When It Comes to Diversity, Pain Means Gain

Slow Shifts Lead Only to Apathy

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Jonathon Feit Jonathon Feit
The most significant risk involved in addressing diversity is, of course, that someone, somewhere is going to be left out of the mix. It's a rightful concern -- one best mitigated by internalizing how truly vast is the field of racial, ethnic, religious, national, sexual and industrial orientations.

My fellow blogger Karl Carter has said that "the weight of the multicultural industry to a degree is on us. We have a responsibility to write from the heart and address what often doesn't get addressed in our industry."

Yet the benefits putting diversity on a pedestal as an accomplishable ideal stretch far beyond the business community. As Carter continued, "They [at Advertising Age] have opened Pandora's box now that industry has to seriously address diversity and it can't ever be shut again. Our job, as I see it, is to keep the lid open and open a lot of eyes and minds."

Last winter's American Association of Advertising Agencies' 2007 Media conference in Vegas featured a "novel" panel on diversity. MediaPost's Wayne Friedman pointed out that "so obvious was the mass exit that a question for the panel came up in its regard -- wondering how improvements could be made in the area of diversity if few people cared enough to hang around for discussion."

I pointed out to Friedman that disregard for the 4A's so-called "diversity" panel was rampant perhaps because the panel itself was a sham.

Now, I don't care what color your skin is, but a panel featuring three black men and a Hispanic woman is not diverse. That's a token panel, thrown together as an afterthought to satisfy the political-correctness checkbox on someone's mental roster.

One would be hard-pressed to find anyone who discourages a robust discussion of diversity in media and related industries. After all, what downside is there (except to a bigot)? A greater cacophony of voices likely leads to creative new ideas.

But not everyone seems to agree that a lack of diversity warrants a fix. Another fellow blogger for Advertising Age, Arnold Worldwide's Tiffany Warren, recently pointed to Wall Street Journal editorial page deputy editor Daniel Henninger's declaration that diversity is dead. I don't know Henninger personally, but I can't imagine a fool who takes words lightly could have risen through the echelons of so venerable a newspaper.

More specifically, there remain disagreements about the nature of the necessary changes, how dramatic and how quickly to undertake them where to begin. A reasonable expectation might call upon market forces to dictate diversity's priorities, focusing first on the most easily incorporated groups (say, for example, the GLBT community) that really just require a change in perspective and movement toward tolerance.

Soon thereafter, the floodgates to all-inclusiveness will thrust open on their own.

Unfortunately for us all, such an assumption would be wrong, and utterly neglectful of the intellectual inertia that constantly befalls companies within the media-marketing orbit as they struggle with new markets and new technologies all at once. The cure for mental stagnation is usually a three-day complaint session (read: "conference") and several rounds of golf, but some industry leaders (including the Meredith Corporation, one of the country's largest publishers of women's and shelter magazines) are taking control of the market cycle from idea to product to promotion in order to better know, represent, and cater to their consumers, in all their variety.

Shaunice Hawkins, over at the Magazine Publishers of America, is a case study of activism and passion melded seamlessly with the finesse at negotiating egos needed to make (and keep) friends in high places. She is a friend and trusted colleague.

But over many lunchtime debates I've learned that Hawkins ascribes to a strategy of gradual, evolutionary movement toward lofty, admirable diversity goals. Her method has the benefit of being relatively pain-free for the companies concerned. They like that. But the one attribute it lacks in spades, unfortunately, is ambition enough to force companies to bend or break the status quo.

Warren indicated that time is of the essence, lest diversity decline from collective objective to pass´┐Ż social trend. To avoid that fate, I -- for one -- will always prefer paradigm shifts that are stark, definite. Remember gym class? Pain brings gain, and confirms that change is meaningful and permanent, rather than mere appeasement.
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