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Why so many chief diversity officers are set up to fail

This advertising exec looks at his own industry’s DEI failings and finds many companies are still just paying lip service.

Why so many chief diversity officers are set up to fail
[Source photo: José Carlos da Costa/Unsplash; Christina @ wocintechchat.com/Unsplash]

The ad industry has a reputation of inconsistency at best when it comes to diversity. After the Summer of Unrest in 2020, many advertisers reacted accordingly, if obligatorily, by making commitments to enhance the diversity effort within their agencies.

It’s been two years since that culturally important summer, and despite our sincerest hopes for change, a recent study found that 50% of companies still don’t have the DEI resources to create any real positive change. The continued lack of diversity within advertising is a devastating blow to the industry.

What’s standing in the way of the DEI imperative? Why are we still being met with insincere promises and illusions of progress that never come to fruition? How do we overcome the roadblocks of ignorance and intolerance that have been established and reinforced for centuries?

LET’S GET REAL ABOUT CHIEF DIVERSITY OFFICERS

The job title—which perhaps started as an HR bandage to the bigger problem—has been around only a handful of years. Now, that title is accountable for championing change within an agency.

It’s a huge responsibility, and an important one. But how today’s advertising agencies currently execute the title, the job role, and company support . . . is all wrong.

The CDOs are not the problem.

When they are first appointed to their position, new CDOs bring with them excitement and zeal with real expectations to transform the company culture for the better. Fast forward six to eight months, and more often than not, we see them experiencing severe burnout with little to show for their efforts by way of organizational change. In 2021, the average tenure for CDOs was 1.8 years, one-third of the tenure of other C-suite executives.

CDOs are often a band of one. They receive little to no support from their counterparts. They are also often provided with minimal to zero resources to deconstruct a 100-year-old universal ideology that their peers might not even care to address or rectify. CDOs are demoralized, fighting for a cause against the very team that is supposed to be on their side.

There is also a huge, and somewhat ironic, lack of representation within those appointed to the role itself. The most common ethnicity among CDOs is white, accounting for 81.3% of all who hold the title. It’s no wonder that we’re not seeing results in the way that we should if we are seeing little change at the root.

DEI LEADERSHIP IS STILL MOSTLY WHITE

According to the 4A’s (the American Association of Advertising Agencies), senior leadership teams within advertising agencies are still overwhelmingly white.

The lack of diversity leads to a lack of responsibility and sensitivity, displayed in the complacency of some of today’s advertising campaigns. In 2022, we still see agencies create and promote racist and culturally insensitive ads on behalf of brands. Campaigns like Juneteenth Watermelon SaladTwo Equal Buns, and Ginger are evidence enough that we need diverse decision makers that will vet, improve, and remove harmful stereotypes, cultural ignorance, and outright bigotry from the advertising industry.

There are three things the ad industry can and must do now to start addressing its DEI failures:

  • Commit to the investment. True, focused commitment and adequate levels of investment need to be made to drive measurable change across the industry landscape. You cannot ask a chief diversity officer to move this mountain alone, much less with only $2,000 in their budget. The effort requires long-term resources to have real breakthroughs.
  • Hire diverse talent. Make it a point to source your talent from a diverse pool to empower change-makers at all levels. Between Forbes, Bain, McKenzie, and industry trades like the 4A’s and AAF, it has been proven time and again that forward-thinking diverse companies tend to be more profitable and creative, and are listed more often as great places to work.
  • Throw out what isn’t working. If your current internal processes don’t lend themselves to an environment of betterment, it’s time to dismantle and re-engineer the system. Some folks may need to move aside and let new blood drive the process and navigate the ship. The status quo is not enough. In the words of one of my global clients, “We don’t need any more MEs.”

By no means is it a quick fix. This process of integrating sincere cultural curiosity and respect is not one that will happen overnight. But it can happen, if agencies are willing to examine the infrastructure of their team and genuinely appoint diverse C-suite executives, and provide those executives with resources to make the changes they’ve been recruited to make.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Marc S. Strachan is a managing partner and the chief marketing officer for the Adgile Media Group, a data-driven, out-of-home media company that wraps last-mile delivery trucks on behalf of brands to help them reach their ideal customers and measure the return on investment using geolocation technology. Strachan is the former chair of ADCOLOR, an organization that celebrates and advocates diversity in the creative and technology industries. More

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