Three years after DE&I was jolted into action, how much progress has the agency world really made?

In the nearly three years since George Floyd’s murder shocked a nation and galvanized a movement toward better representation across all industries — but very much with marketing and media at the center of it all — how far we’ve come is subject to serious debate. 

While some point to statistics that show an increase in employment of people of color, different sexual orientation or physical/intellectual disabilities, others argue that the industry has lost the plot line when it doesn’t empower the people in positions of authority to effect meaningful change.

On the one hand, the agency community — led by the major holding companies — tout elevated numbers of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ staffers. They also proudly discuss the millions of dollars they’ve earmarked for spending in media that celebrate and reach these cohorts. 

But to at least one agency founder, many of the advancements still come across as sort of window dressing rather than substantive change. Steve Stoute, CEO and founder of creative agency Translation, and a longtime music and marketing executive and industry thought leader, told Digiday editor in chief Jim Cooper that CEOs enforcing diversity and inclusion into their ranks can have a less-than-positive effect. 

“The fact that these companies are hiring DEI officers to police that — I’m not sure that’s the best solution or if it’s just checking a box,” Stoute said while being interviewed at the Possible conference in April. “If your C-suite doesn’t look like your customers, you have a problem.”

Several agency chief diversity officers argued that filling quotas is far from the highest priority in their jobs. “While measurement of representation is an important KPI, it’s far from the only one. Working towards diversity goals is not exclusively about quantitative metrics and ‘counting’ certain identities,” said Geraldine White, chief diversity officer for Publicis Group U.S. “For us it’s a holistic approach grounded in qualitative elements like development of inclusive experiences; fostering accountability at all levels; and driving long-term organizational change and readiness for sustainably equitable practices. These elements are all interconnected and need to be equally prioritized in order to truly drive change.”

Devin O’Loughlin, chief diversity officer at Omnicom’s RAPP agency, cited an important distinction between quotas and targets. “When you create quotas, instead of targets, it sets up the potential for the tokenization conversation,” she said. “It sets up the potential for diverting the narrative away from the changes in agency needs to make versus just sort of checking [that] box. There is value in targets, because if you’re not evaluating your progress, and how you’re continuing to diversify all different levels of your talent, you won’t be able to see if you’ve grown in a positive way from three years ago, when we hit this inflection point to now.”

O’Loughlin also acknowledged that acquiring and retaining mid-level and junior talent is going to be much harder if they don’t see themselves reflected in the C-suite. “People aren’t going to see themselves reflected in opportunities to grow and stay within the organization, or have opportunities like organic sponsorship and mentorship and things that a lot of white talent currently have access to, that that talent of color or diverse talent just don’t have,” said O’Loughlin.

“When you look at a workplace in a corporation, we all we all work under goals and accountability in every part of the business — the discipline of diversity is no different,” said Christena Pyle, chief equity officer at Dentsu Americas. “And adding in that business rigor of measuring your progress, measuring what your employee population looks like, to better achieve that representation of the consumer — we are a better company and a better industry when we measure what matters.”

Added Publicis’ White: “We have to continue to carefully navigate what I call the representation retention paradox — which is the idea that when an organization becomes so closely focused on representation it can lose focus on retention, sentiment and creating growth and sustainably equitable environments for that talent to thrive in. When too much focus is placed on numbers and not enough on retention and employee experience, the opportunity to elevate and grow talent into leadership positions can be missed.”

But it’s not unheard of for some leading diversity chiefs to be given the job on top of other responsibilities — or worse, being tasked with the responsibility but not really having the support from the rest of the C-suite.

Said one holding company CMO: “The skepticism toward these DE&I goals from agencies is right because it shouldn’t be a check box exercise. And yet a lot of times it does — and that’s me speaking as someone who oversees those efforts for an agency. I still don’t have a full-time role around it… Right now i’m 505/50 and I’m still managing a client. There’s a lot of nuance from leadership as to whether or not they mean what they say about this issue.” 

And Dentsu’s Pyle acknowledged that “we still have work to do” when she looks at C-suites across the marketing and media industries. But she also sees progress. “Ten years ago in this business, a lot of the chief marketing officers were white males,” she said. “If you look at the shift in who is the CMO now, you’re seeing a lot of female leadership, and you’re seeing a lot of diverse leadership.”

Still, according to a Forrester survey in 2022, DEI ranked a lowly 14th place in terms of business priorities. Which is why almost all the holding companies have dedicated minimum spends devoted to minority media — in effect, forcing the matter.   

Stagwell’s Assembly recently created a Partners for Progress effort, which is similar to many other media agencies’ efforts to formalize commitments to minority media. Shannon Pruitt, chief content and partnerships officer at Stagwell Brand Performance Network, was instrumental in forming Partners for Progress, and explained it’s another step toward getting all industries to work together to advance the cause. 

“These small micro progressions are really important,” said Pruitt. “With Partners for Progress, Assembly is the partner — we’re not reliant on everybody else. The intention is that we will lead this conversation as far as it will go, and the more inclusive, the better. It doesn’t have to be that one holding company is doing it better than any other, as long as we’re all doing it together. The data is all there to tell you this is really great for business. And for now and in the future, it’s absolutely necessary.”

Seb Joseph contributed to this story.

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