Something for Renee Wilson's to-do list?

Renee Wilson started in her new role as president of the PR Council this week. Increasing diversity and inclusion at PR agencies is sure to be one of her top priorities - but is it time to introduce numerical benchmarks to the debate?

One of the most consistent debates in the PR and advertising industries is about diversity and the lack of progress toward a genuinely representative workforce in terms of gender and ethnicity, especially at senior levels.

Many weasel words have been spoken and even more navels have been contemplated in relation to this topic but, as many campaigners point out, the Rubicon has yet to be truly crossed.

In the UK, the IPA – the equivalent trade body for the advertising industry as the 4A’s in the US – has tried to step up the pace by teaming up with PRWeek’s sister brand Campaign to benchmark the current composition of the ad workforce and setting targets on gender and ethnic diversity representation that should be met by 2020.

The inaugural benchmark survey, which from now on will be carried out annually, comprised 37 of the IPA’s biggest agencies with either gross revenues above £20 million (about $30 million) or more than 200 employees. Moving forward, IPA president Tom Knox wants to widen this out and get as many agencies involved as are able to contribute.

By 2020, the goal is for women to hold 40% of senior executive positions within all advertising and media agencies – the current figure is 30.5%, so that would be an increase of a third. Tech-led (80% men) and creative/design (75% men) roles are particularly male-biased.

On ethnicity, the target is for at least 15% of people in leadership positions to be from a non-white background – that figure is currently 8%, so the target there is more ambitious, at almost 90%. This is in addition to the IPA’s existing commitment to help the industry recruit 25% of new joiners from black and minority ethnic backgrounds by 2020.

The study goes as far as breaking out the 37 agencies’ specific numbers on gender and ethnicity, which is an incredibly bold move the prospect of which might send shivers down the spine of some senior agency execs.

There is understandable nervousness in US agency circles to commit to a similar initiative. The New York City Commission on Human Rights was established in 1944 and has carried out diversity surveys of the advertising industry from time to time since 1968.

In 2004, it really set its sights on advertising and went after about 15 agencies, prompted by the realization that the studies showed the situation regarding workforce gender and ethnic diversity had barely changed in the intervening 36 years.

As a result of the commission’s probe, in 2006 the agencies agreed to set goals and targets on hiring that they had to report on, and that settlement made the front page of The New York Times.

The only snag was that the targets were set by the agencies themselves, so they could either set low targets that could be easily reached but had no credibility, or more stringent benchmarks that, if missed, risked embarrassment for the agencies involved.

The 4As organized initiatives around it to try and get ahead of the issue, including Operation Success, which invited outsiders and diversity campaigners to join industry insiders and help achieve the objectives. Although that particular activity ultimately dissipated, the trade body continues to push hard on various fronts and work to cultivate diverse talent within agencies.

The 4A’s partners with the IPA on several initiatives but currently has no plans to follow the UK trade body’s imposition of firm diversity targets and numbers.

The trade body’s EVP of talent Singleton Beato told me that focusing solely on numbers can be a dangerous thing to do and that this route shouldn’t be followed at the expense of engendering genuinely diverse attitudes within agencies that are welcoming, supportive, and sustainable - and not just designed to hit a benchmark.

Beato wants agencies to effect authentic change where everyone under the umbrella of diversity feels their organization or company is truly helping them to grow and make a contribution and that the internal culture energizes them. She is not sure a numbers game is going to provide sustainable change that will allow the industry to genuinely reflect inclusion.

The IPA’s Knox agreed with this point but feels there need to be some firm numerical benchmarks against which to set goals and track progress. He told me that all ad agencies are naturally competitive, so while it may be controversial to break out diversity performance agency by agency it will appeal to their competitive instincts.

The trade group was clear to list the agencies in alphabetical order rather than a league table format but, let’s face it, it’s not difficult to do the math and see who is shining and who is lagging behind.

He has deliberately set the 2020 goals at what he considers are achievable levels, although he accepts the ethnicity target will be more challenging. "It will be a stretch, but it’s possible," he added.

One fact worth noting is that if you’re a US agency that wants to be a government contractor, where there is a lot of lucrative work on offer, you already have to have affirmative action plans in place with clear goals set.

Renee Wilson started in her new post as president of the PR Council this week and yesterday sent out a note to members outlining her vision and top-line plans for the road ahead.

Wilson promised to continue the work of outgoing president Kathy Cripps on achieving greater diversity and inclusion in the PR industry, including the establishment of the Diversity Distinction in PR Awards in association with PRWeek.

She certainly demonstrated her commitment to diversity while at MSLGroup through her support of initiatives such as Lauren Wesley Wilson's ColorComm business community for women of color working in communications.

Wilson [Renee] noted that agencies have "made improvements [on diversity], but not nearly enough" and promised "more industry-wide collaboration on this issue in 2016, starting next month when we host a working session that will include key players from agencies, client organizations, and academia."

Most of the large US PR agencies belong to the same holding companies as the ad agencies that have submitted their diversity data to the IPA in the UK. So is it time to consider putting hard numbers to the diversity debate and asking PR Council members to commit to gender and ethnicity targets?

It would certainly go some way to assuaging critics who say this debate is all talk and no substance. Perhaps it should be an item for the agenda at next month's PR Council session on diversity? I’d love to know what you all think.

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