This article is part of a content series on diversity, equity, and inclusion for Campaign Asia-Pacific’s Women to Watch, created in partnership with Essence.
What does true diversity mean in the context of media? Discussions about the all-important ‘D’ in ‘DEI’ have historically focused on the depictions of race, gender and sexuality in creative mediums. And while representation is significant — and should not be taken for granted — the creative assets are just one half of a campaign. It’s equally important to consider inclusion when determining how a campaign is disseminated.
We sat down with Athena Bughao, vice president for media activation, APAC, and Yasser Ismail, head of strategy, APAC, at Essence for a fireside chat about the importance of diversity within media planning and buying.
The traditional expectation for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in advertising is that the onus is on creative; the truth is that it’s very much a media purchasing issue too. What’s the point of having a beautifully produced spot with minority creators if those ad dollars are just going to mega-companies whose activities are in discord with brand messaging?
Athena Bughao, vice president for media activation, APAC: The question tackles two components: creative and channel. Brand messaging, which is typically in the creative, comes with certain goals and KPIs hinged on revenue, performance, and brand awareness. There will need to be a balance between the presence of these ads in certain channels across different types of platforms. The key differentiating factor here between a well-executed inclusive campaign and a mediocre one is authenticity. Forced representation in creative will only fall flat on its face without the right framework and research to make sure that representation is accurate. Those things have to work together.
Yasser Ismail, head of strategy, APAC: While creative work is very key for DEI when it comes to advertising, I think what’s even more important is knowing the nuances of a minority audience. Before ideation starts, we have to conduct due diligence and have the right knowledge of the audiences we want to engage. Athena is also spot on when it comes to goals and KPIs — a one-size-fits-all approach to measurement or ROI might not work for the diverse audience that you’re going for.
On the flip side, isn’t it a good idea to get your ad in front of as many eyeballs as possible? How do you balance the benefits of a wider audience and impact with the goal of diversification?
Athena: Diversification can be a critical factor in marketing success, but it has to be managed alongside the brand’s goals and measurability. There’s no single customer that uses one channel these days — people are on multiple platforms all the time. Having worked on brands big and small, goal achievement and measurement are also considerations. When a budget is spread too thin, there’s no way to read or evaluate performance; there’s little measurable gain if you have a hundred publishers on a tiny, tiny budget.
This is where big players in the market pitch most of their value. And that makes sense in some respects — if this publisher has the highest reach and the most inventory, then in some goals and KPIs, this makes the most sense to us. But when we talk about diversity, if the intent is to target smaller publishers of a specific audience feature, then a set of niche publishers may make the most sense. So again, consider what the brand wants to achieve. Diversity in itself as a goal will actually create that diversification in a plan.
Yasser: DEI marketing should go beyond what we know as the norm. If a brand truly lives and breathes DEI, it’s key that they not only market a product for DEI, but truly build a product for the audience itself. Is getting as many eyeballs on your ad important? Yes. But DEI is about championing an audience that’s under-represented and we show our faith to them by making it all about them — not just from a campaign perspective, but also within the products. While it’s a very good thing that brands are putting more money for DEI into marketing budgets, they should also put funds into research and development, and understand how they can make their product friendlier to the audiences that they’re trying to represent and engage.
In your words, what is an inclusive media plan?
Athena: An inclusive media plan is when the campaign is built in such a way that it illustrates the full representation of different audiences and groups, which enables their connection with brands. Where possible, we avoid the impression of some groups feeling left out. One cool way I’ve seen this brought to life is in makeup. I used to live in the Philippines, where fair skin was the goal. I’m not on the fair side and neither are my daughters — so it has been a pain for me historically to blend complexion products to match my skin tone. But now as makeup brands have started to expand their colour spectrums to include more shades of brown, I call that inclusivity. That’s being inclusive in terms of product marketing as well as product development.
Yasser: From a strategist’s point of view, an inclusive media plan is really led by data and insights that unlock how we can truly engage and affect all audiences. It’s a plan that really understands well the nuances of the audiences that we’re going for, but also highlights under-represented audiences for that specific product or campaign, even if they aren’t in the brief. And I’ve been in a lot of positions where I have challenged a brief and shared a new audience to a client that’s backed by data and insights. For example, when working on a campaign for a gaming client, we identified a previously untapped demographic for them — female gamers in Japan and Korea — and made them a priority. The brand had to do things out of the norm and find distinctive ways to engage this audience, but the campaign turned out to be extremely successful and unlocked a whole new world for them.
What kind of data points and sets are Essence considering when creating an inclusive media plan?
Athena: We’ve been very fortunate to be able to leverage machine learning and platform algorithms to define the signals of interest in audiences, so when we build plans, we’re less inclined to exclude audiences in terms of gender, age, or location. Our planning is more based on behavioural signals that lead people to a certain action. We try to ensure that there’re no assumptions made about the audiences, so the communication has to be straightforward, the benefits have to be clear, and language has to be free from certain slang or references and verbiage that might discriminate against a group of people.
Yasser: I totally agree that we should make zero assumptions when it comes to audiences. As a strategist, my role is to ensure that the planners and the activation team are always equipped with as many data points and insights as possible to make an informed choice. I don’t have any caps usually, but I try to be as open as possible. There will be some guardrails, but not too many, because we try to always think outside of the box — and the only way for us to get there is to ensure that we consider as much data as possible.
How do you ensure scalability when buying ad space from minority or endemic publishers?
Athena: When we run marketing campaigns, we tend to talk about how to increase or decrease performance or costs as we respond to changes in implementation and demand. If we think that way, scalability becomes a question of volume and elasticity, but we can also vary scalability in terms of variety. When you engage local publishers, you actually integrate a lot of local influences into your plan. To use an analogy, when you shop in a local store, you enrich a local economy. It’s the same thing for marketing. As you engage more local publishers, you actually create that drive in that economy as well.
Yasser: Scalability in DEI can be a complex construct. I think firstly and most importantly, we’ve to go all the way back to the brief and really set the right objectives when we build out our plans and ask ourselves, “Is marketing to a smaller audience okay in this campaign?”. Having the right objective is key. That said, there’re also huge audience segments that are considered diverse, where scalability will not be a problem. They have huge upside potential. But I think it’s important to note that a small audience isn’t necessarily less valuable — depending on the objective, it might actually be more valuable than a larger one. Scalability does not need to be the only consideration point when venturing into DEI.
How are you making sure that you’re catering to the minorities featured in your campaigns? When brands tick the representation box for optics but fail to roll out their campaigns on niche or endemic platforms, isn’t it just a form of tokenisation?
Athena: It’s great when companies infuse diverse representation into their marketing, but their policies and processes have to align with that too. Yasser alluded to this a little bit earlier, but consistency is very important. When campaigns are consistent about representation, as business values are within a company, it will shine through. Audiences these days are smarter than people give them credit for. In marketing reports, we see consumers presented as metrics like reach and frequency numbers, but audiences these days also have a voice — and a strong one at that. With the advent of social media, consumers have the opportunity to voice out the discrepancy that they observe between advertising and a company’s representation. So, it’s important to show commitment to empowering the diverse voices that already exist within an organisation beyond the marketing campaign.
Yasser: For me, I think knowledge is really key here. At Essence, we try our absolute best to equip our clients with knowledge and insights to really understand the audiences that we’re catering to. You know, we invest a lot of time and resources, both in quality and quantity, to really understand cultural nuances so that we don’t make the mistake of tokenisation. I also agree with Athena on consistency. You know, one campaign will never be enough. We need to do the work in the back end to really understand what is best for the campaign itself. So consistency and knowledge will all be key for this.
Brand safety can sometimes be at odds with bolder DEI-driven goals. How can advertisers make sure that their brand safety and DEI agendas are in lockstep with one another?
Athena: Brand safety, as I define it, would be ensuring that your marketing efforts do not damage your brand’s reputation or equity. I don’t really see how DEI will go against that. While it’s true that there are potentially strong opinions around certain themes and topics, when a brand makes a firm position one way or another, then it becomes a form of strength rather than a point of opposition. Consistency here is the key, because we want to make sure your brand safety and DEI agenda are in lockstep with each other. I think if you’re consistent as a company and in your campaigns, you can definitely achieve that.
Yasser: We live in a different world now. I think there are a lot of DEI themes that are more acceptable to the APAC audience now than before. So I agree that both are able to exist without affecting one another.
Curation has held up as an example of how brands can action their DEI goals due to its hand-built nature. However, human curators, by nature, have unconscious biases. How can brands adjust their diversity buying plans to accommodate or address this?
Athena: People by nature are creatures who will perceive and understand the world within their own experiences. I once heard the saying that the truth is helpless against perception. At the end of the day, it is our duty as marketers to expand people’s view of the world and introduce them to as many concepts in a way that’s non-intrusive, but also non-offensive. That’s easier said than done, but it’s within a marketer’s remit to provide opportunities for brands to be open about their positions and integrate them in an evolving landscape. It’s quite a coincidence that the first step of the marketing funnel and the first step of the psychological transformation is the same: awareness. We’re in the business of people and people’s perceptions of the world — and specifically, adjusting how people perceive that world and the brands within it. We can be drivers or blockers of change. Personally, I’d rather be a force of good, so infusing diversity into marketing is a great way to achieve this.
Yasser: Adding to Athena’s point about the nature of humans in general, yes, we do have perceptions. You know, being someone of Asian ethnicity, I’ve grown up with a lot of experiences based on that. But I think it’s important now, with the advent of change and with social media, that we start building a culture of change and acceptance for all. And brands need to cultivate that within themselves. As agencies, it’s our responsibility to help them understand it by giving them the data and information that’s needed to understand that, so that they can also start living and breathing it. I think building that ecosystem between brands and organisations that they work with, like us agencies, is going to be key moving forward.