Jessica Goodfellow
Aug 6, 2021

Equality in APAC a 'long while away': Marketing leaders discuss whether diversity efforts have plateaued

Former Women to Watch winners provide their thoughts on whether diversity, equity and inclusion momentum has stalled in the region, and how businesses can create real and lasting change.


The ad industry has a habit of talking about its biggest challenges and doing little to address them. The same is true for diversity, equity and inclusion. More conversations about inequalities within the APAC industry are not necessarily leading to real and sustainable change.

According to a survey conducted by Campaign Asia-Pacific and Kantar in June, there was an uptick in the past year in companies outlining equality across all genders, backgrounds and races as a corporate value, as well as increases in organisations conducting surveys on diversity and having a DEI committee or a nominated DEI leader. But at the same time, more than two-thirds of respondents said that their organisation’s policies around diversity have not improved the situation in their workplaces in the past two years. 


Final nomination deadline: August 13, 11.59 pm HK/SG

So what is causing this disconnect? Why is it that businesses are able to identify areas they need to improve, but don't necessarily follow this up with action? Campaign asks a group of Women to Watch winners from 2020, all of whom are passionate about elevating the industry, to provide their thoughts.

Eunice Tan, partner and head of strategy, The Secret Little Agency:

It seems that two types of roles have become rather 'trendy'—especially in the past 24 months—that of chief sustainability officer and chief diversity officer (or title equivalents). Recently, we have seen a greater consciousness emerge towards sustainability and diversity as a whole from clients and the industry. Topics like gender equality, privilege and racial representation have permeated the consciousness of industry leaders.

While it is a good thing that conversations around corporate policies are starting to take shape and organisations are becoming more interested in what that means for workplace culture, there's so much more to be done. The communications industry has a responsibility to tell authentic stories, and shape perceptions of what diversity is. We no longer live in an era where organisations can get away with putting out communications on gender equality, diversity and representation and not 'walk the talk' in reference to their board, management teams and hiring policies. An important starting point is to simply start listening. For example, TSLA did a diversity survey across our workforce, seeking points of views on how diverse we were, the policies people felt important to implement etc—to better shape culture for the next generation of creative thinkers. We call this initiative 'Making our children proud'. Another key to making change felt is to keep things simple and real. We say that diverse backgrounds, points-of-views and interesting people make for interesting work. And so, we simply work to keep it that way.

Holly Millward, regional director, CSM Sport & Entertainment:

There is a big difference between policy and initiative progress and a long-term shift in regional and cultural mindset. There remains great commercial incentive for change, with consistent proof that more inclusive teams generate better results for business. APAC businesses have acted and it is of course encouraging to see the quantitative dial shifting in terms of diverse leadership and recognition. The last 18 months particularly has seen the APAC marcomms industry even more engaged with diversity through its work, with brands addressing social issues in the hope of standing out in the eyes of the consumer at a crucial time. These are all very positive, if very conscious noises to be making. At an industry level, the challenge is to translate noise to action, make it sustainable and work towards a default mindset. How do we do this?  By continuing to talk, share and measure the progress of the behaviours of our businesses—and of ourselves.

Min Sharon Liu, founder and MD, Clearwater Communications:

I hate to always point a finger at the pandemic, but I do believe that diversity and inclusion have taken a back seat for organisations partly because of that. No one is to blame as companies will always focus on their most pressing needs—especially in adapting to the new ways of working, maximising the productivity of the workforce, and caring for the mental wellbeing of their staff.

To create lasting real change is not an overnight task—the organisation culture needs to be reviewed in a 360-manner and for a start everyone has to see and appreciate their role in the entire organisation. Any disparities in values and experience across the different levels should be dealt with in different ways.

Sarah Emmanuel-Cheong, general manager, UltraSuperNew:

I believe efforts have plateaued and it's because everyone still sees diversity and equality as a movement. Commonly heard in board rooms, 'We have to hire diversely to hit the new policy numbers', 'We have to achieve the diversity ratio in the new memo we set out this year', 'We have to achieve equality to show people we're a progressive company', 'Once that's done, so is our job of achieving diversity.'

Equality isn't a policy change or press release. Equality is a mindset. It's going to be a long while before this becomes real, lasting and most importantly, subconsciously habitual. If greenwashing was coined as fulfilling a sustainability quota for public acknowledgement without enough authenticity to the real problem, wouldn't this be the diversity and equality equivalent?

Recruiting an even ratio of diverse talent is of course a great step and should be continued in an effort to kickstart the subconscious habit. Beyond that, these talents should be allowed to make executive contributions to further recruitment, training and culture building. Companies/agencies should take an effort with building behaviour in their organisation. That way, "diversity policies" will have a shelf life. By 2030, human behaviour should be inclusive and diverse on its own without policies and hiring guidelines to teach us what we should already know ourselves, that we are and will continue to be made equal as human beings.

Sunshine Farzan, group head of marketing and communications, Tricor Group:

Diversity efforts across APAC marcomms continue to accelerate and advance. Over the last decade working in APAC, I’ve seen a marked difference for gender equality within the insurance and financial services and professional services industries. Overall, the commitment and momentum toward gender parity remain strong and the pandemic has not distracted the movement. APAC marcomms is pushing ahead of the curve with women filling more leadership roles for both local and international brands.

As organisations increasingly commit to more female representation on boards, I expect a windfall effect for gender parity across all industry sectors and within the marcomms function in APAC.

Sze Hunn Yap, regional manager APAC, global marketing, Japan Airlines:

All efforts take time to build up into tangible results. In any movement that is gathering momentum, its imminent impact may not always be visible until it happens, so I do not think that efforts have plateaued. Every little action in the right direction counts and will eventually contribute to the change we want to see. I believe it is important for everyone in support of diversity, to continue what they do as individuals and in their communities, in a consistent and steadfast manner, to ensure it all accumulates to diversity becoming the norm.

Vanessa Rowed, head of marketing, BWS, Woolworths Group:

Although many companies have come a long way, I feel that many still have a long way to go when it comes to diversity. Over the years, I have seen an improvement in gender and racial diversity within many Australian marketing teams, however, this doesn't seem to flow into the senior leadership or executive teams within an organisation. This could be a reflection of the lack of marketers making it into the C-suite, but regardless, I continue to see executive teams with very limited racial diversity. Also, where's the advocacy for disability groups in this conversation? I'm constantly disappointed in how this group is completely left out of the diversity conversation as though they are not a minority group who are impacted by bias. However, I’m pleased that so many companies including the one I work for are taking proactive steps to create more diversity within the business and focusing on not just one individual area—such as gender, race, sexuality—but all of them. 

Vasuta Agarwal, MD of Asia-Pacific, InMobi:

I believe there has been an increased focus on gender diversity in the recent past in APAC. This acknowledgment by organisations and their leadership teams is a significant leap as grassroots efforts begin to materialise, pushing the needle for more women to emerge on an equal footing with their counterparts. This has been catalysed by a focus on merit with no perceived bias towards gender—be it for recruiting the right candidate or giving them the deserving raise and promotion.

However, going forward, to create real and lasting change considerable focus must be placed on initiatives such as mentoring of women leaders, improving gender ratio across the different levels within the organisational hierarchy and making conscious efforts to drive an organisational culture that ensures that diversity thrives.

Related Articles

Just Published

1 hour ago

WPP's Mark Read sees pay package surge

The holding company's resurgence has resulted in a near-doubling of Read's compensation.

1 hour ago

Mango and other ‘masstige’ brands shutter after ...

Counting their losses in China, affordable fashion and beauty brands are recalibrating their business strategies and turning to the US for expansion.

1 hour ago

The We ❤️ NYC campaign which didn't get much love

Brand creatives and New Yorkers alike wonder who truly owns a mark that’s become emblematic of the city itself.

2 hours ago

Mullen Lintas ropes in Meta's Ram Jayaraman as CCO ...

The creative strategist of Meta takes on the role previously held by Garima Khandelwal, who has moved on from the company.