Asad Dhunna
May 3, 2024

How to fix the deprioritisation of DE&I

There’s much evidence that DE&I is moving down adland's agenda. But it doesn’t—and shouldn’t—have to be this way, says the chief executive of The Unmistakables.

How to fix the deprioritisation of DE&I

Leading a business right now is fraught with challenges. Those in charge of teams and P&Ls, large and small, are feeling the pressure and the complexity of commerce as the shape of capitalism shifts around the world. Top tables are grappling with depressed spending, heightened expectations from talent, new working patterns, ongoing global wars, political unrest and artificial intelligence.

Is it really any wonder that DE & I has been deprioritised and is moving backwards?

Recent features in Campaign highlight this. Various data points from the IPA and other studies, combined with anecdotes from “BAMEous” industry leaders, suggest problems at all levels. It’s not diverse enough at the top, it isn’t inclusive for all, and woe betide anyone who questions initiatives that are scratching surfaces and not changing systems. The data shows steps backwards, as reported in the most recent School Reports.

Rather than fall victim to stasis, there are three things anyone leading a business in this industry needs to do if they really want to set trends and lead the conversation rather than just follow them. After all, isn’t that what advertising has the power to do?

1. Set a definition of DE&I

Let’s play a game of word association. You’re about to read a word. I want you to think of the first word that comes to mind before reading on.

The word I want you to think of is red.

What word comes to mind?

Did you think of danger?

Of traffic lights?

Of apples?

Or something completely different?

The same word or term in any business can mean completely different things to different people. Without stopping to check, people in the same team or business are having a conversation where two or more people are thinking of completely different things.

This is exactly what happens with DE&I.

Many in the industry haven’t defined what DE&I means to their business and everyday ways of working. All too often, this is shaped by individual points of views or characteristics, rather than something intrinsically linked to positive outcomes for people, planet or profit. Without this shared definition, underrepresented groups might think it’s all for them to carry, which is happening and exacerbating the problem.

While there have been increases in representation at all levels according to School Reports, that alone is not the be-all and end-all when it comes to what success looks like. A quick glance at the current cabinet demonstrates that representation does not necessarily lead to growth or progression as a nation.

What's more, the laser focus on representation runs the risk of alienating others who aren't factored into the statistics. It could leave a feeling that DE&I is not relevant to them, which is happening and adding to the “woke” narratives. This is fuelling the trough of disillusion we’re in as DE&I follows the Gartner Hype Cycle, we all got very excited but now we're trying to work out how to integrate things.

A definition for DE&I is needed as the microscope of 2020 linked DEI to race and ethnicity. Conversations soon evolved to intersectionality and, more recently, to the “diversity du jour” topics of class and neurodiversity. The constant adding and ticking of boxes is creating distractions, so spend the time to really get to grips with what DE&I means for your business and how it applies to day-to-day decision-making.

2. Gather the right DEIvidence

The lack of an aligned definition in turn creates a lack of evidence and accountability. The UK government’s Inclusion at Work panel spoke to 100 people representing 55 organisations that represent many thousands of people in the public, private and charity sectors.

The panel found that many organisations have made progress around diversity statistics, that is, how many people from different demographics are in the organisation. However, they do not collect inclusion-related data that surfaces how people feel and are treated. The lack of holistic data holds back progress and measurement around impact, and leaves us stuck on representation alone. 

This is something we’ve been working to tackle since 2018 through Inside Out Inclusion. Taking a data-led approach to inclusion that is steeped in behavioural science has allowed us to identify how and where DE&I works and doesn’t work within any organisation’s operating system. It’s not just about boosting representation and putting traditionally underrepresented groups into the fold and saying it’s job done.

More often than not it’s either a lack of vision, direction and definition for DE&I (see point 1) or it’s a lack of psychological safety for people to feel like they can make mistakes safely. Making mistakes is crucial to the creative process, however, our data shows that it’s often underrepresented groups that are most afraid to make mistakes due to limiting beliefs and/or systems and structures that mean more critical treatment at work. This is coming through in how staffing changes and decisions are being made today at a time when everything is being squeezed.

3. Put DE&I in its place

When I started out in the industry in 2010, talk about DE&I was mainly contained to mutterings of equal opportunities. When I started The Unmistakables in 2018, it was about learning and development, typically nested in a “people” or HR function.

Then 2020 came as an accelerant and elevated it to the board, with the need for all members of executive teams to understand the role DE&I plays across customer and colleague retention and growth. Businesses we’ve worked with, such as Cannes Lions and Mother, have made this a priority, ensuring senior leaders have the understanding and knowledge to guide their businesses, and are, in turn, supported by an internal DE&I leader or leaders upon whom the sole onus does not fall.

This leads to the need and impetus for change to become more than one person’s or department’s responsibilityDE&I becomes part of a company’s membrane, rather than a moment in time to catch up with.

Economic pressures have instigated multiple restructures across the board, and DE&I can either be seen like dustneeding to settle and then be cleared awayor like gold dust, something that once you have, you never want to let go of.

Asad Dhunna is chief executive of The Unmistakables.

Campaign UK

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