My 2020 wishlist for diversity in advertising
A view from Lindsay Wade

My 2020 wishlist for diversity in advertising

"Instead of leading with diversity in quantity, advertisers should lead with diversity in quality."

For diversity in advertising, 2019 was a bumpy year. We saw some highs: Brands like Absolut, Mattel and Fenty (to name a few) produced some stand-out work that helped lead the industry in the right direction. And Cannes Lions recently announced that it achieved gender parity among judges for 2020.

But on the flip side, 2019 was also a reminder of how much work is still in front of us.

Our team at Heat had a front row seat to this phenomenon when we finished our study on the value of diversity in advertising. After combing through 250 ads from 50 of the country’s top media spenders, we discovered the following:

  • 92% of the companies surveyed portrayed an ad with a person of color in a primary role, but less than half were in positions of power.
  • 94% of brands portrayed a woman in a primary role, but more than half were in stereotypical roles.
  • And when it came to representation of people with disabilities, LGBTQ groups and different socioeconomic groups, representation dropped to less than 1%.

In a lot of ways, those stats are disappointing.

However, I enter 2020 with air of optimism. Maybe it’s because I spent a lot of time researching how Gen Z is approaching diversity in race, gender and sexuality with open-mindedness. Or maybe it’s because I’ve shared some of this research in a few different venues this year, and the same question always resurfaces: How can we do better?

It’s hard to come up with the exact formula to solve such a big and nuanced problem. But going into 2020, I see a few encouraging trends that may lead us to a more diverse future.

This is what I’d like to see for diversity in advertising in 2020.

I. Diversity in quality, not quantity

For a long time, many had the mindset about diversity that if a little was good, a lot must be better. (Yes, we do want more diversity, but hear me out.) With that mentality, advertising began adopting a quantity approach to casting that went something like this: Get as many diverse people as possible in the ad – except in the lead roles.

Which is problematic for a few reasons, but most notably because it designates diverse characters to background roles, which doesn’t allow them the same opportunity for individuality as a lead role.

2020 is the year we can change that. Instead of leading with diversity in quantity, advertisers should lead with diversity in quality. That means writing roles for diverse characters with intention, with 3-dimensional, relatable personalities.

 II. Getting everyone a seat at the table

There’s been a lot of talk about what happens in front of the camera. Naturally. Because that’s what the public sees.

What it doesn’t see is who is behind the camera, who was in the concepting session and the editing studio and the boardroom. But discussion around the lack of diversity within agencies is already picking up.   

In 2020, conversation should center around who is making the work we see and how their perspective influences the outcome. There will be more internal discussion about getting diverse voices a seat at the table during every part of the process – from strategy to production.


III. Acknowledging failure

As we move into an age where corporate responsibility evolves from nice-to-have to absolutely essential, pointing fingers and shifting blame won’t be acceptable. It’s important to acknowledge and address failure.

This is an opportunity to use the tools we typically reserve for our biggest, hairiest client problems – things like design thinking frameworks (which are already being used to solve for everything from healthcare to community revitalization), creative problem solving and interdisciplinary collaboration – to solve for challenges we face as a larger society.

And while that sort of responsibility may seem scary, it’s actually a rare gift. It’s an invitation for brands and agencies to look inward, to do better and to advance the industry as a whole.

We work in an industry that’s always looking forward, always trying to anticipate where the market will go. This year will certainly be more of that. But with what we know now, 2020 is also an opportunity to influence the market – to push for diversity in the right way and for the right reasons.

Lindsay Wade is senior strategist at Heat.