Matthew Miller
Mar 16, 2021

Agency diversity efforts still need more urgency, rigour

While agency networks in APAC are making progress on the DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) front, too many are still offering more in the way of assurances than concrete plans and evidence.


Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives exist on a spectrum within APAC creative and media agencies, ranging from little more than lip service to ambitious and well-considered multi-year plans. 

As we surveyed the 2020 performance of 39 agency networks for the latest edition of Campaign Asia-Pacific's Agency Report Cards, most agencies landed somewhere between those two extremes.

Overall, we graded tough in this area, based on a belief that the pandemic was no excuse for a lack of progress. If anything, it underscored the need for greater emphasis on DEI. A wide majority of agencies earned the same grade as the previous year for 'people and diversity', which is one of five areas we grade on and encompasses general HR policies, culture and training in addition to DEI. A handful saw their mark fall. Only 11 agencies earned an upgrade in this area. At the same time, many companies are putting in place good DEI ideas and practices—especially out of Australia and New Zealand—that should be adopted more widely.  

Here then, a survey of where APAC agencies fall along the diversity spectrum, from weak to downright inspiring. 

Assurances, and little else 

We're well past the time when meeting a minimum level of DEI support and action can be considered acceptable. What we said in the report card for MullenLowe—"the agency's leaders assure us that they're doing well on diversity, but at this point in time we're no longer able to accept assurances as proof"—could apply to a number of networks.

For example, ADK received the lowest people and diversity grade we gave out, with "woefully inadequate" initiatives to promote stronger staff support, nurture a positive culture and encourage greater diversity and inclusion. The main initiatives it cited were the facilitation of home working under Covid and a pickup in the number of men and women taking maternity and paternity leave (with a 100% return-to-work rate). 

This report is part of a series exploring trends we noted while preparing our latest Agency Report Cards feature, in which we rate and analyse 39 APAC agency networks. Each report card includes an overall grade plus a detailed analysis and scores for management; innovation; clients and business; creativity; and people and diversity. The report cards are available only to Campaign Asia-Pacific members. Become a member to get access to all 39 of the 2020 Agency Report Cards, plus many additional benefits. 

Fellow Japan-based network AKQA was able to point to some concrete action. It formed an Inclusion Council with volunteers from across the region that is focused on progression, conscious inclusion, equal opportunities and community. Its Australia operation led by taking out membership with external bodies such as the Diversity Council of Australia and introducing formal training across areas like unconscious bias, and conducting an internal pay gap review. Still, these are developments that many agencies completed several years ago, so AKQA’s efforts resulted not in an upgrade, but a virtual ‘thumbs up’.

Cheil is another network that falls at the lower end of the spectrum. It needs to buck up the percentage of female staff it has in leadership positions, but could not provide the exact percentage of female leadership—only a claim that it had increased compared to the prior year. The company doesn’t have targets or quotas in place, and when pressed about its gender disparity, leaders mentioned that more women are joining at junior levels and could rise through the ranks. Until a formal programme or KPI is set to ensure that happens, we fail to see how this addresses the issue of female representation. 

Average attention

Three hallmarks define the middle of the APAC agency diversity spectrum: Programmes in place or under development, a smattering of evidence of progress, and precious little attention to anything beyond gender diversity. 

Many agency leaders came to our conversations armed with percentages of women in leadership positions across their networks. Good to hear. But because "leadership position" is subject to a range of varying definitions, and because most agencies can't or won't provide historical data points for comparison, it's difficult to confidently term such statistics as progress. If there's one refrain we repeated over and over, it's a desire for more evidence. For example, we noted that Publicis Groupe arguably has the best gender representation of the major holding groups in APAC (see the report cards for Publicis Creative and Publicis Media), but we would still like to see comprehensive statistics about diversity in the ranks, or at least internal survey data showing satisfaction with the state of DEI within the company. 

At the same time, too many agencies still talk about DEI almost exclusively in terms of gender. Purposeful action to improve the representation and inclusion of not only women but also any marginalised groups—whatever they may be in different markets—is something we need to see a lot more of.

All of the above is not to say that agencies in the middle of the spectrum aren't doing valuable work in DEI. For example, McCann which developed a ‘Conscious Inclusion Philosophy’, has placed 11 employees from APAC on a global diversity coalition and held DEI events including a 'Day for Meaning' in Japan to help people there better understand the Black Lives Matter movement. DDB has programmes to identify and mentor promising women, and its gender ratios in the management ranks are impressive in some markets. MediaCom didn't see its people and diversity grade improve, but is able to say that women make up 61% of its leadership pipeline, and that women are responsible for three-quarters of the agency’s P&L. Wieden+Kennedy improved its gender-diversity ratios and its Delhi office has mandated hiring female employees for departments that still have a higher ratio of men. The Delhi shop is also actively seeking out talent in smaller cities to unearth and nurture diverse talent from across India's vast geographical, religious and cultural landscape. 

A step above

Now we come to the agencies that are defining the way forward in DEI.

Essence earned the highest people and diversity grade we gave out. In APAC, 51% of all promotions in 2020 were secured by women, and half of all employees promoted to managerial or director levels, and to levels above director, were female. The GroupM media agency also earned kudos for its Ascend program for gender, sexuality, race and identity, its '(Un)Covering in the Workplace' series, which aims to aid employees feeling pressure to hide parts of their identity, and 'Courageous Conversations', which focused on reverse-mentoring.

Several agencies are demonstrating their seriousness about DEI by appointing executives to focus on this area, either full time or in addition to other duties. For example, Wunderman Thompson has Ezinne Okoro as its new global diversity chief, and introduced a global DEI council with two people from Asia Pacific. OMD, which over-indexes on female leadership in APAC at 75%, ensured that every market in APAC had a DEI lead to keep initiatives active. VMLY&R launched a DEI programme with leaders overseeing ANZ and Asia. Impressively, the WPP network is one of the few that can unequivocally say it has embedded diversity, both among the general workforce and within local leadership in each office, into management KPIs. 

Even where firm KPIs may be currently lacking, we are seeing more effort being put into measurement and the definition of realistic targets. For example, Hakuhodo, though it still got a poor grade in the people and diversity category, is keeping tabs on its efforts to include LGBT communities, its employment of people with disabilities (2.3%), and its gender diversity (10.5% female officers and 44.2% women among new graduate employees). R/GA set itself up to succeed by investing in a formal DEI programme via Creative Equals, which performed an audit of the agency’s equality practices across APAC. Mediabrands agency Reprise launched a diversity and inclusion charter that includes a plan to reach 50% female leadership by the end of 2021. It is also developing three-year targets for greater ethnic representation that will be tailored to individual markets. Stablemate UM likewise began devising plans to set targets against nationality and race, including inclusivity research across APAC.

Over in WPP, Mindshare formed ‘The Collective’, a new global initiative to pull people into diversity groups that can drive agendas around LGBTQIA+ inclusion, socioeconomic representation, disability and working parents. Individual markets decide which areas to focus on, and appoint an executive sponsor to track progress against KPIs on a quarterly basis. The agency is also relatively uncommon in that it's using employee surveys as a dipstick on progress: 7.5 out of 10 said their office attracts, develops and retains employees with a diverse background, and a similar proportion said the agency takes tangible actions to create an inclusive workplace. Ogilvy introduced a diversity and inclusion toolkit that covers attraction, outreach, recruitment, selection, on-boarding, development, promotion and progression, engagement, retention, and client impact. It also audited itself, finding that training should continue to roll out in unconscious bias, interview skills, microaggressions and inclusive leadership. On top of that, D&I dashboards are being implemented in all markets to track progress using employee engagement surveys. Wavemaker developed a global diversity and inclusion plan, and each market was asked to come up with tailored KPIs that will be reviewed annually. 

Look to Oceania

The most forward-thinking and serious DEI efforts consistently seem to arise in Australia and New Zealand, and the industry should take note and emulate these markets regionwide. 

For example, VMLY&R New Zealand launched a Māori cultural capability program, pledging to incorporate Te reo Māori (the language) and te ao Māori (a cultural lens) into campaigns, as well as to engage with Māori talent where possible. The agency created a partnership with a local high school and is bringing in young Māori students (as well as Pasifika and other nationalities) to give them a live brief so that they can create campaign work that will go to market to target other young Māori.

M&C Saatchi Australia introduced equal maternity and paternity leave—a key factor helping women return to work after giving birth—and an initiative to enable female employees to work from home when menstruating, which it hopes will destigmatise conversations about periods (see related article, "Period leave: A privilege or a basic right?"). 

PHD Australia created a comprehensive four-year diversity and inclusion plan. Likewise, the NZ outpost of FCB, which is already seen as a leader in diversity globally, submitted a comprehensive DEI plan that includes training initiatives and formal processes to make sure DEI gets attention in not only hiring and career development but also strategy and creative work. This is buttressed by employee surveys and action planning based on the results. 

It’s difficult to pinpoint why ANZ performs better in the area of gender, but perhaps more cultural similarities to the West is a factor. When it comes to women representation in leadership across all sectors, Japan, Korea and India are some of the poorest performing markets in the world. Data from Catalyst showed that in 2019, women held only 8% of management roles, 9% of business management roles, and were only 2% of CEOs in India. In Australia, women represented just over a third (36.7%) of all managers. None of that is ideal, but it's far better compared to the realities in large Asia markets. However, it’s worth noting that the Philippines has some of the most balanced gender representations in the workplace. Meanwhile, based on data around gender wage gaps globally from last year, Japan and Korea are some of the worst performing in the world, with Australia faring much better.

All of which means, APAC agencies must not become complacent. A bit of improvement on gender ratios, while laudable, isn't sufficient. We hope to see more networks taking the best of the initiatives described above and rolling them out with urgency and transparency across the entire region.

Surekha Ragavan contributed reporting and valuable perspective to this article.

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