How ad agencies are living up to diversity promises

—and where they fall short

By Jeanine Poggi Published on July 6, 2021

How ad agencies are living up to diversity promises

—and where they fall short

By Jeanine Poggi Published on July 6, 2021
It’s been one year since major players across Madison Avenue outlined commitments to combat systemic racism in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, to create more inclusive environments for all underrepresented and marginalized groups. Ad Age combed through pages of reports from the top five agency holding companies—WPP, Omnicom, Dentsu, Interpublic Group of Cos. and Publicis Groupe—that outlined those commitments, and conducted extensive interviews with various stakeholders. What we found was 2020 was about laying the foundation—which, for many agencies, was frankly underfunded and disorganized up until that point. The renewed social justice movement following Floyd’s murder had the ad world scrambling to respond and react. This included creating groups internally, including so-called “safe spaces,” where people of color could share their experiences working in the industry. Plenty of diversity councils were launched, business resource groups formed, and town halls hosted—all in the name of educating employees and cultivating allies. But did these efforts result in employees of color seeing real change inside of their respective agencies? Have these pages upon pages of commitments resulted in people feeling seen, supported, heard and elevated?

It’s been one year since major players across Madison Avenue outlined commitments to combat systemic racism in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, to create more inclusive environments for all underrepresented and marginalized groups. Ad Age combed through pages of reports from the top five agency holding companies—WPP, Omnicom, Dentsu, Interpublic Group of Cos. and Publicis Groupe—that outlined those commitments, and conducted extensive interviews with various stakeholders. What we found was 2020 was about laying the foundation—which, for many agencies, was frankly underfunded and disorganized up until that point.

The renewed social justice movement following Floyd’s murder had the ad world scrambling to respond and react. This included creating groups internally, including so-called “safe spaces,” where people of color could share their experiences working in the industry. Plenty of diversity councils were launched, business resource groups formed, and town halls hosted—all in the name of educating employees and cultivating allies.

But did these efforts result in employees of color seeing real change inside of their respective agencies? Have these pages upon pages of commitments resulted in people feeling seen, supported, heard and elevated?

All of the ad agencies were very willing to provide updates on their efforts, but Kai Wright, a former agency executive, author and lecturer at Columbia University, says it is very easy for companies to release a laundry list of the new efforts that have been put in place over the past year without necessarily making actual progress. Wright, who created the Blacklist100 last year as a way to highlight Black talent, says true progress comes from changes in infrastructure that allow for positive outcomes. “I don’t think many organizations have even crossed that bridge,” he says.

Instead, Wright notes, the past year has been about establishing baselines.

Agencies have spent the last year scrutinizing every program and decision, which Christena Pyle, chief equity officer, Dentsu, calls “critical, not sexy” work. If 2020 was about response and reaction, she says that “2021 is about results and accountability.”

“We had to make rapid progress in certain areas, like employee resource groups, to listen to our people. And improve our hiring policies. We laid the foundation for actions that would have an impact,” says Mark Read, CEO, WPP.

But just how to quantify impact and pinpointing whose responsibility it is to measure progress remains murky throughout the industry, as is identifying exactly what benchmarks agencies should be hitting after year one and beyond.

Still, meaningful action is being taken. Here’s a look at some of the efforts the holding companies have made over the past year, where they are moving forward—and where they are falling short.

Giving underrepresented employees a voice

In the aftermath of Floyd’s death, agencies went on listening tours. IPG hosted 17 discussions for Black and Brown communities and allies throughout 2020, and later incorporated sessions for Asian and Pacific Islander communities following the widely reported hate crimes committed against those groups across the U.S.

IPG saw participation in business resource groups, which are employee-led groups designed to foster diversity and inclusion, quadruple to over 2,600 in 2020, with Heide Gardner, senior VP, chief diversity and inclusion officer, IPG, noting a surge in participation from white men and men overall, who were the least likely to self-report their participation in such groups in prior years. Only 51 white men said they had participated in 2019, primarily in IPGLTQ+ BRGs, but in 2020 that number increased to over 450, who participated primarily in Black Employee Network and IPGLBTQ+ groups.

IPG’s ERGs by the numbers
The number of white men participating in IPG's business resource groups has surged since 2019

“Previously, the choir was showing up at choir practice,” Gardner says. “A real measure of change is if we are seeing more men participating in a program presented by our Women’s Leadership Network, people who are not Black attending an event focused on Black culture, people who are not gay participating in an LGBTQ+ event. That is a real measure of change, and that is change we definitely saw based on our survey results and registrations.”

Omnicom currently boasts about 13,000 employees participating in employee resource groups out of its base of 64,100, and at least 5,000 who have taken part in employee roundtables.

WPP’s new employee listening channels, or virtual CEO town halls, have reached more than 39,000 employees, according to the agency, and its “safe rooms,” designed for open and candid discussions, are averaging several hundred people per session. The first safe room WPP hosted in June 2020 had nearly 3,000 participants.

Publicis Groupe has 13 national business resource groups with 77 local chapters across the U.S. and over 8,5000 members.

While ERGs and BRGs (employee resource groups and business resource groups) are an important outlet for employees, Wright says they aren’t necessarily sustainable if the members aren’t compensated for their work. “Agencies should be paying for this talent to participate because they have an expertise,” he says. “It is not equitable to expect someone who is a minority to solve the issue of oppression and not be compensated in the process, yet that’s what we do with BRGs and other groups that have no power.”

Dentsu has begun providing its business resource group leaders with so-called “citizen” bonuses to recognize their work, as well as ensuring their efforts are well known within the walls of the agency.

Publicis does not compensate its BRG leaders. “We continue to evaluate the best ways to recognize these leaders, including ties to performance and bonus recognition overall,” a spokesperson said.

WPP also does not pay ERG leaders, but says their time working on these groups can be logged on their time sheets and referenced during performance reviews.

IPG and Omnicom do not compensate their BRG leaders or members and there is no indication that will happen moving forward.

It’s also important to examine how much power these groups are being given within their organizations and how much is being invested into these groups to ensure sustainability.

At Dentsu, Pyle says BRG leaders are tasked with taking the pulse of their communities to help shape and form communications, some of the creative products and part of the wellness strategy to create a psychologically safe environment for employees. The holding company also has a team member who is in charge of supporting BRG infrastructure. “When we move into times of crises and we need to pull back on budgets, we need to protect the budgets of the BRGs,” Pyle says.

Omnicom rotates its leadership for some of its ERGs. “It’s not dictated from the top, but the governance/structure of these ERGs are decided by the various groups,” according to a company spokesperson. “They are meant to be grassroots organizations which, in our experience, ensures growth/sustainability.”

At IPG, the agency is turning to its BRGs for insights on client-related issues and they are being tapped to review creative concepts. Deutsch LA, for example, recently worked with their Black employee network to help develop ideas for recruiting more Black talent.

Educating allies

Building allyship has been another critical component to agency accountability efforts. “You don’t just get to be an ally because you read a book, did a workshop and watched a movie,” says Renetta McCann, chief inclusion experience officer, Publicis.

All of the agencies surveyed have instituted or are in the process of standing up mandatory training on things like understanding bias and supporting Black employees.

Dentsu reports a 77% completion rate for its anti-racism and allyship training. Publicis says between January and May 2021, nearly 13,000 U.S. employees completed its mandatory training and educational content around allyship and inclusive hiring and recruiting.

Omnicom does not yet have data on how many employees participated thus far in training, but a company spokesperson says it will release that information soon. The agency will roll out required diversity, equity and inclusion training for all employees this summer.

WPP instituted mandatory training for its more than 100,000 employees last year, while IPG has a mandatory harassment course that includes active bystander and upstander training.

Christena J. Pyle
Christena J. Pyle

Outside of training initiatives, agencies are looking to develop other types of tools to help employees better understand their colleagues and foster an environment of inclusivity. Both Omnicom and Dentsu are working to achieve cultural fluency within the organizations by developing vocabulary guides. “We have ambitions to have this shared language. ... We believe it is the new business currency,” Dentsu’s Pyle says. “The same way you need to know about [the] cookie-less future and P&Ls, you need to be able to speak culturally fluidly and manage diverse teams.”

It remains to be seen what employees who have participated in such training programs and/or utilized various resource guides have taken away from them.

Everyone's responsibility

The past year has shed light on what many people already knew: Much of the onus of diversity, equity and inclusion was on the appointed DE&I leader, who historically often worked in isolation to carry out these objectives.

“If we want this to be meaningful and have an impact, we have to be very careful that it doesn’t sit with just a few people or management teams,” says Arthur Sadoun, chairman and CEO of Publicis Groupe.

It’s been widely reported that DE&I leaders have historically felt unsupported. Agencies would make a high-profile hire that would make headlines, but that leader often didn’t have a team to back them.

Ryan Ford of Cashmere, Briana Patrick of Goodby Silverstein & Partners and Christena Pyle then of Time’s Up, discuss D&I in creativity on June 17, 2020.

Some of the holding companies have looked to rectify that in more substantial ways than others.

Omnicom has more than doubled its DE&I leadership, now boasting 30 employees dedicated to these efforts—up from 12 last year. Each of the agency’s networks and practice areas now have C-level DE&I leads reporting directly into the CEO, and they have developed a curriculum for these leaders to provide training on emotional and mental wellness, crisis and issues mitigation, the evolving DE&I landscape and global cultural intelligence. So far, Omnicom says it’s invested six figures in training its team.

Renetta McCann
Renetta McCann

Earlier this month, Publicis hired Geraldine White as its chief diversity officer of North America, who will work along with Renetta McCann, chief inclusion experience officer. A Publicis spokesperson notes that the agency has 300 employees in the U.S. across all levels who are involved in various groups designed to help advance DE&I initiatives, but did not specify how many employees have dedicated DE&I roles.

Dentsu hired Pyle as its first chief equity office in August. “We are going to continue to embed DE&I into our business,” she says. “It is not going to live in one department or on the shoulders of one person.” Dentsu currently has a chief equity officer for each of its three regions as well as plans to have DE&I leadership at each of its three service lines.

IPG has 24 full-time DE&I professionals in the U.S. WPP said it has expanded its network of DE&I leads, but did not provide specific figures.

Moving forward, one indication of progress will be to gauge if DE&I leaders feel empowered, says Emily Graham, chief equity and impact officer, Omnicom.

Mentorship and sponsorship

In an effort to elevate people of color and help them reach executive ranks, all five of the holding companies have developed or expanded mentorship programs and created professional development courses. These include Publicis’ Black Talent Summit, a two-day event centered around professional development.

WPP’s Elevate sponsorship program is designed for Black female employees in the U.S., with the goal of providing personal and professional development to support and strengthen leadership capabilities. The agency created a new coaching program that will provide a three-month individualized career coaching track for mid-level employees, with initial focus on Black and other employees of color in the U.S. and UK.

Dentsu introduced its Save a Seat program last year to give younger women access to senior female employees and to allow those leaders to involve those younger professionals in key meetings. The agency is spinning the program off for other communities and groups.

So far, there’s little in the way of data across the holding companies regarding participation in these programs or how they directly led to employees being elevated internally.

Hiring practices

All of the agencies surveyed say they have implemented new hiring practices to help remove bias from the recruitment and interview process.

For example, Publicis started an inclusive hiring training program for all employees on Jan. 4, with more than 10,000 employees out of its nearly 80,000 employees worldwide completing the training so far. It is now required for all U.S. employees at all levels participating in an interview process. Publicis has also hired 57 people from its Multicultural Talent Pipeline program into intern or full-time positions since the fall.

WPP extended its talent recruiting platforms to include over 300 sources, including the alumni networks of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and other diverse groups. In September 2020, the agency announced its diverse candidate slate policy, which requires hiring managers to ensure all candidate slates are 50% diverse, with 25% of that consisting of ethnic diversity—specifically BIPOC in the U.S. It also is utilizing TapRecruit, which helps to create more inclusive job descriptions.

Dentsu reports that 40% of the prospective candidates from its spring 2021 U.S. campus recruitment pipeline are from diverse sources such as HBCUs, diversity recruitment events and sponsorships.

Omnicom is committing to have at least one diverse candidate in the pool for all senior roles, and is in the process of forming dedicated DE&I teams made up of its top talent executives across the agency to advance its retention and recruitment goals.

IPG notes that it has implemented changes to job descriptions, hiring committees and interview guides, but didn’t provide additional insights.

Pipeline for the future

The agencies Ad Age spoke with say they are also increasingly focused on helping to shape the industry talent pipeline. This includes building programs to help educate high school students on opportunities in the industry, working more closely to recruit and provide training opportunities within HBCUs, and removing certain educational requirements in job descriptions to attract a larger pool of diverse candidates. The goal is to make the industry more accessible for underrepresented talent.

WPP CEO Mark Read discusses diversity and inclusion in the ad world on Sept. 30, 2020.

In June 2020, WPP launched a 10-week virtual learning series for recent graduates and early-career talent to expand residencies and internship programs to candidates with transferable skills who may not have taken a traditional educational path toward advertising. Half of the 850 participants were people of color.

Publicis’ Open Apprenticeship is designed to help young people from underrepresented communities find jobs in the ad industry. It is an interactive digital platform aimed at 18-to-21 year olds and features curriculum in brand strategy, media and PR, creativity, data and technology. Open Apprenticeship launched in beta in the UK with plans to roll out in the U.S. later this year.

Dentsu has partnered with various organizations such as the 4A’s Multicultural Advertising Internship Program, and also points to its Media Academy, which is designed for college graduates as well as those switching careers or re-entering the workforce from military, time off, or for other reasons.

Pay parity

Less work has been done around addressing the wage gap for BIPOC employees over the course of the past year, with few tangible results regarding pay parity.

WPP introduced a wage equity plan and is engaging with third-party consultants to ensure Black employees and other people of color are being compensated fairly.

IPG conducts annual pay equity reviews with an independent external consultant to compare compensation on the basis of gender and race between employees who are similarly situated with respect to factors like job title, seniority, experience, geography and full and part-time status in the U.S. IPG plans to extend this review into key international markets. IPG claims that based on its analysis to date, there were no findings of widespread pay inequalities and any individual anomalies that were identified have been corrected.

Dentsu has started identifying the team that will examine pay parity and is looking for an external partner to help with measurement, Pyle says, but they are still in the early stages of this work.

Publicis and Omnicom did not provide any specific details on efforts to address pay parity.

Diversity Data

Employee data recently released by the holding companies shows a small change in terms of the diversity of employees over the past year. One of the benchmarks for progress is having the employee makeup be representative of the general population, so this would mean Black employees should be about 13% of the workforce in the U.S. None of the agencies come close to that threshold.

Publicis Groupe revealed in May that just under one-third of its more than 21,000 U.S. staff identifies as a race other than white—a slight uptick from the figures the company released last summer. Overall, Publicis’ staff makeup has seen a 5.5% increase in diversity from June 2020 to May 2021, bringing its total non-white representation to 32.7% of employees across all levels.

Rookie positions at the agency are the most multicultural, with 36.2% of all entry-level staff currently identifying as diverse—but this is up less than one percentage point from last year. Non-white mid-level staff now make up 33.1% of the total, up from 30.5% last year. And across senior-level positions, employees of color now make up 19.2% of the total, up from last year’s 18.2%.

Just 5.9% of Publicis’ employees identify themselves as Black, up only slightly from 5.4% in mid-2020.

Publicis’ staff diversity has increased slightly since June 2020
Although overall diversity numbers at Publicis have grown 5.5% over the past year, Black/African American employee numbers grew just slightly by 0.5%.

IPG reported that for 2020, 14% of hires at the senior and executive level were Black or African American. In terms of promotions of Black or African Americans at senior levels, they were up 50% in 2020 compared to the year prior and made up 7% of all Employment (Information Report (EEO-1) promotions in the U.S.)

Out of WPP’s 100,000 employees worldwide, 68.9% were white in 2020. Asians make up the second largest group at 12%, followed by Hispanics or Latinos at 9.9%. Black and African American employees make up just 6.5% of its workforce, according to data the agency released in April. At the management level, 80.9% of senior and executive-level managers are white, Asians are at 6.9%, Hispanics or Latinos at 6.4%, and Black or African American employees at 3.9%.

WPP’s Read says while the company has made progress at the senior level, more progress needs to be made at other levels within the organization.

Initiative global CEO Amy Armstrong in conversation on March 4, 2021.

As of May 2021, Black and African American employees make up 6.7% of Dentsu’s total workforce, up from 5.3% the year prior. As it pertains to senior roles, Black and African American executives are at just 3.8%, up from 1.8% in 2020.

The agency’s goal is to have 50% women in executive levels by 2025 in the Americas and 30% multicultural representation, with 25% in executive levels.

Looking at executive managers at Omnicom, 3.1% are Black, 7.7% Asian, 5% Hispanic and 82.6% white. When looking at all professionals, 5.6% are Black, 11.2% Asian, 10.7% Hispanic and 69.4% white. Omnicom also notes that in 2020, its board of directors included four African Americans, and six out of the nine directors are female.

Client Initiatives

While a large portion of the work done thus far has been focused internally, there are rising numbers of client-facing initiatives.

All of the holding companies surveyed have released statements of commitment to help clients increase spend against multicultural audiences and invest in minority-owned, -operated and -targeted media. They are building databases of minority-owned media companies as a resource for clients and looking at new metrics for evaluating these types of media channels, since many of them aren’t measured by Nielsen and other legacy measurement firms.

During this year’s TV upfronts—when media companies look to secure a bulk of ad commitments for the next season—several media agencies within the holding companies hosted minority-owned media events and announced commitments to investing in Black and minority-owned media.

IPG’s Magna is committing 5% of its client budgets in aggregate to Black-owned media by 2023, while WPP’s GroupM has made a 2% pledge , calling on clients to invest at least that amount of their media spend in diverse and Black-owned media over the next 12 to 18 months. GroupM saw 20 of its clients take the pledge during this year’s upfronts.

“This isn’t about ‘You didn’t do this, so we are firing you,’” says Omnicom’s Graham. “We are bringing it to the table. But we also will meet every client where they are.”

Outside of specific monetary commitments, the holding companies say they are working to help fix some of the systemic issues that have long prevented minority-owned media companies from getting their fair share of ad dollars.

For its part, earlier this month Omnicom launched a Diverse Content Creators network, which is a cross-platform planning and buying tool that targets minority-owned and diverse publishers and content creators. The goal is to connect OMG clients directly to diverse creators.

Interview with Omnicom Media Group CEO Scott Hagedorn on Aug. 24, 2020.

Dentsu created a new unit dedicated to boosting diversity in the media industry by helping minority-owned companies grow and connecting them to ad buyers. The goal is to have as many as 20 people in the unit.

Like Omnicom and Dentsu, Publicis has not announced a specific level of commitment to minority-owned media. Instead, the agency points to initiatives such as “maven tracking,” which helps clients assess the level of investment going to minority-owned media; APX Content Ventures, which is dedicated to amplifying diverse voices and connecting brands to those creators; Fair Play practice, which looks to ensure that media vendors are considered and not eliminated due to implicit bias.


Agencies have been primarily holding leaders accountable through tying bonuses and other forms of compensation to DE&I actions.

The social justice movement of 2020 came as agencies were grappling with the economic fallout of COVID-19. One of the hurdles holding companies face has been to not let pandemic pressures impact DE&I progress.

Heide Gardner
Heide Gardner

“The first thing we did when COVID hit—and we knew there were going to be business headwinds, and could see we would have furloughs or staff reductions in advance—we let our agency leadership know the business headwinds would not be an excuse for not achieving their goals around DE&I,” says IPG’s Gardner.

Dentsu says it is holding its executives accountable for progress in representation, inclusive culture and DE&I activations within their performance assessments and quarterly DE&I business reviews. Similarly, WPP has committed to including diversity and inclusion goals in the annual bonus plans of its leadership.

“A leader’s bonus can be reduced based on not hitting certain targets; likewise, she or he can possibly achieve more for outperformance,” according to an IPG spokesperson.

Omnicom has developed a semi-annual review process that focuses on five KPIs—hiring, advancement and promotion, retention, training and employee resource groups—with specific actions and deadlines to report during quarterly profit-planning meetings. Senior executives and network and practice-area CEOs will be held accountable for providing projections for advancing the DE&I strategy, just like they do for beating/meeting profit plans, and executing on those action items. This will all be tied to executive compensation.

But outside of possible impact on executive bonuses, there’s little indication that agencies have instituted other forms of penalties or recourse for not achieving DE&I goals.

At Omnicom, if a leader does not meet their goals, “We will focus on providing them resources that will help them succeed moving forward.” a spokesperson says. “We want to make sure we’re identifying roadblocks and eliminating them so our leaders can fulfill their commitments.”

Zero tolerance

Harder still to identify are any processes in place for creating an atmosphere of zero tolerance and weeding out bad apples.

“We have policies prohibiting harassment and unlawful behaviors of all kinds,” according to an IPG spokesperson. “Easy-to-spot, unambiguous racism and discrimination is easiest to address. When observed or reported, it’s dealt with using disciplinary action. However, the subtle or ambiguous acts of exclusion are more difficult to process. Inappropriate, unhelpful or insensitive behaviors, such as microaggressions, are often unintentional or ambiguous; these acts fall along continuums and our response is also nuanced.”

Dentsu’s Pyle says it is about clearly defining the company’s values in all forms of communication and having leaders who are vocal about being an anti-racist company.

While the agencies have means for employees to anonymously report complaints, none provided data regarding increases or decreases in relation to discrimination over the past year.

“It may seem counterintuitive, but with more sensitivity, more awareness and also more comfort and openness, some companies might experience upticks” in complaints, an IPG spokesperson says. “We have not seen that at IPG.”

Employee sentiment

This year agencies began rolling out DE&I-focused employee surveys—or in some cases they beefed up existing surveys—to measure how people of various racial backgrounds and gender identity feel about their experiences at their organizations.

Publicis says it is looking at how it collects descriptive data about its employee population.

IPG revised its Climate for Inclusion survey to dig deeper on critical issues tied to improving work environments, processes, leadership and manager behaviors. Gardner says the survey shows whether or not the actions that were taken actually led to a change in leadership behaviors and communications, how people experience the feedback they receive from their managers, and how people perceive policies. IPG started the survey years ago, but recently migrated it to a tech platform to make it more actionable because of the analytical capabilities for correlation analyses, which can show what initiatives and day-to-day practices worked well. “With this information, agencies can better plan future initiatives and target training,” Gardner says.

The next step to determining progress will be seeing what these surveys reveal about how employees of color feel at their respective companies.

WPP’s Read says one of the biggest challenges has been “pragmatically collecting the data in a systematic and organized fashion.”

“I liken progress to a trainer I had once upon a time. I was obsessed with weighing myself and [the trainer] would say, ‘It is about look and feel. Do you feel better? Do you have more stamina? Muscle definition?’ I might be 10 pounds heavier, but I feel better,” Omnicom’s Graham says. “I don’t believe our DE&I strategy works without the sentiment changing.” Adage End Bug

Web production by Corey Holmes. Art Direction by Tam Nguyen. Images courtesy of dentsu, Leo Burnett, IPG, and iStock