The focus of For What It’s Worth is building careers in marketing and media. I don’t write about politics here. Yet it’s difficult to stay silent when faced with repeated, unspeakable criminal acts against innocent African Americans by bad cops who should have had their badges and guns taken away long ago, violence and destruction that distracts from millions of peaceful, well intentioned protestors and victimizes the innocent, and the complete failure of our political leadership.
I’m quite cognizant that the impact this horrible crisis has on marketing and media pales in importance to the broader societal and political issues we face, but for what it’s worth I want to share some thoughts on how our industry can respond.
After close to 20 years of diversity initiatives in the business the sad truth is that many of the most senior white executives in the business can go weeks without ever meeting alone with a minority. No matter your politics, your cultural sensibilities or how open minded a person you may be, it is impossible to truly empathize or understand someone who’s skin is a different color than yours if you don’t spend time with them.
As an industry we have talked a good game. We’ve hired talented, senior level inclusion and diversity officers, formed task forces to change attitudes and boost minority recruiting, and held forums and discussions on the topic at countless industry events. It’s true that progress has been made, but no one I know in the business is pleased with where we stand today.
For the record, as someone who has led large teams for close to 20 years, I don’t hold myself apart from this judgment. I’ve improved the level of diversity among the teams I’ve led, but there’s no doubt my record could be better.
Here’s the most common excuse: “I’d love to hire a diverse candidate for the open position on my team but I haven’t seen any qualified minority candidates. What am I supposed to do?”
While the talent pool for some roles may not be deep (although it has improved more than many in the industry are probably aware), in reality for most executives this is more of an easy excuse. Imagine if that same executive said to their biggest client, “Look, I know you want ideas to help boost sales during the holidays but we can’t think of any. We tried, but just couldn’t do it. So let’s just keep doing what we’ve been doing until we come up with something.” How long do you think that client would stick around?
The position is even more ludicrous when you consider our entire industry is built on the notion that with the right ideas we can persuade people to take actions they otherwise wouldn’t have. We create markets for products all the time. Even if you believe not enough minority candidates are interested in the industry (I don’t believe this by the way), is it really that big a lift for us to come up with ideas to convince diverse professionals that marketing and media is an exciting, rewarding career?
I’ve been in countless discussions in senior staff meetings over the years on this topic. Inevitably someone says “we don’t discriminate against anyone. The goal is to get the best person for the job.” No one can argue with this sentiment. But left unspoken is the fear that qualified white candidates, often people who have connections to the hiring manager, will miss an opportunity in the name of diversity. Yet it’s difficult to take those fears seriously given how disproportionately white our industry remains. This despite how much we’ve talked about fixing it and the convincing data that validates the business case for a diverse employee base.
It’s fundamental to business and life in general that one of the keys to success is to set clear goals and hold yourself accountable for the results.
The simple reason why we haven’t reached diversity goals as an industry is because for the most part companies and agencies have set ill-defined targets, not specific goals, and have been unwilling to hold leaders truly accountable for their failure to move the needle.
So let’s fix it, now. It’s been a brutal year for our business. Many jobs have been lost. But hiring freezes will end and the business will return. In fact, as leaders think about retooling their staffs as the economy rebounds, it is a perfect opportunity to make real progress. C-level leaders should challenge themselves and their leaders. Set audacious goals. How do we ensure half of our open heads are filled with diverse candidates? How do we double the number of diverse employees in the next 12 months? And again the next year? What changes do we need to implement to make that happen? How do we expand our potential talent pools, recruiting and training?
The goals need to have real teeth. And that means tying results to compensation. I realize this is frowned upon in some quarters but in my experience the most effective way to effect change quickly, particularly in sales organizations, is to connect desired behaviors to compensation.
On the client side, brand marketers could include employee diversity as key criteria in their RFPs when selecting agencies or even deciding who their media or sponsorship partners will be.
I’m only scratching the surface, the industry is loaded with smart people with well-considered ideas worth pursuing. I invite readers to post comments and share their ideas about how we can drive diversity now.
Everyone is familiar with the quote, “It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” If the events of the past week have taught us anything the time for action to address the injustices and inequities in our society is long past due. We’ve cursed the darkness in the industry for too long on this issue. Let’s make this crisis the spark that finally ignites the flame of diversifying our employee bases once and for all.