Welcome to the new diverse reality

Progressive clients such as HP and General Mills are blazing a trail in requiring their agency partners to be truly diverse - could this finally mark the tipping point in the drive toward inclusion at all levels of the agency sector?

HP leads way in insisting its agency partners are genuinely diverse (Image via HP Careers blog)

For decades now there has been much gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands about the lack of diversity in the marketing and communications industries, including PR.

The same old tired arguments are resurfaced as everyone agrees earnestly that something must change and that the communications workforce must mirror the audiences campaigns are directed at.

PRWeek has done its bit in partnership with the PR Council, introducing the Diversity Distinction in PR Awards, which were last week presented for the sixth year at the Council’s Critical Issues Forum dinner in New York City.

Our aspiration has always been for those awards to become redundant and for the industry to become genuinely diverse throughout, not just at entry and junior levels. We also know that aspiration is still many years from coming to fruition.

Others have worked tirelessly to keep the arguments top of mind and to inch the process forward. But, meanwhile, life goes on and campaigners get more frustrated as they see the same cycle repeating itself over and over like a faulty washing machine.

I’ve often thought the ultimate solution to the diversity issue lay with clients. If they insist the agencies they choose are truly diverse, those agencies will have no choice but to comply or die.

And, lo and behold, that exact thing has started happening.

Earlier in September, HP asked all its agencies, including then-incumbent PR firms FleishmanHillard and Porter Novelli, and advertising shops such as BBDO, Fred & Farid, and Gyro, to increase the number of women and people of color in leadership positions.

The PC and printer giant’s CMO Antonio Lucio gave the firms a month to come up with a plan to increase diversity and a year to begin implementing the plan.

HP’s CCO Karen Kahn said the company will let agencies decide how they increase diversity, but if they can’t or won’t change HP will stop working with them.

As she adroitly pointed out: money talks. She noted that while HP can't control agencies, it can certainly exert influence through the scale of marketing and PR budgets it has. "The best way we can have impact is to change ourselves and work with our agencies to change," she added.

This call for diversity came too late for Fleishman and Porter, which were kicked off the $14 million PR account last week in favor of Edelman, which returns as HP’s primary PR supplier having been doing digital and social work with the company.

I’m not for a moment saying the two incumbents were sidelined because of a lack of diversity, but it’s natural to assume that Edelman must have demonstrated a true commitment on the issue as part of its successful bid to win the business.

Diversity is as top of mind as ever in the marketing sector, especially advertising. Saatchi & Saatchi executive chairman Kevin Roberts resigned over controversial gender remarks. Rapp’s global CEO Alexei Orlov was accused of making racist and sexist remarks in a lawsuit in May. And Gustavo Martinez, CEO of J. Walter Thompson, resigned over a discrimination lawsuit in March.

Kahn told PRWeek: "It’s a bigger issue in the creative world. We can only change ourselves and that's what we’re doing to shine a light on our agencies, raise awareness, and help them take a hard look at themselves and their practices."

According to The Wall Street Journal, HP itself is trying to practice what it preaches and is pushing for equal gender representation in leadership positions and to increase representation of people of color in the company.

HP was following on from General Mills in its push for more diversity. In August, the consumer foods company said it requires agencies competing in a bid to work with it to have 50% women and 20% people of color in the creative department.

General Mills’ CMO Ann Simonds told Advertising Age: "If you are going to put people you serve first, the most important thing is to live up to it and make it [diversity] a key criteria."

The company’s chief creative officer Michael Fanuele added that it was especially important to ensure diversity in agencies’ creative departments: "Agencies are fairly diverse in account and strategic planning, but not with the people who are making the work."

Anyone who has watched the trail of white men trooping up on stage in June every year to receive Cannes Lions can attest to that.

And the trend for clients to ask for genuine diversity among their agency suppliers is going to mushroom. Clients have been talking to each other behind the scenes and have decided that enough is enough. Look out for another high-profile announcement next week.

It’s not before time and I’m delighted clients are taking the initiative in this way. Agencies can no longer delegate the issue to their diversity and inclusion departments – they must inculcate diversity in the DNA of their organizations from top to bottom.

Welcome to the new reality of diversity in marketing and communications.

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