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Brands to Ad Agencies: Diversify or Else


The white-male-dominated culture of advertising agencies, as depicted in the TV show “Mad Men,” is still a problem, and some brands are looking for change. Credit Justina Mintz/AMC

The advertising industry has tried for decades with little success to shed its “Mad Men”-like reputation as a profession dominated by white men. Now, some of the world’s biggest brands are viewing that lack of diversity as a liability.

In the last two months, three major brands have publicly put pressure on the agencies it works with to hire more women and minorities. The latest was Verizon, which joined General Mills and HP Inc., formerly a part of Hewlett-Packard, in telling agencies that a failure to do so could drive its business elsewhere.

The efforts reflect a growing concern among marketers that Madison Avenue’s largely white, male leadership may be hindering their efforts to connect with American consumers.

Diego Scotti, chief marketing officer for Verizon, sent letters to 11 of the agencies the company works with on Sept. 16, describing diversity as “an explicit business objective.” He gave the firms a month to submit details on how many women and minorities they employed across different roles and in senior leadership and asked for “action plans” describing how they would increase those numbers in the future.

“Marketers are expected to have a deep understanding and insight about their markets, about decision makers and about customers,” Mr. Scotti said in the letter, which has not been made public but was provided to The New York Times by Verizon this week. “We are more likely to create solutions that amaze our customers if our work force and suppliers represent the communities we serve.”

Verizon borrowed some of the language it used from letters HP sent to its agencies in August, urging them to hire more women in part because women buy about half of its computers and printers. General Mills, in seeking a new creative agency this summer, made headlines for saying it wanted creative departments it worked with to be staffed 50 percent by women and 20 percent with minorities.

“You don’t need to be a mom to make some Cheerios ads, but if we have more moms on the team making Cheerios ads, maybe we increase the probability we do work that connects with moms in a richer, deeper, more powerful, meaningful way,” Michael Fanuele, the chief creative officer of General Mills, said this week during an onstage discussion at an event hosted by the American Association of Advertising Agencies, known as the 4As, for Advertising Week.

“That’s really where our drive for diversity came,” Mr. Fanuele added. “It wasn’t some sort of moral high-horse stance about the failing ad industry.”

Ad agencies have already been grappling with accusations of racism and sexism and the sense that the industry’s approach to diversity is retrograde. In the last year, the chief executive of the J. Walter Thompson agency resigned after a lawsuit accused him of racist and sexist behavior, and dismissive remarks about gender equality were made by other top industry executives.

Several sessions held this week as part of Ad Week, the annual industry gathering in Manhattan, touched on those concerns, with panels on subjects like “Our Challenge to Erase Gender Stereotypes In Ads” and “Sexism in Advertising and What Brands Should Do.”

But the prospect of losing marketing dollars could drive change in a way that societal pressure has not. Verizon, for example, is one of the biggest advertisers in the United States, spending $ 1.3 billion on ads in both 2014 and 2015, according to Kantar Media.

“In order to push yourself to have a more diverse work force or a more humane work force, you have to be intentional about it and nothing will drive intent faster than a client’s dollar,” Nancy Hill, president and chief executive of the 4As, said in an interview.

Women now make up nearly 50 percent of those working in the advertising industry, but only 11 percent of creative directors, according to a survey by the 3 Percent Conference, which supports female creative leadership at agencies. Mr. Fanuele, when describing the dominant creative “wizards” in the industry, described them as “a bunch of middle-aged white guys with baseball caps and funny beer jokes up their sleeves.”

“We’re still in a very male-dominated and nondiverse industry,” Mr. Scotti, who is from Argentina, said in an interview. “In order for us to create work that’s more connected with the consumer, it needs to come from a deeper connection to what’s going on in society and what’s going on in culture.”

Mr. Scotti said the commitment to diversity was “an important requirement” of doing business with Verizon, but that the company was not setting specific goals, quotas or penalties for the agencies it works with. HP, in its Aug. 30 letter, said it expected agencies to “make good” on formal plans for hiring more women within 12 months. General Mills said the percentages it mentioned were “meant to be directional” and that the company was focused on “the importance of working toward diversity goals over time.”

However, perhaps illustrating the challenges of enacting change within the industry, even those pushing for it can struggle to articulate how they respond to attempts to diversify. Mr. Fanuele, answering a question during Tuesday’s event about how agencies pitched General Mills after learning about its diversity goals, said at times it felt “tokenistic” to him.

“Some show up with all the right people around the table and it almost does feel like a quota of tokenism; it’s like ‘Oh, thank you. You found the, you know, Southeast Asian transgender woman who works somewhere in your network to come to our meeting to talk,’” he said. “And then other times it just looks beautiful and diverse and it’s very genuine and real and you’re not even, even though this has been a criteria, you’re almost not even conscious that it’s happening.”

It has been particularly exciting, he said, when the traditional creative directors arrive “looking like they look” and express a “genuine commitment to building teams and building departments that want to be magnets for more diverse talent.”

“When you see their eyes sparkle about the possibilities of teaching and mentoring and being taught and mentored by people who don’t look like they do, that’s been cool,” he said.

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