Is it time to give up on chief diversity officers?

It's been nearly a decade since ad agencies started appointing diversity officers. What do we have to show for it?

NEW YORK: Earlier this year, Deutsch eliminated its chief diversity officer position, which it created in 2008.

"One of the philosophies we lean into is that everybody at Deutsch, from the CEO to the receptionist, owns diversity," said Vonda LePage, EVP and director of communications at Deutsch, during an interview with Campaign US. "And we wanted to really make sure that everybody was stepping up and owning it. And by having one person who owned it, which is what that role was, kind of took the responsibility off everybody else."

But can a grassroots approach to diversity tackle institutional issues or muster resources from across disciplines to jumpstart programs and conversations? Can individuals working on their own – and on their own time – ensure that an organization pursues workforce diversity as tirelessly as it chases a shelf full of trophies or a lucrative client list? If an agency puts everyone in charge of diversity, isn’t that the same as putting no one in charge?

"If creativity is everybody’s responsibility, then why do you have the chief creative officer?" said Tiffany Warren, SVP and chief diversity officer at Omnicom Group. "You would never say that. Of course you need the chief creative officer to oversee the art directors and the copywriters to make sure that the product that comes out of the agency is appropriate."

"So us even asking this question almost makes us feel obsolete, like we’re dating ourselves," she added.

The duties of a CDO vary from agency to agency and holding company to holding company. Certainly, there is some overlap with human resources and its focus on recruiting and retaining the right talent. For its part, Deutsch has said diversity efforts will be overseen by Robin Lander, director of HR. But CDOs in the industry say that doesn’t cut it.

"It’s not about just going out and hiring. It’s about human nature and organizational tradition and systems," said Heide Gardner, SVP and chief diversity and inclusion officer at Interpublic Group, Deutsch’s holding company. Gardner was the first CDO in the industry, promoted from head of diversity in 2003. "At the holding company level, it’s ultimately about enhancing shareholder value," she said.

That means not only hiring diverse talent, but training, supporting, and keeping them and creating an agency culture that is inviting. It also means working with agency producers and suppliers, according to Doug Melville, chief diversity officer for North America at TBWA. "So how can we hire more businesses in our creative supply chain that are owned, operated, and controlled by female and diverse entrepreneurs?" he said.

In the last three years, he boasts, TBWA has spent more than $100 million with women-owned businesses in its creative supply chain – a draw for clients.

"From the client standpoint particularly, a lot of the times supplier diversity is what they most want to talk about," Melville said. "That’s the relationship that is outside HR, but that’s where the clients will contact me. I will go places with them or on their behalf." It’s tough to imagine entry-level employees – or even a head of human resources – having the wherewithal to select suppliers agency-wide.

Rob Schwartz, CEO of TBWA New York, said having a CDO is a point of pride for the agency.

"What I like about it is that it’s official that we’re taking diversity seriously," he said. "It’s unambiguous, our point of view on it. We actually have someone who thinks about this when they wake up and dreams about it when they go to sleep. It’s opening up avenues to talent that, had we not had [Melville] here, we might not have thought about."

Of course, diversity has lately become the third rail of agency life, so perhaps it’s not surprising that people are reluctant to publically support the idea that the CDO is obsolete. Yet in a Campaign US poll, 40% of people said companies didn’t need a CDO in 2016. Those were the minority opinion holders — 60% said CDOs were necessary — but it was less a minority than one would think by what agency leaders say on the record.  

And the idea that everyone at an agency must own diversity is hardly one without support. Nancy Hill, president and CEO of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, made headlines when she kicked off this year’s transformation conference by declaring, "If you’re the CEO, you’re the chief diversity officer."

Still, at IPG, having a single person with a single team empowered to make necessary changes has paid off.

"We need a senior leader at IPG corporate and a team that can support our ambitious goals on diversity and inclusion," said CEO Michael Roth, in a statement. "This group partners across the IPG network to drive change and deliver results, which we’ve seen over the last decade. We also know there is still much work left to do."

Racial and ethnic minority representation among IPGs managers has increased 94% since 2005, the company says. Women make up 54% of all managers. Gardner oversees more than 40 diversity programs, and a portion of the incentive pay for CEOs at IPG subsidiaries is tied directly to diversity goals.

Of course, relying on individuals within an organization to effect change is also a non-starter when the individuals themselves are the ones who need to change.

"People choose people that look like them. It makes them feel safe, makes them feel comfortable," said Singleton Beato, EVP for diversity and inclusion strategy and talent development at the 4A’s. "So if somebody isn’t really creating systems and processes and procedures to make you think differently in the moment, then your muscle memory is what will kick in and what will lead, and that’s why we are where we are."

"My point of view is you do need a chief diversity officer if you’re going to see change," she said. "This is really a change agent, more so than any other role. They have to change something that goes against normal behavior and organic thinking and attitudes. And that sort of widespread change doesn’t happen without someone enforcing it."

While plenty of smaller agencies go without a CDO or someone with similar duties, no other major agency has created a CDO position and then eliminated it. The optics are certainly problematic, even for an agency such as Deutsch, which has a strong track record of gender diversity and has regularly received high marks from IPG for employee satisfaction about diversity efforts.

"Eliminating a diversity director role feels like a cost-cutting measure masquerading as a progressive move," said Kat Gordon, founder of the 3% Conference. "And it misses a critical point: diversity is an economic multiplier. Saying you’re doing so because ‘everyone should own diversity’ misses another critical point. It’s not an either/or situation. It’s a both/and. Everyone in the company should own diversity, yes, and you need a champion who leads diversity and embeds it into the culture of the agency."

But agencies that don’t effectively prioritize diversity – however they go about it – will find themselves falling behind in the battle for the best talent.

"I have counterparts at Facebook, Twitter – every single one of those companies has a CDO, and they’re empowered, and they have resources, and they are beginning to get organized," Warren said. "And when they mature and those teams grow, it’s going to be really difficult for agencies to match what they offer."

This story originally appeared on Campaign US.

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