Oberland agency confronts bias with new videos; conducts wage-gap audit

Shop will invite other indies to join its 'Nothing Changes if You Don't' initiative

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In the first episode of "Mad Men," ad agency exec Roger Sterling drags David Cohen, the only Jewish person at the company, out of the mailroom to pitch to Menken's department store. He doesn't get to speak. He's just there to make the client "feel comfortable."

That kind of tokenism is less naked these days, but it's still a familiar situation for many minorities of all kinds, pulled into meetings or focus groups for the sake of optics or to meet the letter but not the spirit of diversity quotas. The scenario plays out in a new PSA from creative agency Oberland. Two self-congratulatory executives pull an Asian-American coworker into a pitch for Tokyo Steakhouse. One of the many problems with that approach—she's Chinese, not Japanese.

"There's this idea that the solution is to just get a minority in the room and everything will be fixed," says Carol Watson, senior director, global advisory services at management consulting firm Diversity Best Practices. The video is part of Oberland's "Nothing Changes If We Don't" project, a yearlong effort to highlight problems in the industry and motivate agencies to fix them.

In another video, a female employee gets condescending "advice" about controlling her emotions from a male coworker. Meanwhile, a male creative director in the background throws a fit during a review. In a third, a female creative's ideas are ignored by male creative directors. Ironically, they're working on a tampon account. When she pushes back against their over-the-top idea, they shame her, saying, "I thought you were a feminist. I thought this was your thing."

At the end of each video an industry insider lays out the issue for viewers. Watson covers tokenism, Co:Collective CEO Rosemarie Ryan handles double standards and Barton F. Graf CEO Caroline Winterton explains how women's ideas get overlooked.

Two previous videos, one on ageism and one tackling racism, debuted in October, with explainers by Cindy Gallop, founder of IfWeRanTheWorld, and Keni Thacker, event technology specialist at J. Walter Thompson. "People are realizing they don't have to tolerate bad behavior. There's been a shift, and not just in our industry," Ryan says. "A lot more diversity is happening on the client side, which makes for different expectations."

For this phase of its campaign, Oberland solicitied real stories from its employees who have experienced bias. The scenarios rang true for Winterton. "As soon as you get asked, you know why they're doing it," she says of being put on brands traditionally viewed as "female-led," like laundry detergent. "You go in, have a point of view, and [men] disagree because they have their own opinions. You know you've been put in a position because you're female, and then your opinion gets shot down." At the same time, she adds, when working on "masculine" brands, like automotive, "your opinion as female is seen as less valid."

In addition to the videos, which the agency hopes help to call out negative practices at other companies, Oberland is also looking inward. The 25-person shop began an audit of its own practices last year. Since then, it's brought on its first human resources officer. A legal team helped rewrite the employee handbook, which rolls out in April and includes changes to accommodate new labor laws, mandatory sexual harassment training and a new work-from-home policy, the most requested addition from staff.

Results from an employee census and wage gap analysis are expected in February. That will show any disparities in pay due to age, gender, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation, which can then be remedied.The entire process is an expensive one for the five-year-old agency. The videos, the audits, the outside consultants and the expected remedies will cost about $100,000 for the year, says Executive Creative Director Bill Oberlander. "That's a full-time employee," he adds.

But transparency about the costs and any difficulties is part of the plan, adds President Drew Train. Oberland's goal is for other agencies, particularly other independent shops unbeholden to large holding company policies, will be able to use their example to make changes, too. "We'd love to have a road map for others," he says. "'Here's how much it cost: X amount for the compensation study, X amount to close the wage gap." The audits and other resulting documents will also be made public.

"The new handbook isn't a secret," Oberlander says. "[Other agencies] can copy and paste the family policy."

Other agencies are also contributing to the effort now. In addition to the industry influencers in the videos, Project Worldwide offered shooting space for the first round of videos, and Huge hosted the second round. A third round of videos, expected in the spring, is open to other agencies looking to write or shoot their own videos or who want to collaborate. "This time," Train says, "we're going to invite other agencies into the kitchen."

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