Why the Ad Industry's Diversity Strategy Needs a New Brief

The Phrase 'Diversity and Inclusion' Is Doing Our Industry More Harm Than Good

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When Kevin Roberts dismissed gender equality, referring to it as a "non-issue," I was reminded of Ad Age editor Ken Wheaton's recent column on the positive role women might play in what is often referred to as the "diversity problem."

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Mr. Wheaton is relying on change coming from those women with "hiring power," which, in effect, means white women. I appreciate his optimism and his faith in my gender but, in my experience, which spans three decades in multicultural marketing, I have found white female ad execs just as likely as their male counterparts to shy away from serious conversations about systemic racism in our industry.

Kevin Roberts was inadvertently right about one thing. We need to stop talking about gender and racial diversity as a problem. Our industry's impotence when it comes to dealing with structural racism and gender bias isn't a "problem," because if it were, it would be fixed. That's what we do in advertising. We design strategies to solve problems.

What we have here, however, are systemic flaws, deep-seated embarrassments and uncomfortable truths -- the kind that don't get fixed because they don't get faced. Let's be honest, we are an industry of non-racists at best (and we are not always at our best), but our track record as anti-racists leaves much to be desired. Marlon James, winner of the 2015 Man Booker prize for literature, underscores the distinction in this video.

Black America doesn't need advertising as much as advertising needs Black America. The same holds true for Latinos, Asians, Muslims, the LGBTQ community, and the list goes on. Hiring is only the tip of the iceberg. Recruiting and retention depend upon an informed, measurable commitment to:

  • cultural recognition
  • relevance
  • respect.

Outdated HR practices and entrenched corporate cultures only serve to inhibit productive dialogue about:

  • conscious and unconscious bias
  • microagressions
  • gender and cultural identity
  • the role of allies and advocates.

The more I hear the phrase "diversity and inclusion," the more I believe that the pairing of these words is doing our industry more harm than good. The words have become rather meaningless, even dangerous. They lull us into a false sense of security, providing a feel-good mantra that checks all the right boxes but does none of the heavy lifting.

Somewhere along the line, the word "diversity" became more about otherness and less about inventiveness. In some contexts, diversity and inclusion equate to adversity and confusion. Communities of "others" get aggregated or bucketed under the diversity umbrella while the existing power structure remains intact. From the point of view of the dominant-culture observer, diverse communities seem to share something in common -- the "adverse" effects that come with not being straight white non-disabled males or, by extension, white females.

Mr. Roberts' assessment of the state of gender equality doesn't account for the fact that race and gender do intersect. His certitude that advertising women have arrived is a response to employment trends in which white females are making inroads more quickly than women of color. This shouldn't surprise anyone. In the eyes of decision makers, be it conscious or unconscious, white women are familiar -- giving them one less perceived "adversity" hurdle to clear. It has been said that familiarity breeds contempt, but, in advertising and corporate America at large, familiarity inspires comfort, confidence and camaraderie. Not creativity.

As for inclusion -- what could possibly be wrong with something that sounds so, well, inclusive? It rules out exclusion and promotes acceptance, right? Yes, but it's inclusion into pre-existing structures with pre-existing rules written by -- well, you know -- dominant culture decision makers. Without disruption there can be no real inclusion. Change, by definition, requires creating a new system. To quote French-Cuban journalist Paul Lefargue, "inclusion with strings attached is exclusion by another name."

Let's not kid ourselves, there will be more Kevin Roberts types -- the kind that say the wrong things and step down. Or worse -- the kind who think the wrong things, say nothing, and get to stay in their jobs. Either way, there will be a lot of talk and little will get resolved until we reframe the whole (to quote Mr. Roberts) "f-ing debate." Looking for new words to replace diversity and inclusion is pointless if we are not actively imagineering new ways of looking at our workplace and our world. "Diversity and inclusion" gets reduced to a quantity and quality conversation when what it's really about is disruption and innovation. We must get comfortable with cultural conflict and collisions as we navigate our intersected lives. Diversity isn't our industry's greatest problem. It's our most visible symptom.