‘It’s sad it’s come to this’: Confessions of an agency CMO on diversity quotas

This article is part of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor to get an unvarnished look at the people, processes and problems inside the industry. More from the series →

Brands like General Mills and HP are both exhorting agencies to improve diversity numbers — by leveraging client dollars.

In the past week, General Mills told Advertising Age that it now requires agencies competing for its business to meet quotas: 50 percent of the creative department must be female, while 20 percent must be people of color. Shortly after, HP CMO Antonio Lucio called on its agencies to send the company a proposal outlining exactly how each agency will improve diversity numbers.

These are two different approaches, but potentially a harbinger of things to come: Other major clients like PepsiCo’s Brad Jakeman, an outspoken champion for agency diversity, have already lauded the move.

But while there’s no question diversity is a nagging problem in the industry and numbers need to improve, these new requirements are causing consternation among agency executives, particularly those in new business. We asked one agency CMO who is not involved in the General Mills or HP work to give us an unvarnished insider’s perspective. As always, we granted anonymity in exchange for honesty.

So brands and agency diversity quotas: Good, or bad?
It’s a weird thing, isn’t it? That it’s come to this? I think it’s really sad that it has to be this way. And the reason it’s sad is because ultimately, any decision — whether you’re hiring someone, whether it’s an agency or a law firm, this kind of thing — will make people feel like they got the job not because they are the most qualified person for the role regardless of sex, gender, race.

So you’re talking about the post-quota hires?
Yes. The trouble is, we run the risk of — as an industry and, broadly, as an economy — that we make decisions not based on merit but based on quotas.

OK, but diversity is a huge problem. If not this, how do you fix it?
Of course. It’s sad that as an industry we’re not naturally reflecting the population. But it’s so complicated. Quotas are a Band-Aid to sort out the fact that agencies are not reflecting the population the brands are selling to. But when you think about diversity inside businesses, the issues are far more fundamental.

If you think about the way people hire, it’s often about recommendations. So person A is hired, has a friend from college, recommends that person, and so on. That’s fine, but you hire people that think like you and tend to look like you too. What we need to be asking is: Are our hiring techniques allowing us to find the people who are best at their roles? And the answer is going to be no.

But wouldn’t quotas fix that?
But those are symptoms. The root cause won’t be fixed. We’ve had books received from recruiters where it’s all men. And it wasn’t until we ask them, “How come this is all men?” that the recruiters say, “Oh, wow, yeah.” The recruiter had to be pushed to think of women that would work for the job. So it’s on us. And just because you hire women or people of color, doesn’t mean you’ve fixed systemic issues.

How are agencies going to fill quotas?
There are going to be situations where agencies, under pressure and time, won’t hire on merit, but will go find 10 more women and five people of color. It can become quite frustrating. I’m a woman, and I don’t want to be hired because I’m a woman.

The interesting thing about this is that the screws are really being tightened.
They are. It’s a good thing too, at least we’re having this conversation and turning this into a hot-button issue. But I sense it’s creating some panic.

Well, I like the HP approach. Feels like a partnership. But otherwise, there’s going to be agencies under new business pressure frantically trying to meet quotas. Maybe not in this case, but in the future.  The second you start having quotas without context you worry about procurement-led decisions. I do hope there are checks and balances to make sure people don’t fudge numbers. But the process can be opaque. I’m so positive about it putting pressure on the industry, but it’s worrying.


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