The List 2020: Fighting unconscious bias in the industry
Months before the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests over racial injustice and systemic racism, the 2020 edition of The List, the group of 30-odd marketing, advertising and media leaders assembled by Ad Age in partnership with Facebook, lamented the industry’s talent crisis, particularly the lack of representation for Blacks and other POC—and resolved to band together to fix it.
When the inaugural class of The List gathered at The Modern restaurant in New York in April 2019 to select its mission for the upcoming year, consensus quickly formed that the lack of progressive, equitable parental leave policies had deleterious consequences not just for new parents but ultimately for the companies themselves and by extension the entire industry. To raise awareness about the need for family-forward leave, The List 2019 spread the message to Cannes, Advertising Week New York, Sundance and Davos. The group's signature "Ask About It" campaign provided businesses and employees with tools to have productive conversations about corporate family policies. The 2019 members capped off their year by naming the "10 Companies That Get Family Leave Right."
At The List 2020’s first meeting (see the photo gallery below), also at The Modern, on February 7, the new class was given the option of continuing 2019’s mission. Almost immediately, the 2020 cohort coalesced around the core issue of unconscious bias more quickly than last year’s class had around parental leave.
But first List members Stacy Taffet, VP of marketing, hydration portfolio, at PepsiCo; YuJung Kim, president of The Dodo; Alandha Scott, global head of partner, strategy and operations marketing at YouTube, and E. Garrett Bewkes IV, publisher of National Review, shared their thoughts on the topics the whole group had chosen to debate beforehand—including the environment and sustainability, tribalism and divisiveness, and diversity and inclusion. Both Kim and Bewkes discussed the divisiveness and tribalism in our society through the lens of how we could work together to solve environment and sustainability problems, but the opinions they shared could apply universally to any topic.
"We live in a world that's overpoliticized," Kim argued. "It's impossible to talk about issues like the environment or privacy or China or workplace equity, without political views getting in the way of productive dialogue. That makes it really difficult for leaders to make important decisions that are relevant to their businesses based on first principles, values, and an honest discussion of what's right and wrong—not red or blue."
"There are ways that we can actually look to closing tribalism gaps in order to achieve some great things," Bewkes said. "And I think that actually has to do with the understanding of commonalities without vilifying people on the other side. Maybe we have totally different beliefs on 99 percent of issues, but we can fix this 1 percent right now because we both agree. And if we can just figure out a way to communicate that and come together and create some sort of initiative or campaign, we can work toward fixing that problem."
Lack of diversity and the talent crisis
Taffet and Scott led off the discussion on unconscious bias. Taffet said that she had been doing a lot of advocacy work on the subject, including implementing tools that make unconscious thought patterns more conscious in order to remove the bias from career-affecting endeavors such as performance reviews. The first breakthrough moment during the meeting was Scott’s idea that to truly address unconscious bias, companies need to “create an inclusive environment where everyone can bring the best version of themselves to work.” The second came from Krystle Watler, managing director, North America, at Virtue Worldwide, Vice Media’s creative agency, when she made the connection between unconscious bias and the talent crisis.
“How do we get younger people to become interested in this industry?” Watler asked. As an example of how brands and agencies are missing out on untapped talent resources, she discussed how one of her team members was recruited through a Vice apprenticeship program that employs formerly incarcerated youth. “He is brilliant, but without that opportunity, he’s someone that would have never been considered for a role at our company.”
“Recruiting is just one piece of the puzzle,” Jessica Greenwood, global CMO of R/GA, pointed out. “We can bring as many diverse people to the table as we want, but unless we hire them, nurture them, make them feel included and create an environment in which they can thrive, they’re just going to bounce out again and find something else to do.”
Suzanne Powers, global chief strategy officer at McCann Worldwide, acknowledged that the diverse talent crisis was related to the lack of inclusive environments. “We’ve looked at the data: Even when the industry finds diverse talent, after they come in, they don’t see anyone like them in the workplace or anyone in leadership that shows them that there is opportunity to succeed,” she said. “They don’t feel their voices are heard, they feel rejected and they get out.”
Lauren Franklin, founder and president of Summerjax, addressed the talent crisis from a generational perspective. “As leaders in this industry when it comes to talent, we can't ignore the young millennials and up-and-coming Gen Zs," Franklin pointed out. "We need to retain them and keep them engaged in their work. The ad industry is built on the bodies of the young, but we're seeing them just walk away from opportunities—even though we offer high-functioning, creative environments where they can grow, they're thinking, ‘Yeah, but you know what? I can thrive in other industries too.’"
The “R” word: Unconscious bias about unconscious bias
Lauren Wesley Wilson, founder and CEO of ColorComm Media Group, emphasized that everyone in the room—including the moderators John Dioso, editor of Ad Age Studio 30, and Ad Age contributing editor Natalie Zfat—was dancing around the topic at hand: race. “Talent retention among people of color is key,” she said. “Diverse employees are often leaving after two years, because the inclusion piece is missing in the corporate environment.”
“Diversity has been an urgent case in our industry for a while,” explained Harry Román-Torres, head of strategy at Droga5. “I’ve heard the same old conversations for the past 20 years without much change. Diversity and inclusion training sessions are often more focused on communicating to leaders the business rationale for diversifying. But it always leaves out a needed conversation about race, how we’ve been socialized and all the baggage that comes with that. We do all these mental gymnastics to avoid using the word ‘race,’ but without an honest conversation about it, we lose out on a chance to understand it—so it’s no wonder we haven’t moved fast enough as an industry.”
"So many times in this industry, I feel like we're just checking the box," added Shannon Jones, co-founder of Verb. "How can this group push that a little bit further, whether it's using the 'R' word—race—or whether it's figuring out how we can use this forum to push against that a little bit further in terms of what people are normally comfortable with when it comes to diversity and bias?"
“We still don’t see companies allocating a significant investment in D&I or strategically partnering with organizations to diversify their talent,” Wilson added. “You can look at an environment and say, There are people of color here, but where are they in leadership? Are they at the executive level or are they at the administrative level, and are they being positioned to get raises and get promoted? And so many people of color are not. They’re just in the door and in their mid-level positions, way longer than they need to be—four, five years—but their counterparts are moving up and getting promoted every year. And this is how people of color are being left behind.”
"You can't build an inclusive work environment to retain talent if you're not even aware of what you're doing to alienate people," said Stacy Marcus, partner at Reed Smith and chief negotiator for the ad industry's Joint Policy Committee in its negotiations with SAG-AFTRA talent unions. "We have to make our companies and the industry aware of not just unconscious bias generally, but of the individual nature of one’s unconscious bias so that the industry can then build inclusive work environments."
A new direction for the new normal?
As the 2020 class was just beginning to brainstorm ideas for how to make an impact in a significant and lasting way, the novel coronavirus was spreading around the world. In fact, the same day as the first meeting, Li Wenliang, the doctor the Chinese government silenced for warning about the dangers of the coronavirus, died after contracting COVID-19. By the end of the month, the first person in the U.S. to die from the disease was reported.
By the time The List regrouped at the end of April, the members decided to modify its mission: As the pandemic restructures our society and business in ways that are yet to be seen, and as the protests against racial injustice reset the expectations of the BIPOC community, the group decided to expand the mission to confronting unconscious bias in the wake of the new normal.
"For us, I think the challenge is, how do we keep pushing our business forward in a time when governments are dealing with this crisis? How do we rebuild our country?" said Ryan Kelly, head of marketing and communications at Virgin Hyperloop One, during The List's first all-hands Zoom call. "Nations all around the world are dealing with COVID, but they're also saying, 'This could be our opportunity for the next New Deal.' We invested in our society after World War II when we built the highway system—an infrastructure that helped create opportunity through mobility—and I think what we're seeing is an interest in doing that again but with a 21st century solution. We're trying to lean into that."
"People are scared," Jeron Smith, co-founder and CEO of Unanimous Media, emphasized. "They're thinking about how they're going to make it through the day or the month or the year. But the crisis has also birthed new biases—or exacerbated biases that were there before. To confront unconscious bias, the thing I keep coming back to is empathy, and empathy begins with truth. The truth is, life is really hard right now. The List has to consider xenophobia, people being furloughed or laid off, and working parents serving as educators as a result of the pandemic, and help the world identify and empathize with people that are going through things that they might not be experiencing themselves.
"At the same time, we must not shy away from the unique experiences that people face. Ultimately, hardship, struggle and feeling disenfranchised is experienced by many, but right now there is an opportunity for the first time in a long time to talk about the Black community, and the unique set of circumstances that are faced, a group of people that aren’t often considered. I am disheartened by the feeling that when there’s a light shed on Black issues, it’s often hijacked by a need to illuminate myriad issues. It is a careful balance, and one I’ve had to be aware of most of my professional life. We have a platform to expand what we think about as unconscious bias and how that is affecting people in the workplace and shine a light on what people are going through.”
As we have learned all too harshly over the past several months, nothing is certain in this world, in this particular year. Or, as the old Yiddish proverb goes, “Man plans, God laughs.” But if anything, The List has proved itself resourceful and determined to follow through on its mission. Learn more about The List—and check on their progress in the coming weeks and months—here, and follow them on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.