Media Buying Briefing: How agencies are holding themselves accountable to DEI initiatives

This article is part of Digiday’s coverage of its Digiday Media Buying Summit. More from the series →

Given the growing diversity of the American population, and to some degree the global population, it’s incumbent on the worlds of agencies and marketers to put a priority on diversity and inclusion. But an unfortunately fair question to ask is: How much do they understand how to approach doing just that?

Four years after the 2020 murder of George Floyd sparked organizations to make corporate and financial pledges, agencies of all stripes and sizes have sometimes felt challenged over how to keep making progress with their diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. Some have developed scorecards, metrics and other internal tools to increase representation, while others have invested in the communities and partners with whom they want to work more closely. Still, it can be difficult to quantify the results and ensure a continuous momentum when focusing on DEI as a business imperative.

Digiday prioritized the topic at the outset of day two of our Media Buying Summit in Nashville last week. To do that, we tapped panelists Dr. Alvin Glay, chief strategy officer at Response Media, media consultant Sherine Patrick, and Walton Isaacson’s managing director of digital innovation Albert Thompson, to address not only what needs to change across inclusive marketing, AI developments and minority media investments, but also how to make that change happen.

Glay started the session citing some disappointing statistics about where Black and Brown people stand in corporate America. “When you think about corporate senior management, less than 4% are actually Black and Brown folks,” he ticked off, adding that less than 2% of entrepreneurs and founders are Black. (A Brookings report confirms that percentage.)

Challenge how DEI is defined

How an agency defines DEI can serve as a starting point for mapping its goals, accountability and gaps. At culture-focused Walton Isaacson, Thompson mentioned the need to be aware of bias, such as in hiring decisions, and how to build and execute an organization’s inclusion efforts. It’s not just about any one component of DEI, be it financial investments or internal culture.

“Because most people suck to mitigate bias, and don’t understand DEI as an acronym – and don’t practice all three facets of it,” Thompson said, “they’re not very good when it comes to the multicultural conversation. And I think people start to think that all these elements are distinct and … it is not some different business units with different executional elements. It’s a practice to be carried all the way through.”

Patrick, media strategy advisor for consultative group Ops Shop, but whose media agency tenure includes stints at Mindshare and McKinney, also encouraged agencies to challenge the idea of diversity and multiculturalism. “What is the general market?” she asked. “When you look at a lot of things, usually there is one person of color on the team, but we’re really in an industry that’s focused on the general market.” 

Instead of focusing on having siloed initiatives in multicultural practices, they should endeavor to have these embedded as the basis of the agency — “and then those things are happening naturally because there’s representation from all people,” Patrick added.

Don’t be lazy — go beyond multicultural and diverse media

It would seem straightforward to invest in multicultural marketing strategies and push the annual campaigns to support a diverse group of people and brands — but is it enough to advance the DEI work and conversations? Clearly it’s not.

Take Black History Month, for instance, which builds insufficient buckets and “tentpole” events, Patrick explained. “We should be marketing to those people year-round … I am Black in October too. I think it’s the idea of trying to put these little buckets on people.”

Glay also argued that when we are talking about multicultural marketing – a term he doesn’t particularly like – remember that it’s about marketing to human beings at the end of the day. It does not have to be tied to ethnic culture alone when we are thinking about diverse media investments.

“Because marketing is about reaching people at the intrinsic level,” Glay said. “We all consume media, right? It goes back to fundamental marketing, which is about reaching people and then translating them. There are things we all have, shared common interests.”

AI and tech are not ‘cheat codes’

It would be a mistake to rely on AI or emerging tech as “cheat codes for culture,” Thompson contended. After all, AI presents its own set of problems with diversity and biases. He argued that we cannot allow “human laziness” to become a reason for not making an effort to learn about different people and cultures.

The average platforms, from Perplexity to ChatGPT, are in the process of being built with engineers that impose their own biases. “The dataset against multicultural sucks,” and that is being fed into the algorithms, Thompson explained. “So [AI] is not going to be a shortcut or cheat to DEI, you still have to study people and … human nature.”

Glay similarly warned that AI photo apps, for example, are lacking in data that causes confusion in generating images for people of color. “From a representation standpoint, it’s very important to have the people who are coding understand the data that they’re capturing,” he added.

Patrick’s advice is to never stop doing the due diligence within your agencies: “Question what you are doing, go over your lists … do the due diligence and be curious.”

It’s not to say technology can’t play a part in solving certain DEI obstacles, but it will require that organizations continue investing in education and having robust dialogues and empathy with their workforce, clients and communities — and that’s all our jobs as humans.

Color by numbers

Is Google actually being dethroned as the biggest thing in search since … Google? According to a 2024 Consumer Behavior Index from SOCi, which bills itself as a co-marketing cloud operation, it is when Gen Z is searching. A study of just over 1,000 respondents showed that traditional search engines like Google and Bing are no longer top of mind for search. 

The results:

  • Instagram is favored by 67% of 18 to 24-year-olds, but also appeals to 54% of adults 25-34 and 50% of the 35-44 demographic, then drops with older users (who seemingly favor Google). Corporate sibling Facebook, meanwhile, displays value as a local search platform with 65% of consumers aged 35-44 and 60% aged 25-34.
  • Google Search, still the first choice for older generations, ranks third at 61% for the 18-24 demo.
  • Among adults 55-64, Google Search is favored by 79%, as well as 76% of adults 35-44, and 74% of those aged 45-54.
  • Finally, TikTok and Snapchat also resonate with Gen Z for local searches, with 62% using TikTok and 45% opting for Snapchat.

Takeoff & landing

  • Holding company Havas reported its 2023 results as part of French media conglomerate Vivendi, and performed surprisingly well. Net revenue was up 4.1% and organic revenue grew 4.4%. Havas Media Network inched up its share of total revenue from 32% to 33%.
  • In a bid to become a “big indie,” independent agencies Barkley and OKRP merged agencies and names to become BarkleyOKRP. Barkley CEO Jeff King takes on the merged shop’s CEO role, while OKRP’s CEO Tom O’Keefe becomes chairman. Clients of the united include Burger King, Planet Fitness, Metro by T-Mobile and AMC, among others.
  • Horizon Media’s Horizon Next unit landed media AOR duties in the U.S. and Canada for SharkNinja.
  • Personnel moves: Zenith hired Gregg Manias to be its new evp of performance media, joining from Acronym where he was most recently evp of strategy overseeing the programmatic, search & social, and retail media departments … Dentsu named Shirli Zelcer its new global chief data & technology officer, reporting to Dentsu Americas CEO Michael Komasinski. She shifts over from Dentsu unit Merkle, where she’s been global head of analytics & technology.

Direct quote

“2024 is already showing itself to be the most expensive advertising year election-wise. But it’s not just prices that brands should account for. Emerging technology carries unseen destructive potential for brands, including a noticeable uptick in the amount of instances involving deepfakes, robocalling, and bad actors who misuse gen AI tools. The idea that ‘this won’t happen to me’ is wishful thinking in today’s political landscape. Despite their best intentions, brands can become collateral damage if they don’t take proactive measures this election cycle.” 

— Forrester’s principal analyst Audrey Chee-Read, co-author of the report “How to Advertise in an Election Year.”

Speed reading

  • In other coverage coming out of last week’s Digiday Media Buying Summit, Michael Bürgi cataloged some of the challenges and solutions around talent retention that were offered up during the agency-only Town Hall meetings.
  • Bürgi also wrote about the latest efforts to generate deeper-diving consumer research by the likes of Stagwell and Disqo as a means of making up for the gradual disappearance of third-party identifiers.
  • Kayleigh Barber, who’s been covering the scourge that is made-for-advertising sites, offers up an oral history of how they came to be.

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