  • Where does the responsibility lie for pushing the envelope towards greater diversity and inclusion: with the brand or the agency (or everyone)?

  • What is the cost to agencies who reject real progress towards diversity and inclusion, from a new business perspective?

  • The current conversation arose from Black lives not being equally valued. With that in mind, how can we keep Black professionals centered in discussions and actions towards diversity and inclusion (rather than falling back on advancements that benefit only some, while continuing to exclude Black talent)?


Perhaps you’ve considered some of the same questions. I’ve shared my thoughts on some of these topics below. 

Diversity & inclusion for new business

It is a fact that diversity has become a more influential, if not a deciding factor, for agency new business in recent years. Depending on whose business you want to earn, and what consumer groups you need to target, lack of diversity can stunt an agency’s growth. For those who are somehow unmoved to action by anything else, know that diversity and inclusion do affect the bottom line.

We previously tackled many questions around “why diversity matters” for agency new business in this post. Mark Duval (founder of The Duval Partnership) has said diversity is “just something you do because it’s the right thing to do.” In an ideal world, that might be enough. Being more skeptical of others’ ability to realize the moral imperative (and the spirit of employment protections), I like to provide evidence of why diversity matters for business. There is a significant body of research that supports the bottom-line rewards for businesses that take a progressive approach to diversity and inclusion, some of which are referenced here

Should agencies take a position on racial justice and commit to better diversity and inclusion?

I will state unequivocally that Black lives matter to us at The Duval Partnership. If someone disagrees with that fundamental human rights statement, then we are happy not to work with them. Ultimately, it is most important to us that we hold ourselves and our agency partners accountable for authenticity and inclusivity in our day-to-day work, specifically as it affects agency new business. 

Many in the advertising world seem to believe all agencies “must” or “should” commit to diversity and inclusion, if not to racial justice more broadly. But when I look around, I see that most agencies have been able to get away with exclusivity and lack of diversity at the leadership level, meaning they continue to be profitable while doing business that way. It seems a lack of diversity doesn’t hurt them in any tangible way, allowing them to continue maintaining the status quo. 

I cant breathe

Discussions of diversity and inclusion in advertising have been had so many times that it seems like Groundhog Day. The statements being made by agencies claiming “to take this seriously,” and promising to “do better,” have been made before. Until there are proven outcomes, they are just PR exercises. 

Should “credit” be given to agencies who use paper-thin words to talk about fixing something that they shouldn’t have enabled in the first place? Particularly when it may provide a false sense of resolution, ultimately followed by more lack of substantive change? Perhaps the real question is: can leopards change their spots? The ball is in agencies’ collective court to prove it. 

What about agencies who want to benefit from diversity without practicing it?

I’m not just talking about agencies who claim to support racial justice on social media while it is wholly incongruent with how they work (though that’s a problem, too). 

For a recent article about how Black professionals experience racism and microaggressions at advertising agencies, AdAge spoke with five people previously employed with GMMB. All of them agreed that when the agency pitched new accounts, employees of color were asked “for their bios and headshots to send in with their response to the RFP or pitch in question, to make the agency look more diverse.” However, they said, “Black employees will rarely ever actually get the chance to work on the pitch or account if won.” 

Is that an isolated practice? Yadira Harrison and Shannon Simpson Jones of Verb Agency have also alluded to something similar taking place in pitches. If agencies are abusing the pitch process by creating artificial team line-ups based on race, it’s not only deceptive—it's racist. It’s not the same as using your “A Team” to pitch when your “B Team” will be doing the work (which is also poor practice). Trotting team members out based on how they look just to win new business is tokenism at its worst. This is one step away from hiring actors and models to fill seats on a pitch just because they have a certain “ethnic” look. Where do we draw the line?

If agencies want to enjoy the rewards of diversity, they must earn it. If an agency has to resort to tricks to appear more diverse, they have demonstrated awareness of a problem. Why not address it normally by extending more significant opportunities to Black creatives and other creatives of color? And if agencies don’t want to be diverse and inclusive, maybe they just shouldn’t go after accounts that require it.

“Often agencies say they can’t find diverse talent, but as soon as the client says you have to have 20% diversity, we can suddenly find them,” 

—Nathan Young of Periscope (in Adweek)


What will it take for agencies to get on board with substantive change?

westin blmWhat is going to push the needle on this is if brands continue down the path forged by Diageo, HP, Verizon, and General Mills, refusing to do business with agencies that don’t meet their baseline diversity requirements. When brands force agencies’ hands, and it translates to lost opportunities, agencies may find a greater appreciation for diversity and inclusion as a business imperative. 

We seem to be moving in the direction of more consumers directing their purchasing power towards brands whose politics align with theirs. We can see that as people call brands out for their shallow, opportunistic support for #BLM when their actions are misaligned with their words. As a result, we may see more brands holding agencies accountable for diversity and inclusion in response to consumers holding them accountable. 

Additionally, current and former employees are holding agencies accountable publicly. While I have not heard of any legal actions yet, the thought of it must be a key motivating factor for agencies to respond.

“I don’t think they have a real drive [to change]. I think right now they are being forced to have a drive. They have had the data. This is not new. The change is going to come because the change is going to be demanded, but not because it’s something they felt they should do.”  

— Deadra Rahaman of Society Redefined Consulting, on general-market agencies (in AdAge)

I, too, am skeptical about substantive change occurring until agencies are forced. And not necessarily because people don’t care about equality, diversity, and inclusion. I’m sure some don’t, but I suspect more often that good intentions are stymied by resource allocation and implementation issues. Unfortunately, good intentions aren't good enough anymore. 

Getting to the heart of the issue

The real challenge is that agencies don’t just face hiring and pipeline issues but equity issues that are embedded in agency systems and cultures.

Those who focus on hiring and pipeline underestimate the problem. The hard work comes with unpacking why team members leave. Why aren’t they being retained and promoted? 

Hiring someone is easy enough—assuming you have the budget to do so post-COVID. Doing the work to create an environment where a diverse workforce will thrive is much harder. For many agencies, that will require a cultural shift. As an example of what that might look like, refer to this post from Sam Haskin at Firewood. 

Visibility is relative to one’s perspective. That’s something we deal with constantly in our line of work. It’s a delicate art convincing smart, creative people — leaders in their field — that something that looks fine to them may not look fine from a prospect’s perspective. It requires them to doubt their own instincts and trust that there are other valid ways of seeing things, which doesn't come natural to most people.

Likewise, racist and divisive practices often go unseen by those perpetuating them. Agency leaders must first be able to understand how racism is experienced by those who experience it in order to acknowledge it and stamp it out. Assuming that we've done no harm because we intended no harm can lead to dismissals of experiences (which, ironically, perpetuates harm).


Be accountable for doing what you can

I wonder how many agencies have the bandwidth to address racial equality from a best practices approach. Agency leaders are fighting fires. Nothing gets on the front burner unless it has an immediate bottom-line impact. For years, we’ve been writing about how agencies are being stretched thinner and thinner, continually having to do more with less. Let me be clear: none of this excuses inaction. But as a practical matter, diversity and inclusion work takes resources. Where is it going to come from? 

If you can’t approach diversity and inclusion with adequate resources, what then? If the choice is to do nothing or do what you can, choose the latter. If you are willing to acknowledge that your agency is a work in progress on this issue and you don’t have all the answers, there are incremental improvements you can make. 

I have mixed feelings about introducing “do what you can” as an option. The danger of this approach is that it invites “back burner-ing” and not doing enough to move the needle. But for some agencies, it may be this or nothing. And make no mistake: it still requires a genuine, ongoing commitment from the highest levels of leadership to be effective.

What can you do? Here are some ideas:

  • Don’t just hire from your existing team members and network. Go out of your way to seek out candidates of different backgrounds in your job and gig searches. Professional trade associations can be a resource, as can LinkedIn (try searching with the hashtag #c0ffe3). 
  • Connect with and call on specialist agencies owned by women, LGBTQ, and people of color. Consider partnering with them when appropriate, and don’t just think of them for “urban/multicultural” projects.
  • Deliberately network with professionals that have different backgrounds than your own. 
  • Beware the silo. If you acknowledge that your agency already lacks sufficient diversity, use caution when looking within your agency for answers to resolve its diversity issues. Despite best intentions, there are probably considerations that just aren’t on your radar because they are outside of your experience. To that end:

Use your people resources. Welcome all voices and perspectives to the table and don’t use majority rule, tenure, or titles to invalidate their ideas.

• Compensate people for their expertise on improving your diversity and inclusion efforts. Respect that educating others about how racism and exclusion is experienced is not necessarily the responsibility of those who experience it— and is also emotionally exhausting.

• Continue to read from a variety of sources and seek out different voices outside of your usual circle. Push yourself out of your comfort zone to understand other perspectives.

  • Look at how your agency approaches diversity and inclusion (D&I). Many agencies’ highest-ranking Black professionals are found in diversity and HR positions. Is D&I the only path for them to advance within your agency? Is D&I incorporated as a core business interest across the agency, integrated and prioritized from the top-down? If it is a disconnected island within the agency, D&I won’t be functional. 
  • Consider whether there is room for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) to be authentic within your agency culture. Some people talk about bringing your “whole self” to work; I don’t know if everyone should bring their whole entire selves to work...But certainly, dress codes should be revisited for bias, as should cultural norms that only allow BIPOC to advance if they “code shift” and create professional alter-egos to mirror agency leadership’s culture and behaviors at the expense of their own.
  • Read the 12 steps that 600 Black advertising professionals have demanded agency leaders implement, and start thinking about what your agency can do to meet them.


  • Check out the video series from the 4A’s and Natasha Bowman on Cultural Competence in a Virtual Workplace here.

Further reading

Here are some articles I’ve found impactful recently:

  • Black professionals describe agencies as hotbeds for racism and microaggression, by Lindsay Rittenhouse (AdAge). AdAge interviewed 26 people for this article. Read it to better understand how Black creatives experience agency life.
  • Verb Agency founders Yadira Harrison and Shannon Simpson Jones talk about client and agency accountability, by Ian Zelaya (Adweek). Read this for Yadira and Shannon’s insights on creating an inclusive culture to retain a diverse workforce. See what they have to say about not pigeonholing Black-owned agencies into one box, as if they are interchangeable and can only be tapped for urban, diversity, and culture-based projects.
  • Advertising has rebranded diversity, and it isn’t a positive change, by Belinda Smith, Global Head of Media, Electronic Arts (World Federation of Advertisers). This post is from September 2019, but I think it’s important because it talks about the way that diversity has been co-opted (specifically, and most often, by white women) and how it feels to be a BIPOC in an inhospitable agency culture. 
  • If ‘Black Lives Matter’ to brands, where are your black board members?, by Mark Ritson (MarketingWeek). Mark clearly has the freedom to give no fucks, and he’s getting maximum mileage out of it in this brutally honest assessment of where brands sit relative to the lip service they give on BLM. Agencies should care because some of them helped craft the creative he’s eviscerating, and many of them know that their leadership teams look every bit as white as the brands that Mark is calling out here. 
  • Who should lead discussions on racial justice, diversity and inclusion?, by Mónica Marie Zorrilla (Adweek). There have been many conversations about diversity and inclusion in the advertising industry that somehow take place without including BIPOC. In this case, Cindy Gallop (who is half-Chinese) got caught in the cross-hairs. Though many thought she made good points, because she presents as white and attempted to speak for other people of color, the conversation hit a raw nerve. Read this to see how Black advertising leaders responded. 

I hope this gives you some ideas to chew on. If I’m missing resources or you want to add to this discussion, please add your comments below, or reach out to me here.

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Image credits: George Floyd art Photo by Simon Daoudi on Unsplash; No Lives Matter Photo by Lan Nguyen on Unsplash; Photo by Cooper Baumgartner on Unsplash;  Westin George Floyd Photo by Joe Yates on Unsplash; Privilege Photo by James Eades on Unsplash.

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