Dentsu's Merkle promoted Kirt Morris to its executive team as global chief equity officer late last year, and he assumed that new role this month.
In the role, Morris oversees diversity, equity and inclusion efforts for Merkle as well as Dentsu's customer experience management line of business. He reports to Merkle Global CEO Craig Dempster "with a dotted line" to Christena Pyle, who joined from Time's Up Advertising as chief equity officer for Dentsu Americas last August, according to the company.
Morris previously was senior director of data management and also advised Merkle's DE&I team. He first joined the data and analytics firm in 2007, as a project manager, and before that spent time at Ernst & Young and Capgemini.
Ad Age recently caught up with Morris to discuss his new role.
The following interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
What exactly are your responsibilities as global chief equity officer? What does that entail?
I’ll be basically setting the diversity, equity and inclusion strategy for the U.S., making sure we have diversity of people, equitable policies and practices, inclusion throughout our corporate culture.
What’s your first task?
My first task is just learning about the actual business. What I’m thinking for my first 90 to 100 days is to learn and then create a plan to execute for the rest of the year. One of the things I’m looking at is making sure we have retention and recruitment [of diverse people].
Merkle says you’re a 12-year veteran of the company with experience in technology implementation and system integration. [As part of Merkle’s data management group, the company said Morris oversaw end-to-end delivery of CRM platforms for its retail vertical.] How does DE&I come into play in that space?
I’m drawing upon two sets of experiences in this role. My experience in tech, and project management as part of that, is really important. Data is a core part of how we measure ourselves. I’ll also be managing the resources we have to build DE&I within the company. My second experience is that I’m an immigrant and person of color.
And how has it been for you working in this industry as an immigrant and person of color? Did you face any micro-aggressions or overt acts of racism?
Yes, any person of color in this industry will tell you that. I came up through the big consulting firms, Ernst & Young and Capgemini. Throughout my career, one thing I found companies need to do a better job doing is making sure there is representation of all groups at higher levels. That is a main focus for me at Merkle. How do we get women, people of color to break into management levels?
How are you working to do that?
As we’ve seen in the past, the industry has worked at a [slow] pace. The killing of George Floyd in 2020 escalated that approach. One of the things we’re doing is, we have a plan. We are holding ourselves accountable to that plan. Data is obviously a big part of that plan in understanding where we are now and in forecasting where we need to go.
Do these responsibilities fall just on you or do you have a team? A criticism i’ve heard from some chief DE&I officers at other agencies is that oftentimes these efforts, which are enormous, fall solely on their shoulders when you wouldn’t see that in any other division or department.
So, yes. Basically I report to Craig Dempster. I also have a dotted line to the chief equity officer at Dentsu [Pyle]. We have multiple people on the team. I alone can’t do this. So what I’m asking of all our leaders is to find their purpose, something bigger than themselves and make sure everyone is leaning into DE&I. It’s too big of a job for one person.
Let’s say an employee has a DE&I-related issue or question he or she wants to bring up with the company. Can that employee come to you? Or what’s that process look like?
If it’s an employee question, they have to go directly to HR. Then if I need to be included in that conversation, HR will pull me in. At the Dentsu level, we also have a hotline for employees so they can call in and give input that way.
One of the things we’ve heard early on into the social injustice movement is really that we can’t let these conversations, this momentum around improving DE&I slip like we saw it happen in the past. Is that momentum being sustained?
This is a movement, not a moment. What we have done at Merkle, like I said, Craig Dempster is heavily involved. I deal with Craig every two weeks; we meet biweekly. This is top of mind for him, as well. I saw in an article, there are four things companies are doing to sustain momentum. One is having commitment at the very highest level. I meet with global folks at least once a month. No. 2 is data, which I mentioned earlier. Three is getting mid-level management and senior leaders to spend time and money. Craig has added to the budget DE&I. The last pillar is making sure you have specific targeted programs for underrepresented groups. At Merkle, we launched mentorship and sponsorship programs to make sure individuals from underrepresented backgrounds have access to leadership.
Why is mentorship and sponsorship so important?
You need to see to be. Just having me in this role will hopefully show employees everything is possible for them. I think it’s important that mentorship is bidirectional, as well. Executives will learn something from [mentees] by talking to them, learning from that person’s lived experience. On the flip side, employees will get tips of the trade so to speak.