Despite ongoing DEI initiatives and commitments to hiring and retaining staff of color in the wake of the 2020 racial justice protests, ad agency staff remain largely white. Behind the scenes, agency staffers think they know why: a lack of diversity in the agency recruiting pipeline.
Efforts to address underrepresentation of people of color at ad agencies start with the recruitment process. Anonymous posts on various social media platforms reveal that industry employees believe the issue isn’t that agencies aren’t hiring candidates of color – it’s that such candidates are extremely rare, given the historical barriers in the ad industry to candidates who do not follow traditional educational and career-building pathways.
“I sometimes feel like we have this delusion that there’s tons of POC post-college candidates in this industry and that agencies are simply turning them away because the agency is racist,” said one anonymous agency employee on Fishbowl, a professional app that requires posters to authenticate their employers before posting. “That’s not really true. There is a lack of POC candidates. Mainly because there aren’t enough people getting involved at an earlier stage in people’s lives to get them on this track to advertising.”
Black Madison Ave, a documentary film that came out earlier this year, illustrated this issue. It featured seven Black executive creative directors sharing their experiences as part of the roughly 4% of Black employees in senior-level positions at agencies owned by holding companies. Agencies may be committed to making change, but change can’t happen on the individual level without addressing many of the systemic issues the industry continues to perpetuate. It is, as Steve Stoute, the Black founder and CEO of the Translate agency, told Fast Company, an “ecosystem” problem.
Anonymous conversations on social media reveal that many agencies can’t see beyond the mold of traditional candidates, and as a result, many potential candidates of color can’t see a place for themselves in the industry. As another agency employee on Fishbowl described, “Creative black people are everywhere. They just aren’t working in agencies. Managers need to be able to see creative black people as black ‘creatives.’” One young POC creative commented on Reddit about the difficulties he has encountered in breaking into the industry despite being “what most agencies want from a diversity, equity, and inclusion standpoint.”
Brad Yale, creator of the podcast “Agency,” summed up the general sentiment towards DEI in the ad industry: “just fucking do it already.” In a Reddit post summarizing industry trends he’s learned through interviewing agency employees for 48 podcast episodes, he said, “Expressed more times than I can count, the idea that agencies are still talking about diversity yet not fully actually doing it is a big sticking point. Most people expressed the need for agencies to become more diverse at every level. The industry needs to do a better job – right now – in hiring diversity based on background, sex, race, thinking, and merit. We need to stop talking about it and just fucking do it already.”
What agencies are doing
An “ecosystem” problem in the industry can’t be solved overnight, but agencies are attempting to take steps. They include:
- Diversifying the ranks of advertising students. The Minneapolis-based advertising agency Solve recently partnered with Morgan State University, a historically Black college (HBCU), to create an entry-level course designed to introduce students to the world of advertising, as covered by The Washington Post. A similar program, Breaking Media, launched by Vox Media, Universal McCann, and the American Advertising Federation, provides nine training sessions on advertising fundamentals to students at HBCUs and HSIs (Hispanic-serving institutions). Promoting more diversity at the advertising education level can help improve the slate of diverse candidates in future agency recruiting.
- Reassessing the importance of a four-year degree. While increasing diversity in ad education classes is important, it may also be worthwhile to reconsider whether candidates need to have ad education credentials at all. College is becoming more financially inaccessible, an impact felt disproportionately by students of color. Expecting all job candidates to have completed a formal four-year education is boxing out candidates with diverse life experiences. Some agencies are moving away from the expectation that candidates bring a degree to the table, reports AdWeek, which opens up the hiring pool to a more varied group.
- Promoting alternative educational experiences. Dentsu’s new program The Media Experience provides eight weeks of vocational training on the basics of advertising to people without college degrees who are interested in breaking into the industry, with the promise that all candidates who complete the program will be offered a job. These kinds of non-college educational programs can help diversify the ranks of candidates by including people with nontraditional educational backgrounds.
- Treating work and life experiences as an asset, even if they aren’t directly related to advertising. Breaking the mold of the ideal ad agency candidate means moving away from the expectation that all strong candidates must have an advertising background. The ad agency Preacher has begun hiring people with a variety of employment experiences, including fashion, printing, and restaurant work, while the agency GSD&M is specifically focused on hiring veterans, per Insider. Both agencies report success in working with candidates without advertising backgrounds because they bring a different skill set, as well as a hunger to learn that employees with existing advertising credentials often don’t demonstrate.
- Breaking away from the stereotypical ad agency culture of long hours. The stress of pitching and famously long working hours within the industry only intensified during the pandemic, but burnout does not affect all employee groups equally. As Harvard Business Review reports, mental health concerns unique to POC employees such as racial battle fatigue and the impact of microaggressions can heighten burnout risk. Building an environment where all employees can thrive may mean moving away from the idea that the best employees are the ones who put in the most late nights.
- Opening up the conversation. Promoting a culture where employees of all backgrounds feel comfortable approaching leadership with their concerns about the industry, as opposed to anonymously discussing those concerns on Fishbowl or Reddit, won’t be easy. But it is possible, and increasingly necessary, reports AdAge. One of the ways agency leaders can demonstrate that they understand how different life experiences may result in different workplace needs is to speak up and acknowledge the differential impacts of external events, such as the white supremacist mass shooting in Buffalo.
Q&A with Graham Nolan, co-founder of Do the WeRQ
Graham Nolan and Kate Wolff co-founded Do the WeRQ, a community and platform for LGBTQ+ professionals in the marketing industry with the mission of elevating queer creativity and representation in advertising. We sat down with Nolan to talk about the lack of LGBTQ+ representation in the industry and how agencies can improve. Notable points included the false perception that LGBTQ+ employees are “doing fine,” the practice of rainbow washing, and why agencies should leave pride flags up all year long, not just in June.
Juneteenth isn’t an opportunity to “sell”
Lisa Osborne Ross wrote in The Seattle Medium about the practice of brands releasing products to celebrate Juneteenth, the day commemorating the end of Black enslavement in the United States. She argues that the day should not be “an opportunity to sell, but an opportunity to solve.” Acknowledging the history of oppression only once a year is not going to lead to substantive change in American society. Osborne Ross states that brand support for meaningful policy change, investment in Black communities, use of inclusive language, and authentic listening relationships with Black employees will do more good than releasing Kente-cloth branded products every June.
Indie agencies commit to supporting employee abortion access
In the wake of the leaked draft opinion indicating the Supreme Court’s likely overturning of Roe v. Wade, many holding companies pledged to create new policies to enable employees to still access abortion. Now some smaller, independent agencies are following suit, as reported by AdWeek. As an example, Preacher, based in Texas (which has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the United States), will not only provide paid medical leave for its employees, no questions asked, but will also reimburse them for expenses related to protests and advocacy.
How immediate parental leave boosts gender equality
Paid parental leave is becoming more standard in the advertising industry, but some organizations require employees to have worked for a certain amount of time before their paid parental benefits come into effect. Eliminating this waiting period and offering fully paid leave from day one can boost workplace gender equity, reports WorkLife. Implementing conditional leave based on length of employment can lead to women feeling constrained and like their family planning must be secondary to their career trajectory, while truly inclusive workplaces ensure women know that they can have both.
We’re also reading:
- Dentsu signs Thrive Global’s mental health pledge to prioritize employee mental health, as covered by Campaign.
- The Association of Independent Commercial Producers has appointed Sheila R. Brown as its inaugural VP of equity and inclusion, per MediaPost.