Diversity in APAC marketing and comms: Enough lip service

It’s time the industry stopped talking about diversity in the workplace and actually started to make it happen.

Diversity in APAC marketing and comms: Enough lip service

Pat Law, the gay, female founder of Singapore-based marketing agency Goodstuph, may be a trailblazer in Asia. But that hasn’t stopped her fielding insensitive, ignorant comments during her climb to the top.

In one, a former female deputy managing director she was working for apologised to a client, in Law’s presence, for her hair. Law’s hair was short—“lesbian short” as she puts it, but “meticulously styled”. “I found her apology a tad rude,” Law says.

In another, Law was reviewing a new space for her office, and a fellow independent male managing director joined her for the visit. “When I made the decision quite immediately to take the location up after I was agreeable to the rent, he said I was rash in my decision-making,” she recalls, adding: “I prefer ‘decisive’.”

To see that such prejudice in the workplace remains a problem today—often fuelled by a still-thriving ‘old boys’ network who dominate the top positions in marketing and advertising—one only has to look at the recent JWT scandal.

Pat Law

In March, the agency’s chairman and CEO Gustavo Martinez resigned after JWT’s global communications chief Erin Johnson filed a lawsuit claiming that his racist and sexist comments made it “virtually impossible” for her to do her job. Allegedly, Martinez joked about rape, and made derogatory comments about people of colour and Jewish descent.

Martinez has been replaced with former WPP chief client team officer Tamara Ingram—a female leader who has already announced: “Diversity and inclusion will be at the top of my agenda.” The marketing industry clearly has a long way to go. But could it, as Ingram claims, become a champion for diversity and inclusion?“The issue is the same in Asia as it is everywhere else,” says New York-based advertising consultant Cindy Gallop. “At the top of our industry is a closed loop of, predominantly, white men talking to white men about other white men.”

“The white men at the top are sitting pretty,” she adds. “They’ve made their millions, they’ve got their share options, their bonuses—why rock the boat? All they want to do is preserve the status quo. They talk diversity [but] they don’t really mean it.”

That making lip service towards diversity is not enough is clear from another WPP fallout. In 2005, the advertising group’s creative director Neil French resigned after stating at a conference in Toronto: “Women don’t make it to the top because they don’t deserve to. They’re crap.” During the talk, he was served drinks by a waitress wearing a French-maid uniform. WPP apologised and promised to dedicate itself to diversity—only for the Martinez scandal to erupt a decade later.

The business case

The benefits, however, of a more diverse workplace are clear. Last year, a McKinsey Global Institute report predicted that advancing women’s equality can add as much as US$12 trillion to the global GDP by 2025. Another global 2014 McKinsey report discovered that the more diverse the leadership, the better a company performed: gender-diverse boards resulted in roughly 15-percent better results than the country’s average, while ethnically diverse boards saw a 35-percent increase. In marketing, where products are aimed at a cross-section of society and many key purchasers are women, hiring only in one’s own (often white male) image is crushingly limiting.

“Companies who fail to incorporate diversity and inclusion into their senior leadership and board director teams risk the opportunity of effectively connecting with the very people piloting Asia’s boom—youth and women,” confirms Leesa Soulodre, co-founder of DiversityDirectory Asia-Pacific.

Leesa Soulodre

In Asia, however, creating a diverse workforce faces specific cultural challenges that change country to country. Japan, South Korea and India ranked among the lowest in the region for female representation in the labour force, according to the 2013 World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report. In all the three countries, women are still expected to be primarily homemakers, prioritising children and husbands over careers. In Japan, women make up 49 percent of university graduates and 45 percent of entry-level job, yet only one percent of CEO positions. In India, only 30 percent of educated women ever make it to the junior level.

More than just women

It isn’t just women who suffer. China has a poor record of supporting the disabled in work. More than 17 million visually impaired citizens live in China, but there are just a few dozen schools for the blind. Braille was only permitted in the university entrance exams for the first time in 2014. LGBT rights across some parts of Asia are also problematic. In India, homosexuality remains illegal; in China until 2001, being gay was classified as a mental illness. Today, while homosexuality was decriminalised in 1997, prejudice in the world’s largest nation remains rampant.

For international companies, another problem is recruiting and retaining local talent. Expats tend to dominate the top positions, and agency heads often complain that they can’t find appropriate skills in the local market, meaning they have to hire from abroad. In many parts of Asia, where state welfare is often scant and children are expected to look after their parents in old age, marketing and media are often not considered respected industries. Some families still put pressure on their children to enter more ‘professional’ careers such as medicine or law.

Yet, as economies slow down, there is evidence that Asia might stop being seen as an ‘easy win’ for expat employees who often receive preferential treatment, faster promotions and larger salaries than their local counterparts. (article continues below)

How to own the future
By Cindy Gallop

I get many private messages from people in our industry thanking me for standing up for gender-equality and diversity. Here are two from the past week, both from Asia.

A young man in Singapore:

I’ve never been exposed to an environment as blatantly sexist as the APAC media agency/ad network space at director level and above. I’d imagine that the attitude found in that space towards women is similar to what the elite of Rome had before its collapse. It seems to be the norm and everyone is OK with it. Also, many of those guys are married, but the behaviour is unlike any bachelor I know. I hope you have great success in creating awareness and driving change in this matter.

A woman in Hong Kong:

Your voice encourages people to speak up. I was contacted by a company interested in me. I thought I’d like to learn more about it, looked up its site and saw a leadership team of all white people—seven men and one woman. It is ridiculous. So I decided to reply with what exactly I think: I said I only consider companies that demonstrate diversity in the leadership team. Thank you for inspiring women and people in general for a more equal world.

Asia: You can be far more innovative and creative, do less work and make more money, with just one simple action. Take a long hard look at your business. Identify every area of it that is all-male, especially white-male dominated, and CHANGE THAT. Fast. Start with your leadership team and board, immediately. Then work your way down the company. Diversity drives innovation. Women challenge the status quo because we are never it. Stop missing out on female creativity and diverse perspectives. You’ll find a revelation of how much fresh, diverse thinking can transform your business instantly, drive a healthier culture and make you way more money. Then you’ll really own the future.

That a ‘bamboo ceiling’ exists was apparent for one Hong Kong local who works at a large tech company and agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity. Attending a recent marketing breakfast, he noticed that out of 60 or so people, only 15 weren’t white, a stumbling block for someone, like him, of Chinese ethnicity. Worse, in another company where he previously worked, expat regional directors dubbed local staff ‘maids’.

Salary gaps reflect the preferential treatment of both expats and men. “There might be one guy from overseas, but his salary can probably cover the team’s salary. Then there is the process of career development and promotion [when] there isn’t really a transparent process of getting through the ranks,” says the tech worker. Women, too, get a hard deal. In 2014 in Japan, men earned on average 28 percent more than women; in South Korea, they earned 39 percent more.

Unconscious bias has its role to play. “Studies repeatedly show that the advancement of women in the workplace is hampered by deeply entrenched stereotypes that associate stereotypically masculine traits with effective leadership,” says Felicity Menzies, an expert on unconscious bias and founder of Culture Plus Consulting.


So what can be done to increase diversity, retain talent and battle the unconscious bias? Companies can tackle issues by unconscious bias training, upping accountability and scrutinising the existing company culture, says Menzies. Positive discrimination is another route that, used judiciously, “has the potential to kickstart or even force a faster pace against discrimination”, notes Annie Collins-Tait, an Asia-based coach to Fortune 500 CEOs and boards.

Felicity Menzies

DiversityDirectory’s Soulodre is wary, however: “No woman wants to be appointed for the sake of her gender … When women are appointed to a role based primarily on their gender, it sends the wrong signal to the board and leadership team, and may dilute her ability to contribute and/or be heard.”

Soulodre recommends a three-pronged strategy. First, top-down endorsement for change made by a company’s senior management. Second, support services such as flexible working hours, generous parental leave, work-at-home days and subsidised childcare. China, for example, is one Asian country that has higher representation of women in the workforce, largely because childcare is accessible and affordable—something that companies can mimic. And third, programs that focus on mentoring and skill-building.

In terms of attracting bright local talent, some agencies—following LinkedIn’s example—are holding ‘bring-your-parents-to-work days’ to try and educate older generations on what is entailed in a marketing career.

Yet cultural norms can still persist, says Soulodre: “While we know that a diverse group of senior management and directors is more likely to raise questions, challenge the status quo and groupthink or spot new opportunities. In Asia, diversity and inclusion is often perceived as a ‘Western concept’ that requires an approach and set of behaviours that can often be at odds with domestic cultural norms.”

Sarah Pruscino, regional HR director for MullenLowe Group APAC, agrees that employees are often scared to go against what the boss says, something that needs even more attention in a diverse workplace. “Whether you’re a woman or LGBT or whatever, one of the biggest challenges is providing an environment and space—even if against the cultural norm—to disagree with your colleagues. We are trying to overcome by having more collaborative groups,” she says.

One example of how a diverse team can create winning advertising is MullenLowe’s advert ‘Dirt erases differences’ for Unilever’s Breeze detergent, which was screened online on all the brand’s platforms. The ad was created by a mixture of nationalities from the Singapore office including global creative director Alex Okada (Brazilian), global business director Srija Chatterjee (Indian), senior art director Loh Seow Khian (Malaysian) and associate regional account director Kat Chavalitsakulchai (Thai), among others.

In the video, children—black and white; Muslim and Christian; disabled and able-bodied; male and female—walk up a football field on which, in large capital letters, words are scrawled in chalk on the grass including “GIRLIE”, “FOREIGNER,” “DISABLED” and “DIFFERENT”. As the kids play football, they fall and run through the words, covering themselves in red, blue and purple chalk. It ends with the catchline: ‘Dirt helps us learn to embrace our differences.’

Meanwhile, in Japan—one of the most homogenous societies in the world—Ogilvy & Mather Japan is attempting to bring experience and new ideas from outside the country. One strategy is their Miami Ad School Internship, launched in 2014 in Tokyo. Interns, sourced from the United States, help provide fresh thinking: two interns have subsequently been hired from the most recent program.

Law, for one, would like to see a day in Asia “where we don’t place our mugshots in resumes.” She runs Goodstuph on a “strict code of meritocracy. One is never judged by his or her last name, education or family background. Just the work.”

“Everyone wants to work where they know they are really wanted and valued,” agrees Gallop. Ultimately, “innovation, disruption and creativity are the results of many different mindsets, perspectives, insights, backgrounds and worldviews, coming together in constructive creative conflict to get to a far better, more creative and more lucrative place than any one of us can get to on our own.”

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