Leila Fataar
Oct 22, 2022

Don’t be fooled by the optics. Culture-washing is all around us

Adland has the power to push things forward in progressing diversity.

Don’t be fooled by the optics. Culture-washing is all around us

We are in a time of radical transformation – political, societal, technological – the list goes on. For us, this is culture – the stuff of life, the fabric of our reality, a global connector of communities. Culture is how we all communicate, what we wear, eat, see and listen to. It's how we behave and what influences us. Culture is living and breathing and changes all the time.

Brands, industries, products and spaces we didn't imagine could ever disappear, will... and fast. Because, if a brand or company can't (or doesn't) read, analyse and address the right shifts for it, it can easily lose that all important cultural relevance and become redundant very, very quickly.

The new values-focused consumer and employee speak both the language of meaning, not only profit, and they will work for and buy brands that share those values. It is no longer acceptable for organisations to sit on the fence – staying silent or culture-washing is almost worse.

Since the Black Lives Matter movement, businesses have had to take a long hard look at themselves to identify their gaps in diversity and the reasons for this, and from the explosion of DE&I activity since then, we can only assume the gap is massive – from C-suite all the way through the business. And when the memes go viral, you know it's a live conversation.

And equally, when HR "diversity" initiatives become fodder for comedy, it's a live conversation.


A post shared by Kae Kurd (@kaekurd)

But in this golden age of DE&I, we always, if not more than ever, need to look critically at how we can ensure the end result matches the objectives. This starts with clarification of the terms.

DE&I – or diversity, equity and inclusion – are usually lumped together, and in theory they could be... but unfortunately, in practice they definitely should not be conflated as they need to be approached in different ways to ensure long term success and change.

Diversity is a broad term describing people on their intersectional range of experiences and backgrounds, based on characteristics such as gender, sex, socioeconomic background, cultural upbringing, religion, education, sexual orientation, ethnicity and neurodiversity. And just to be clear, this transcends purely race.

Inclusivity is ensuring that all those people are not only represented, but also thriving because of their unique differences. This is manifested in equality in opportunities, resources and treatment both in the workplace and also with external partners.

Equity is a driver of inclusivity – recognising that people's intersectional experiences and backgrounds differ vastly and that this can affect their starting points. Some people were never given the opportunities to even be at that "equal and inclusive" stage, so it is great to see the green shoots of equity driving initiatives in the industry, creating fair access, opportunity, and advancement.

I believe DE&I done right breeds business success. My personal experiences have proved that a variety of perspectives and positive internal culture drives innovation, performance and growth – a win-win.

So what does it all mean for the current state of adland?

For me, advertising, marketing and comms have the power to push things forward. While there has been good progress in diversity (especially in output such as the variety of representation in campaigns) and even some of the equity buckets, especially around access to the industry (night schools, internships etc), the inclusivity bucket at brands, companies and agencies is where the work still really needs to happen across all levels. It's inclusion in the input both in-house and agency side – insights, ideation, creative, production, etc and crucially, in senior decision-making.

The Advertising Association's All In Census published in 2021 is pretty clear:

  • "One in three of our black colleagues in advertising didn't feel they belong in the advertising industry"
  • "1% black representation in the advertising c-suite"
  • "32% of black industry individuals we spoke to said they likely to leave the industry due to do discrimination"

It's deep, complex and nuanced, and part of the process is asking yourself the hard questions, and facing and addressing the uncomfortable truths about yourself and the business you are part of.

A big blocker is unconscious bias and stereotypes, enabling the perception of women of colour being collectively labelled as "difficult or aggressive" or people of colour not being "team players" if we challenge the status quo or an invalid view because we have different reference points.

Example questions: are there enough black people in key leadership roles throughout the business, with decision-making powers? If not, why not? Are we continuing the work beyond Black History Month?

For the limited POC who are in these positions:

  • Are they empowered within their roles to decolonise old-world policies on important areas such as hiring, internal progression and/or procurement. Are their opinions listened to and actioned?
  • Have they been placed there for the optics and to tick a box in a world where things have changed and organisations need to be seen to be doing the right thing?
  • Have they been put in positions of power because they reflect the traditional structures that have so long kept the status quo as is?

And, ultimately, should these individuals be the spokespeople for all POC – with the expectation from both white and communities of colour? After all, the homogenisation of communities is problematic too and erases intersectionality.

It's a personal choice, not the job of marginalised communities in the workplace to teach everyone how to be inclusive – there are countless tools, books, podcasts, and lists available to self-educate on how to practise anti-racism in your everyday actions.

We talk about organisations taking action, but at the end of the day a person's values have an impact on their professional life and those around them – and just because your company may be on the way to being more diverse, the mindset to foster inclusivity (and equity) is not a given.

Leila Fataar is founder of Platform 13.

Campaign UK

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