How agencies are shaping the future of DEI beyond their own walls

This is part 2 in our series about diversity at agencies. You can read part 1 here, which discusses organizational progress, strategic leadership and challenges in DEI.

Amidst a slew of post-pandemic epiphanies, agencies are acknowledging their role in expanding their diversity efforts to support a more inclusive industry.

In addition to improving employee representation, agencies are broadening their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts for clients, too, by focusing on recruitment, retention and client services.

That means a DEI strategy at Publicis Groupe U.S. that stretches from the “workplace to the marketplace,” said Geraldine White, chief diversity officer at the agency. With a staff of roughly 26,000 in the U.S. and 100,000 globally, White said Publicis’ approach to increasing diversity needs to involve the client, team and brand sides — challenges given the company’s breadth of the company and entrenched biases in many places.

“None of these conversations are new, unfortunately,” White told Digiday. “Because there’s so much that is systemically embedded, you need to apply systems thinking, change management and governance to actually be able to unravel what is … embedded. And that’s in our industry and outside of it.”

In June 2022, Publicis Groupe reported a 17.5% increase in the percentage of non-white staffers compared to 2021, totaling 34.4% across the company. Its global workforce is 51% women. In addition to pledging to update these numbers annually, Publicis said it will invest 45 million euros over three years on diversity, inclusion and social justice. Funding goes to programs, such as training for Black talent, an interactive forum called Multicultural Talent Partnership, apprenticeships and support for organizations fighting racism and inequalities.

Moving beyond the agency to external efforts

Agencies are feeling the pressure to step up from clients, who White noted are holding the agency “accountable.” “For the majority of RFPs, RFIs, conversations around growth, we are asked about our diversity commitments — but also how we are actually acting on and achieving them,” White added. “And our ability to be able to transparently share that also leads to greater and deeper relationships with clients.”

Guided by Good, the parent organization of agency 22Squared, offers internal programs ranging from training and recruiting to forums and mentorship for employees. But Janis Middleton, evp and executive director of inclusion strategy there, acknowledged that she is currently thinking about how to engage on the client and supplier level.

“I’ve always had in the back of my mind, I’ve got to get back to the client work,” she said. “We’ve got to bring the clients on because we had to clean up our own backyard. You can’t get the blind leading the blind, and can’t guide people if we don’t even know what we’re doing.”

Recently the company developed an offering for clients called Embrace, to help them build inclusive work and culture. And the company offers employees workshops on topics like “actionable habits” and “authentic selves.”

“I think supplier diversity is a whole other ballgame that it’s time for us to step into,” Middleton added. “I would love to put a structure in place to properly track it. But from a media perspective, from a production perspective, from a freelance perspective, I think it’s time to focus on supplier diversity.”

Lisa Torres, president of multicultural at Publicis Media, also said many recent agency initiatives in supplier diversity focus on the short-term of upping spending toward minority-owned media — “sometimes committing to a percentage of spend that isn’t theirs to control, but rather their clients.”

“How can we buy more inventory across diverse owned, targeted and operated properties if that supply does not exist, or partners do not have the means to make that supply available to advertisers?” Torres said.

In 2021, Publicis launched its Once & For All Coalition to create more equitable representation for diverse media suppliers. It currently counts some 60 members — consisting of suppliers, brand marketers and industry organizations — that have 50% higher budget allocations toward minority media than non-members, and engage with 40% more diverse-owned and targeted suppliers, according to the company.

Engaging the future workforce

Some of the agencies’ external efforts aim to build connections with schools and universities to fill the recruitment pipeline earlier in the process.

IPG’s UM Worldwide wants to build media and university partners through a program called Curriculum, said chief diversity officer Jeff Marshall, which includes visiting university campuses to recruit.

One of its partnerships with Vox Media offers a free media and advertising course for college students. The nine-module course gives insight into the media and advertising industry, invitation to private events and a LinkedIn badge after completion. After continuing for three semesters, Marshall said the goal is to increase the current average completion rate of 100 students per semester.

“It’s given us kind of a really interesting space to play in when we’re chatting with universities and with students and trying to attract people,” he said.

Angela Seits, head of strategy and insights at PMG, mentioned similar goals in engaging with the students and graduates. Seits sits on a diversity steering committee created in 2020. In 2022, PMG partnered with Tarrant County College to offer digital career training in data, analytics and e-commerce. The goal is to train more than 1,000 students by 2028, with PMG committing $50,000 in scholarships to 50 students over the next five years.

“Agencies have a much greater role to play in shaping an inclusive media landscape,” Seits said.

Publicis is similarly developing training and career development for diverse communities. Its remote learning program, or Open Apprenticeship, is structured with different apprenticeships across creative industries and offers practice with access to live briefs with real clients. The pillars include brand marketing, creative, tech and data and media and public relations.

White acknowledged that agencies need to strive for more gender and ethnicity representation – but should not overlook areas of leadership diversity and balance or career support.

“So having a sense of being at or near parity is great, but what does that mean from a career trajectory standpoint?” White said. “How are we further establishing what that means for women in leadership roles? But again, it all comes back to not just the number — what is our accountability beyond just the representation?”

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