Rahul Sachitanand
Sep 17, 2020

No more empty pledges: R/GA on building D&I systems that work

To make a diversity agenda stick, someone with a seat in the C-suite must lead it, contend the architects of R/GA's new Make/Change manifesto.

No more empty pledges: R/GA on building D&I systems that work

The growing demand for equality and diversity sweeping across the world has been felt across the marcomms industry too. As networks and agencies figure out the best way to retool themselves for a more equitable present and future, they are coming face-to-face with broken or dissatisfactory diversity systems and practices.

IPG's R/GA decided to tear up the playbook and start from scratch. In a comprehensive review it posted on September 1, the shop took a frank look at the state of diversity in the industry, finding plenty of good intent, but often little action.

"Many plans looked the same, and used similar language: the language of earnest commitment," R/GA noted in the post. "'We commit to this percentage.' 'We will achieve this goal.' 'We will hold our leaders accountable.' 'We will do better.' 'Annual unconscious bias training for all.' Missing from most of these plans is any sense of HOW—how anyone was planning to go about these goals, and how this time would be different."

R/GA's review, and the framework it went on to develop for itself, represent a purposeful effort to understand and improve upon the status quo. In hopes that the agency's work might be helpful to others, Campaign Asia-Pacific caught up with the architects of the process for some thoughts on the way forward. Here are edited excerpts of an email interview in which R/GA's Jessica Greenwood, global CMO, and Carl Desir, executive director for diversity and inclusion, responded jointly to our questions.  

Why did R/GA decide to reveal and detail its diversity agenda?

We believe that transparency is key to making sure all, including us as R/GA leadership, are held accountable. Just releasing the data and not what we’re doing to improve the number would only be telling half the story. The data and the actions go hand in hand. Making it public allows for us to get a better understanding on the impact of what we’re doing internally and externally. It also allows for different perspectives to be heard and help direct the path we’re on.

Jessica Greenwood

Across the marcomms, why are diversity agendas so homogenous—and ineffective?

Making a pledge, committing to change and other actions like this are the easy way to show you “care”. Any company simply can say “we pledge to increase black employees by x” and many do. It gives the perception that they care and now people are able to look behind the curtain not much is going on to make this a reality. We wanted to be clear that there are steps that needed to happen first to build new systems that would allow for, not only, the hiring of diverse talent but also the development and success of diverse talent.

How do you build a diversity agenda that is truly global—applicable to BLM in the US but also addressing similar hot-button issues here in APAC?

Part of the reason we wanted to design a playbook, not a pledge, was in order to create something globally flexible. We wanted the five actions under the Make/Change framework to be interpreted by our local leaders in ways that would make most sense to the countries they operate in; and to focus on improving our culture with the most marginalised citizens in mind. That marginalisation has nuance from market-to-market, but we’re also pretty clear on the fact that black employees have been under-represented in advertising on most continents for a very long time. There is nuance, but the results are pretty similar.

What holds back organisations from making this diversity investment in adland?

This is an industry that tends to prioritise the urgent over the important (and we’re counting ourselves in this). Up till now, there was always a more pressing need for where to put the money. However, as well as being the right thing, we feel there are three very tangible business reasons to invest in equity, diversity and inclusion:

  1. The populations in which we operate are diversifying, and we can’t make work that speaks to multiracial and multiethnic cultures if we ourselves all think, look and act the same.
  2. We’re all in a battle for great talent. You widen the pool of talent that can succeed in your company, you stand a better chance of success.
  3. We’re an industry that sells the brains of our people. Our people are our product. We need to respect the business we’re in, and treat all of our people equally regardless of race or ethnicity.
Carl Desir

How much of a shock to the system is a new and over-arching diversity agenda and are organisations ready for this jolt?

Change is complicated, but it’s also overdue. Our hypothesis is that organisations that aren’t ready, or prepared to make the necessary investments in changing their culture, will fall behind. On the other hand, those that work it out, and build equitable cultures, hiring practices and actions, will be more likely to succeed.

Are there examples of good/ strong sustainability practices you’ve leant on in building RGA’s bible?

The most effective inspiration we found was in the strategy work we do for our clients. If a client came to us saying, ‘I need to improve the diversity of my team!’ there’s no way we would go back to them with a sterile list of pledges. We’d come up with a much more applied and analytical way of thinking about the problem. We also find CODE/, the model for organisational change that we use as part of our org design team, inspiring. There are new, and non-traditional ways of thinking about companies that prioritise the needs of the people in them as a driver of business growth.

Do organisations need to have a chief sustainability officer or some sort of focused champion to drive this agenda?

The most important factor is what this role is set up to do and if they’re given the resources, space and prioritisation to make the change needed. Too often these roles are created and are nothing more than a figurehead to make companies look good in the press. There needs to be someone with a seat at the table who, like the CFO, COO, CCO, CTO, is leading, strategising and working with a dedicated team to drive action and change within the company. This work cannot be done by one person and a company shouldn’t rely on employees to volunteer to do this work. You wouldn’t ask for volunteers to help with the finances of a company, would you? True investment is needed if companies are serious about driving change within their organisation. 


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