How marketers can press agencies to do better on diversity

Now is the right time for marketers to step up and act on the controversial issue of diversity in the workforce and the work - they have the real power to effect change.

Amid the furore over Saatchi & Saatchi head coach Kevin Roberts’ explosive comments on women and their apparently differently shaped ambitions, four tweets were particularly potent. 

Linking to an article about the scandal, Brad Jakeman, president of the global beverage group at PepsiCo, wrote: "Proud to say that I am NOT a client of @wwsaatchi & calls 2 friends who R 2 read this."

Antonio Lucio, HP’s global chief marketing and communication officer, replied to Jakeman: "You and I have never met. I applaud your public stance against K Roberts’ ridiculous statement. Time for a generational shift."

Airbnb chief marketing officer Jonathan Mildenhall tweeted: "Seriously @krconnect? If I were CMO @ P&G I would be questioning your understanding of my core consumer #doesntgetit."

And YouTube’s global head of subscriptions, brand and creative marketing Matt Ross wrote: "As clients we need to hit them where it hurts. $$. No @wwsaatchi agencies for me @YouTube."

When some of the most senior global clients call on the marketing community to rethink its agency relationships, it’s a clear sign that agencies should take the issue of diversity seriously. 

So is it time for more clients to use their collective financial power to press agencies on diversity? As Jakeman also tweeted: "If Clients don’t speak out, nothing will change. Or at least, won’t change fast enough."

Airbnb's Mildenhall spoke out against Kevin Roberts' explosive comments on women

Stones and glass houses

Of course, to do so marketers need to ensure they are taking the issue seriously themselves. As Association of National Advertisers chief executive Bob Liodice says: "Diversity is an industry issue. It is not resident to just agencies. It runs the gamut across media, marketers and agencies."

Indeed, there are several stories of brand-side marketers misbehaving. One of the more repeatable ones reveals that when Grey London executive creative director Vicki Maguire was at a previous agency, her boss changed her name to "Micky" on her script because the client did not want a woman on the account.  

As Liodice explains: "The issue that confronts us all is one of measurement. Does anyone really know or understand how diverse our industry is? It’s difficult to fix a problem when we don’t know how extensive the problem is – and in what parts of the industry the issue exists."

He’s right. Getting relevant, useful figures on the whole picture is difficult, which is why Campaign, with the IPA and its president, Tom Knox, published diversity statistics on the larger UK agencies earlier this year. 

For marketers, the picture is less clear. It may be a crude measure but Marketing’s recent Power 100, which lists the most influential UK marketers, revealed a 32 female to 68 male split. So marketers also have some way to go. 

Liodice argues that there is a lack of consensus about how to fix the issue: "Frankly, we don’t have a good answer as we don’t seem to understand what the root causes are. If we had universally agreed on the root causes, we could better tackle the issue."

It’s a good point. But it’s time to start the conversation. At the very least, marketers need to recognise the power they have to effect change, particularly within the agency community. 

A business imperative

Altruism is not the primary motivation to change. As one marketing leader says: "It’s not a client’s job to manage their agency’s business – it’s a full-time job running our own." 

But diversity has been proven to be better for business. One senior marketer says: "I run a category where 85% of the purchase decisions are made by women. Particularly given that I’m male – as are many senior clients – I lean deferentially to my agency to provide work that resonates with my target audience. I look to it as one of my principal sources of innovation. But if I look around the meeting table and everyone else is just like me, I wonder how this group of people is going to bring me something that I couldn’t have thought of myself."

Roisin Donnelly has just left her role as Procter & Gamble’s brand director for northern Europe after 31 years at the company and is a former Saatchi & Saatchi client. She says: "Diversity makes a positive impact on the business and drives creativity. Having women in key leadership and creative roles is key because female consumers are driving the majority of purchase decisions."

According to Nancy Hill, president and chief executive of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, one positive step marketers can take is "demanding that the teams that work on their business reflect society".

ISBA director of consultancy and best practice Debbie Morrison explains: "If you’ve got a retail account and your customer base is biased towards women, why would you want an entirely male team? You want people who are really going to understand your brand. It’s a service industry so the general perspective is that if a client says jump, the agency jumps. Maybe clients need to be more demanding of the people they work with." 

Of course, that’s not to say that if you are from one gender or ethnic group, you don’t understand another – but you have an advantage if you are living that reality.

Making expectations clear pushes the issue within agencies and emboldens more junior team members internally to tackle the issue without fear of their own career being hindered. 

As one senior marketer says: "My agencies know that a team heavily dominated by men is not going to make me happy. They know that the people working on my account need to be diverse in terms of both race and gender."

Formalise the issue

Another idea is to put diversity on the agenda in a more formal way and at an earlier stage. ISBA’s working group on procurement practices is exploring how to encourage greater diversity. One of the points of discussion is whether it can be raised at the request-for-information stage. It could also be included as a criterion in performance reviews. 

Lucio explains how HP published a code of conduct for its supply chain in 2003 to ensure workers were "treated with integrity". 

"Diversity and inclusion play a key role in HP’s business," he says. "We believe that diversity and inclusion fuel innovation and excellence." It is why the company has the most diverse board of directors of any US tech business. 

HP has rules for its external law firms that ensure they act on diversity. The company is considering doing the same in other areas, including among its marketing agencies. 

"As we reinvent the standard for diversity, the industry needs to demand greater accountability," Lucio says. 

Another approach is to concentrate on the work itself. Unilever’s #Unstereotype initiative focuses on outcomes. It has created a list of questions to help end the use of lazy stereotypes in its advertising, and has asked both its internal marketers and its agencies to use these throughout the creation process. Unsurprisingly, by the time of the initiative’s launch in June, many of its agencies had already agreed to implement the approach, including Bartle Bogle Hegarty, 72andSunny, J Walter Thompson, DDB, MullenLowe and Ogilvy.

Axe ‘Find your magic’ and Knorr ‘Love at first taste’ (top): two Unilever campaigns shaking off category norms

Create better working practices 

A few years ago, an account handler who had spent the day on a shoot was trying desperately to catch up on the day’s work. They sent an email to their client at a government agency just after midnight and thought nothing of it. The next morning, the agency boss received an email from one of the senior clients, which said it was not right that one of the agency team was working so late. 

This is an interesting story because it is still a rare occurrence. It’s far easier to unearth stories of unreasonable deadlines, briefs changing at the last minute or poor timing – a pitch presentation scheduled straight after Christmas holidays, for example. 

Marketers should understand the impact of their requests on agencies’ working practices. Particularly when the implementation of effective flexible working is going to become increasingly important as agencies’ leadership positions evolve to enable them to be filled by a broader range of people.

As one industry source says: "If we don’t want to attract this narrow, road-warrior type exclusively, then we have to plan our business better so we’re not working day and night around pitches."

Clients can do this for agencies simply by planning effectively and using common courtesy, one marketer says: "Don’t have a meeting that starts at 9am on a Monday that requires people to travel to. Don’t ask them for work the day after a national holiday. I wouldn’t ask my team to do that." 

That said, agencies need to play their part as well. "Agencies need to have the balls to say, ‘We have a group of people who benefit from the fact they have balanced lives and experience culture and are not locked in the office. So unfortunately we can’t deliver that,’" another marketer says. A common response to such a stance is for the client to realise they have been thoughtless and to extend the deadline, he adds. 

Mildenhall says the idea that the long-hours culture is exclusively down to client demands is questionable: "This is a bullshit excuse that the industry is hiding behind. The hours don’t need to be unacceptably long. In my experience, a lot – granted, not all – of the wasteful hours and late nights are due to the inefficient ways in which (even the best) agencies are run, from a process and trafficking perspective.

"The amount of times I have seen agency presentations postponed because ‘the work just isn’t there’ against rushed briefs from clients is out of balance.  Sure, some accounts are volatile and unpredictable but then the agency’s structure and processes should be built to accommodate. Good clients really do understand and anticipate the human cost of briefing in work." 

Diversity may be difficult to measure and difficult to remedy. But it is something that all parts of the industry should work together on fixing. Marketers, in particular, should be aware that they have the power to lead the conversation – and that, in the long run, everyone will benefit.