If Your Ad Agency Isn't Diverse, It Isn't Anything

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M&C Saatchi global creative director Justin Tindall caused a storm last week when, in a weekly critique of advertising, he professed himself "bored with diversity being prioritized over talent."

Following an outpouring of scorn and horror, the next day the same publication gave space to Cheil U.K. creative director Caitlin Ryan to answer Tindall. Ryan delivered an intelligent rebuke from the point of view of a young male creative forced to suffer the "horrors" of a female dominated ad agency industry with stuff like "make-up desks" and "group periods" as standard.

M&C Saatchi, bulwark of the U.K. ad agency industry with Establishment leaders like Lord Maurice and Charles Saatchi, were undoubtedly horrified at the PR debacle. Tindall got to write an apology, also taking the opportunity to style himself as—guess what?—a pro-diversity leader and cast-iron credentials. He further volunteered that making Adland diverse was not a matter for a quick-fix but for long-term strategizing. (That sound you can hear is diverse candidates pushing a career in advertising further down their consideration list.)

I know the kind of thinking that considers diversity a conflict with talent: I succeeded with nothing but my own brains and guts, and I long regarded any other means of achieving success as suspect if not bogus.

Creative directors tend to be tough, cynical folks like newspaper editors. But for newspaper editors, a social conscience is de rigueur. (My social conscience nudged its beak further out of its shell with the birth of each of my three sons; but it only revealed its full plumage when I got to work with some of the world's most disadvantaged—and most brilliant—young people at the U.N.'s Global Education Program.)

I don't believe Justin Tindall was so much pooh-poohing diversity as echoing the classic argument as posited by legendary creative director Dave Trott. In his celebrated blog, Trott recently declared that he never saw people in his employ as anything but brains in bell-jars, provenance immaterial.

This is the point of view confined to talent recommended by the usual suspect headhunters and perhaps portfolio reviews. But the advent of a promising thing called the internet makes such a narrow methodology for uncovering creative brilliance frankly absurd.

You can get by without diversity if you're God (something that massively-paid and fawned-over creative directors often come to believe). Only an all seeing and all-knowing being could be 100% up-to-date on the intricacies of all cultures and new developments therein on a moment-by-moment basis.

Without diversity, even with the most talented writers and art directors and ideators, your work is likely to be dull.

And the idea that the world is a level playing-field on which the greatest talent inevitably wins through, simply reveals the espouser of that idea as out of touch with the modern world: However gigantic my creative talent, my need to, say, find/carry drinking water for my family or dodge bullets—or any number of other obstacles disadvantaged young people face in the real world both abroad and here in America—is likely to make me less robustly single-minded in pursuit of a career.

That's why prioritizing women (Caitlin Ryan's article mentioned other minorities via acronym as an afterthought), or insisting nothing can be done right away, only over the long term, saddens me.

Diversity is not just a woman issue, it's a human being issue.

And it's also an urgent, critical business issue for ad agencies, whose investment in all manner of comparatively irrelevant areas bizarrely ignores the fact that diversity of thought and ideation is the key thing a marketer truly needs from outside agencies.

There are huge potential talents out there—some within a short subway ride from Madison Avenue!—just waiting to rescue your business.

It should be ever single creative company's top, active priority to, well, get out more. Starting right now.

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