In the wake of this summer’s BLM protests and subsequent employment data releases from agency holding companies, the advertising industry remains under a diversity and inclusion spotlight.
But there’s good news with a solution in sight that is unfolding now thanks to COVID and remote work.
Disappointing levels of diversity are a concern industry-wide not only because of moral or social agendas but also due to the compelling evidence that diverse teams perform better.
Companies with more ethnic diversity are 33% more likely to outperform their counterparts, according to the McKinsey & Company report 2020 Delivering Through Diversity. Greater diversity among leadership increases the bottom line, according to BCG.
Every large business, across every industry and job function, thinks about reflecting an increasingly diverse customer base in their own staff. US companies spend about $8 billion annually on diversity training, Marketwatch reported. Just recently, 96 percent of CEOs named diversity, equity, and inclusion as a strategic priority, according to a Deloitte and Fortune survey.
Where is advertising as an industry? We’re 82 percent white, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The United States as a whole is 63 percent white.
A closer look paints a more complex picture, particularly at the executive level. In a survey of the Association of National Advertisers, 25 percent of responding members identified as an ethnicity other than white. But when we look at leadership, only 12 percent of CMOs identify as nonwhite.
Of course, race is only one measure of diversity, but it’s easier to quantify and compare than some others. Gender, sexuality (both of which advertising arguably does well with), neurodiversity, political views, location, and economic background are among a myriad of factors that make up diversity in the most abstract and useful sense.
The agency bias has traditionally started early. The agency model has been largely driven by low-cost, recent college grads and concentrated in expensive metro areas like New York. That creates an implicit filter against socio-economic groups who can’t or don’t want to manage student debt on a low salary in a high cost of living area. The industry is therefore more attractive to people who come out of school without debt. Both of those factors correlate strongly with multiple dimensions of diversity.
Contrast that with another service industry like consulting, known for higher entry-level pay, and the results aren’t surprising. Add to that the natural bias that people prefer to hire people who are like themselves, and you have a talent funnel that’s been squeezed at the top resulting in a lack of diversity at the executive level.
But there’s good news. In 2020, we’ve proven that businesses of all stripes don’t need to be tied to a physical location. Expanding the aperture for the location of our workforce is a way to improve the diversity of employees on multiple levels and can widen the early-career filter.
We’re also working more flexibly. We’ve learned that our teams can be as productive and, in some ways, more effective while juggling the needs of home and family. If we maintain options for highly qualified candidates who previously have been shut out of a traditional 9 to 5 office job, the aperture expands even more.
At WorkReduce, I began hiring remotely in 2014. I was immediately struck by the diversity of talent available at every level. Today, we have a growing workforce that represents the United States as a whole, not just the less-diverse profile of the US workforce.
We’ve also seen great success in evaluating people using skills-driven rather than pedigree-driven assessments along with other methods to squeeze bias out of the hiring process. Investments in training and upskilling our team have shown outsized results. We know that our clients are making similar investments and seeing great results as well.
That investment includes creating internships and training opportunities that can open the industry to a wider range of candidates. While this has been less common at agencies, there are benefits both in terms of attracting and retaining high-quality candidates and as a payoff for the employer. As an example from another industry, Accenture has had success with a nation-wide apprenticeship program to attract candidates who come from a non-traditional background.
Certainly, change takes time. With a talent pool that’s been artificially constrained at the entry-level, it will be years before we can cultivate the talent to correct problems at the senior leadership level. And to paraphrase finance ads, past performance is no guarantee of future outcomes. I started my career in the software industry 20 years ago, and it’s become less diverse in some key measures instead of more as a “bro culture” has taken hold.
However, leaning in on the trends of 2020 can move us along toward doing something that is not only good for business but also just for good.
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