Why are our clients not demanding more diverse teams from agencies?

Over the past few months, diversity and inclusion (D&I) in the PR industry has taken centre stage.

Clients should not be fooled by the 'bait and switch' tactics some agencies use to present greater diversity, warns Sash Rosenberg
Clients should not be fooled by the 'bait and switch' tactics some agencies use to present greater diversity, warns Sash Rosenberg

A lot of articles I’ve read have discussed incredibly important issues, such as racism, bringing people of colour (PoC) into PR, and how to retain them.

What hasn’t been discussed is the role our clients play in the lack of D&I in the industry.

We are all too aware that PoC are vastly underrepresented in the industry and, as such, PR agencies have been pointed to as the culprits.

This is in part true. I have spent close to six years working in different agencies, from the boutiques to the huge corporate entities.

They all have a few things in common: almost all-white staff, almost all-white clients, and almost no D&I initiatives.

My background is in healthcare; I have always worked in the health teams of different agencies. My clients have usually been top-tier pharmaceutical companies, with bio-techs sprinkled in.

Most of these big pharma companies also have hugely active D&I initiatives which, from my experience and from speaking to colleagues working in-house, are valued and considered to be an important part of the company.

If they are so important, why are our clients not demanding more diverse teams from their agencies?

May I introduce you to your team?

Agencies lie. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been pulled onto a pitch that isn’t my expertise to push up the PoC count – and by ‘push up’, I mean to make the count at least one. Thus, giving a client the illusion that their team is a ‘United Colors of Benetton’ advert: all different backgrounds (at least upper-middle class and above), skin colours (the token non-white), and education levels (Oxbridge preferred of course).

If you ever brought up this blatant and ongoing act of tokenism with an agency, it would most likely reply something like: “The team shown in pitches isn’t always representative of who will be working on your account. This allocation will be done based purely on capacity and expertise where possible.”

I will never forget in a previous agency of mine, when every single PoC was rounded up to work on a pitch that was for a condition that mainly affects the black community in the US.

Out of the four of us, only two were black; neither of them was American or knew anything about the disease.

We were told that we had been chosen to show the diverse nature of the team and how we would have first-hand understanding of the cultural challenges surrounding the disease.

I am not black, and the disease we were pitching for does not affect people of my ethnicity.

In short, agencies are very good at showing clients what they want to see, but when a client is met with an all-white team, why are alarm bells not going off in their heads?

Why the diversity of teams matters

A diverse team means diverse thinking – it’s as simple as that. The best campaigns I’ve worked on have come from the minds of many different people from different backgrounds (ethnically, socio-economically, countries, beliefs etc.). It’s sad to say that these great diverse campaigns have only happened to me a handful of times over six years.

To get the best work done to deliver for clients we should be calling on as many people as possible to share their experiences, their cultures and countries.

There are many to blame

Agencies are funded by their clients, and that means their opinions are vital. If you’re running a company and one of your biggest shareholders decides they want to implement a change that should already be the gold standard, more often than not, it happens. If clients are not questioning the lack of ethnic diversity in agencies, why would agencies change?

Clients can demand better and have the power to begin making changes in the PR industry on D&I. This issue is not just down to PR agencies.

Take a stand and make a change

If any of my former or current clients are reading this: please question the diversity of your account team. You have the power to make huge changes in the industry purely by asking the “uncomfortable” questions. If agencies are held accountable by their clients, perhaps we will see a change and a move toward a more inclusive working environment.

Sash Rosenberg is a freelance healthcare comms consultant at Rosenberg Communications

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