Rahul Sachitanand
Jun 9, 2021

Expertise, understanding and action needed to lift DEI in APAC

CAMPAIGN LEADING CHANGE: Senior agency holding group executives remain positive about improving DEI performance, but seek expert help to guide their efforts in this field.

Expertise, understanding and action needed to lift DEI in APAC

Despite the improvements the marcomms industry has made over the past few years on the DEI front, the last 12 months have been a reality check for an industry that had hoped to make much better progress than was revealed in the fifth Campaign-Kantar APAC DEI survey. While regional agency holding company leaders remained optimistic about the industry’s investment and efforts on improving, they admitted that adland still had a long way to go.

"I find it quite confronting and disappointing that we have not made as much progress as we would have liked,” Leigh Terry, CEO APAC, Mediabrands said simply to attendees at Campaign Leading Change.

Ashutosh Srivastava, CEO APAC, GroupM, contended that the industry that companies had taken a lot of effort and raised awareness, more needed to be done. “We still have a long way. ... There is a lot of effort being made, and there is a lot more awareness. Looking at the results of this survey, I would say it is a long journey and there is lot of distance to cover,” he added.
Ashish Bhasin, CEO, APAC, Dentsu, agreed that despite some gains, the conversion of these early efforts to results on the ground had some way to go. “The sense that I get is…most organisations at least the larger ones are pretty aware of the issues and have tried to communicate about it,” he contended. “But this will only work if DEI becomes part of the organisation’s DNA…at best this is work in progress.”

The need for expertise and action
As part of that progress, the leaders also acknowledged a willingness and need to bring in external help to put their DEI efforts back on track.

“I don't think there is a lack or intent or awareness, but perhaps there is a lack of expertise,” Bhasin said. “The whole DEI area is not where you can have ad-hoc champions like you used to in the early days. You need domain specialists, people who have understood and handled complex situations across markets." 

Dentsu has recently announced the appointment of Rashmi Vikram as its chief equity officer in APAC, as a pointer of things to come for the industry and other leaders agreed that hiring these experts was essential to improve the industry’s DEI scorecard.

As companies in this industry seek to build out more equitable workplaces, Srivastava said the focus should be on creating offices that are safe for everyone and where everyone feels respected. “And, that is more important and a bigger priority than saying this kills spontaneity.”

One of the challenges for people—and a factor hobbling DEI performance—is the ability to call out misconduct at the workplace. While movements such as Black Lives Matter and Me Too have helped people speak out, the ability of organisations to listen to this feedback is uneven in APAC, GroupM’s Srivastava reckoned. “When you call it out, you have to take action, so it reassures people that these things are appreciated by the organisation and it results in action.”

Cross-gender awareness

The issue of awareness (or lack of it), especially among men is something that stood out in this DEI report. According to the findings, 65% of men believe all genders are equally respected, but only 44% of women agree with them. This means many men aren’t noticing discrimination around them.

“The level of awareness has improved, but I think they need to be sensitive to it and a lot of this is cultural,” said Dentsu’s Bhasin. “It has to be a continuous process where we keep sensitising people—we have to stop thinking if we sensitise men or women—it is not a tick-in-the-box and you’re done.”

Terry pointed out the ongoing need for men to remain part of the active conversations, like Campaign Leading Change. “Any event needs to be truly inclusive to discuss challenges at the workplace,” said Terry of Mediabrands. “Everyone needs to be part of the conversation.”

As organisations seek to drive this change, creating understanding across genders is key, argued Trezelene Chan, managing director, Kantar. “We know that unconscious bias training can work and that combined with (the changing) company culture is when we’re going to start seeing change.”

Hiring and measurement

One of the challenges for organisations as they strive to improve their DEI metrics is the ongoing debate between hiring for stronger diversity versus recruiting purely on merit. “My advice to hiring managers is that if it's an issue and balance is lacking, then even if someone is 70-80% there, you have to make the extra effort and make sure they are 100% ready,” said GroupM’s Srivastava. “As Ashish said, diversity is fundamental to producing great work.”

Terry of Mediabrands said that it is important that you have a diverse pool of talent that you are assessing across common criteria and giving people an opportunity to be put forward for it, rather than see opportunities go by. “If people feel they should have a shot (at the role), they should have it,” he stressed.

However, at the end of the day, companies need to define and measure metrics for the improvement of DEI and link it to the KPIs of top management to be truly successful, GroupM’s Srivastava said.  “If you can’t measure it you’re just doing lip service to all this,” he added. “The only way to measure progress is to make sure those measures are in place and people are rewarded for hitting those milestones.”

Campaign Asia

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