Improving diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace is a constant work in progress, and recent findings indicate that this rings particularly true in the brand and agency world. A newly published global census
by the World Federation of Advertisers — conducted across the ad industry and attracting close to 13,000 respondents from 91 countries — presented lacklustre results on the progress of DEI compared to a similar survey from two years ago. It demonstrates the need for companies to continue driving action, going beyond simply implementing inclusive measures to evolving them, and highlighting the need to continue investing in DEI programmes.
Keeping these challenges in mind, Campaign Asia-Pacific reunites with EssenceMediacom for Diversity Talks 2023 to shed light on how companies in the region are bridging the gap between different cultures through cultural intelligence, the practical inclusion initiatives leaders can put in place to support mental health and DEI, and how to put DEI into practice in products and services. Here are some of the key takeaways from the event.
Developing cultural intelligence over emotional intelligence
(Clockwise from top-left) Robert Sawatzky, editorial director, Campaign Asia-Pacific; Melissa Chen, head of marketing, Uber Taiwan; Eva Yao, VP, head of business excellence and sustainability for China & digital transformation lead, APAC, Bayer Consumer Health; Wendy Siew, co-managing director, Japan, EssenceMediacom
As the number of people returning to offices rises, companies are experiencing a resetting of work culture. Employees who have spent the last few years implementing different work styles are now expecting a higher level of inclusive culture at their workplaces, as well as increased awareness of DEI to help them overcome various challenges and fully participate in work life on an equal basis with their colleagues.
Looking at some of the practical ways in which companies can support employees through inclusion, Wendy Siew (EssenceMediacom) said that “cultural intelligence, beyond emotional intelligence, is super important in terms of leadership.” Siew — who spoke from personal experience as a native of multicultural Singapore working in Japan, a comparatively “ethnically and culturally homogenous” country — stressed the balance of connecting with local colleagues and embracing foreign colleagues who were brought into the business.
Melissa Chen (Uber) noted that cultural intelligence builds a “successful foundation for every global business to unlock the best synergy from the power of a multicultural team,” citing The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business by Erin Meyer as a practical tool to “set a basic fundamental acknowledgement of the national nuances” relating to preferred communication styles, leadership types, and even decision-making processes, although generalisations and stereotypes should be avoided.
Building psychological safety is also a priority to help team members feel empowered. Eva Yao (Bayer) underscored a need for more transparency around how team members like to work so companies can “get the best out of everyone by getting people to understand you,” adding that it is up to the leaders to create an environment that allows employees to feel that they can be themselves.
Acknowledging personal differences is important, regardless of individual backgrounds, said Chen. At its core, the key is to “pay attention to our people. Understand the individual in front of you — that’s the very important first step to build respect and trust.”
Faced with the problem of agility and need to move quickly in a fast-paced work setting, Siew noted that change has to be gradual, especially in a market where there is emphasis on preparation and attention to detail over improvisation. Good governance and setting frameworks that consider the comfort zones of team members is crucial. Acknowledging the speeds and processes of different teams is crucial too, added Yao.
“Great minds don’t think alike,” Chen chimed in. “We appreciate the diversity. We encourage people to pursue something bigger than their individual or own functional team, so we can unleash the power of the team together. As leaders, we also have the responsibility to encourage a safe space to celebrate failures — the reason why people become perfectionists is because in human nature we might think only triumph and success are worth celebrating. But if we can learn from the failures to make them meaningful, and we intentionally celebrate that, it can facilitate a safer environment for people to step away from perfectionism that might hinder innovation.”
Work/life: Where mental health and DEI intersect
(Clockwise from top-left) Ai Suzuki, head of brand, Uber Japan; Connie Cheung, chief product officer, RD Technologies; Minnie Wang, senior reporter, Greater China, Campaign Asia-Pacific; Sujatha Maniya, chief people officer, APAC, EssenceMediacom
Mental health and DEI are closely linked to the overall well-being and morale of staff. What are brands and agencies in the marketing-communications space doing to improve their diversity, equity, and inclusion programmes, and how can they serve as inspiration?
Supporting mental well-being in the workplace became essential during the pandemic, with some companies developing contingency programmes for coverage while others created sustainable plans for the long term. Sujatha Maniya (EssenceMediacom) recalled the challenge HR professionals faced in attending to the increased needs of employees while juggling their own mental health as well. It led to the Mental Health Allies scheme as a way to “support colleagues and encourage conversations before getting to a crisis point,” all driven by volunteers who receive training on “the fundamentals of mental health, how to listen without judgement, how to point people to correct services and resources, and, most importantly, how to keep our people safe,” resulting in 250 Allies globally and 28 in APAC.
Normalising conversations about mental health and encouraging openness need to be prioritised to “create a culture where people feel comfortable talking about their experiences without fear of being judged,” Sujatha said. Using her own illness and recovery as an example, she drew attention to the importance of psychological safety and how “powerful messages and support from bosses, team members, and colleagues” can give people in a professional setting the confidence to seek support and see it “as a strength, not a weakness.”
In Japan, Ai Suzuki (Uber) detailed holistic company programmes that “allow employees to really take the driver’s seat, not just in career growth, but for their lives in general,” which include personalised coaching and therapy sessions, reimbursed gym memberships, and wellness treatments, among others. Perks aside, flexibility is one of the greatest benefits as it allows workers the freedom to “make adjustments that work best at an individual level.”
In terms of promoting DEI in the workplace, Suzuki also spoke about the workshops offered to managers to help many “become more mindful and respectful not just to different cultures and values, but in ways of thinking.” It applies to personal circumstances, too — as a mother of two, Suzuki grappled with guilt over leaving work early to take care of her family, but her colleagues have helped her realise that work is just a part of life. “You’re not living to work. I am being extra mindful to demonstrate this myself to let the team and other women in the organisation know that this is actually the best way to bring out the best in you,” she said.
Improving DEI comes down to the simple things, too. Connie Cheung (RD Technologies) shared an example in which HR took the initiative to embrace diversity by noticing cultural needs and providing for them — in this case, creating a dedicated quiet space for a practising Muslim colleague to conduct his daily prayers. “Instead of just a programme, it’s the colleagues or people taking action who have a greater voice.”
Amplify those voices even further through regular surveys, suggested Sujatha, and “check in with our employees, where are they in terms of their mental health, and get feedback. In launching a survey, the hardest part is usually to acknowledge and accept the feedback that you’re receiving. Put up an action plan and stay committed to it.”
Embedding DEI into products and services
(Clockwise from top-left) Rupert McPetrie, CEO, APAC, EssenceMediacom; Shawn Lim, editor, technology & media, Campaign Asia-Pacific; Sumeli Chatterjee, head of integrated marketing & experiences (IMX), India & Southwest Asia, The Coca-Cola Company
As DEI moves beyond the workplace and into consumer narratives, brands now have to play catch-up to reflect the true spirit of diversity, equity, and inclusivity in their storytelling.
Exploring how technology can empower DEI and examining the barriers that digital advancements and AI can create, Rupert McPetrie (EssenceMediacom) pointed out the incredible opportunities around tech as a “democratising force to enable different, underrepresented communities,” but also the inherent tensions. “We are what we eat,” he said, referring to the input that leads to the output, and the systemic biases built into its development by its creators.
However, AI has the potential to be adaptive and adoptive “when the user understands the limits and the intent, and if we instruct it to be more representative to pull in diversity of thinking and views from underrepresented communities. We’ve got to demand that this technology works well for everybody, and then make the choices around it,” said McPetrie.
Putting safeguards into products and services is a vital step for companies, but designing inclusive content and communication for consumers is significant as well. “Brands bring in the superpower of storytelling through content and communication. Biases need to be eradicated at every stage, including ideation, creation, collaboration, and execution,” said Sumeli Chatterjee (The Coca-Cola Company). An authentic, successful storytelling narrative must address all audiences. “Find the right set of stories and tell it the right way,” she emphasised while calling for “clarity of vision”, mentioning organisations should embed DEI into business goals, and not culture KPIs.
In the digital world, data privacy and security is another hot topic, as the advantages of using insights to create more relevant messaging and content for customers demonstrate the value of media and marketing. As the regulatory environment continues to evolve and the industry moves towards a permission-based model, companies have an “obligation to take good care and respect the privacy around data,” said McPetrie. Taking into account the fragility of trust, McPetrie advocated for asking for permission, rather than forgiveness, and collecting only what you need in order to design “the right experiences for consumers.”
Chatterjee also pointed out the importance of listening and acting on the feedback received, and using that as a tool to promote DEI in services and products, and understand the cultural narratives that audiences care about. “Know your consumers and know their natural ecosystems,” she stressed, and impart training to employees using a leadership framework, so inclusion is embedded across the value chain. “Dial up the attribute of curiosity, because the best part of having a diverse workforce is for it to fuel a culture of mutual learning and develop a native habit of continuous learning and experimentation.”
McPetrie agreed, suggesting to “make the learning and development itself fully inclusive, fully accessible. We have a responsibility, when we go to market, to ensure that the plans that we make are inclusive and representative of the communities that we’re active in.”