A public conversation Monday evening served as a proof point for why embracing one’s ethnicity remains difficult, even for Procter & Gamble’s brand chief Marc Pritchard.
Pritchard has proved himself an able champion of DE&I and one of its most articulate spokespeople. He’s been hailed for bringing multicultural advertising into the mainstream and has opened up about his own Mexican-American heritage.
But during a very candid conversation that took place on Instagram live with host Walter Geer, executive creative director of experience design at VMLY&R and an industry activist, one of Pritchard’s responses showed that he is still struggling with that identity.
About halfway through their fireside chat, Geer asked Pritchard about the films P&G brands have produced that shine a light on racial bias, such as “The Talk” and “Widen the Screen.” Given that these films have been praised in advertising circles for their rawness and candor, Geer wanted to know the internal process for getting to that type of work.
Pritchard recounted how six years ago, a group of Black executives from its African Ancestry Leadership Network approached him and questioned the firm’s commitment to people of color. Their advocacy served as a catalyst for a comprehensive revamp, in which the CPG giant changed its talent pipeline, recruiting and employee development, and took other steps to ensure there are people of color at every stage of its advertising.
At the time, haircare brand My Black is Beautiful was marking its 10-year anniversary. P&G decided to produce “The Talk” to highlight the tragedy of young Black men and women being killed in the United States.
“I can remember it as clearly today as ever, when I sat around the room, and I was the only white person in that room,” Pritchard recalled of the film’s screenings. “I was hearing stories that I’d never heard before and getting insights.”
The comment may have been more a reflection of ingrained habit than Freudian slip. Still, for Pritchard to describe himself as white was stunning, considering he had just spent the last 30 minutes talking about embracing his ethnic background and how he had (ostensibly) moved beyond the period during which he had to mask his true identity to advance his career.
His dad, whose biological father was named Gonzalez, was adopted by a man named Pritcher. Despite his English surname, Pritcher was also of Mexican descent. His father married a German woman.
“I had both Mexican and German heritage, but I could pass as Caucasian. And many times I also looked very Mexican as well,” Pritchard explained. “So I learned what that was like. And I embraced that pretty heavily as I grew up, mostly because my dad was so into the Chicano world. But when I got into my job, I suppressed it because of fear of judgment, fear of how people might perceive me.”
Code-switching — shifting one’s mode of speech or dress or hiding one’s personal background or beliefs as a way to advance in a working world where there are relatively few executives of color — is all too common in marketing.
Asked by Geer for the moment when he felt like he needed to “come out and own who you are, own your ethnicity,” Pritchard replied that it was very late in his career: “It was more than 30 years in. It was just recently.”
Indeed, just three years ago, at the 2018 AdColor Conference, Pirtchard shared his personal journey to an external audience for the first time. During that conversation, he related how he came to grips with his Mexican-American background.
“My parents actually considered naming me Nick,” he said, recalling a story from his AdColor speech. “And I used to joke that I could have been Nicky Gonzalez. And I thought, ‘I don’t think I would’ve made chief brand officer with the name Nicky Gonzalez.’ So that privilege was not lost on me.”
Pritchard may have reached a new level of personal candor during Monday’s talk. But Geer, who said Pritchard agreed to their chat after Geer tagged him in a LinkedIn post earlier this year as an individual with the power to change the entire ad space, had an activist agenda as well.
He wanted to use his personal audience with Pritchard to get him to push for more change among brands that are perhaps fearful of taking the same steps as P&G — and, in turn, to encourage their agency partners to embrace multiculturalism to a greater extent.
“Would you be open to essentially tell vendors even right now that, ‘If you don’t hit these numbers by this certain date, we will have to reconsider your business with us?’” Geer asked.
Pritchard demurred. Nevertheless, he stressed that P&G’s brands are already holding their agencies accountable.
“When I ask [agencies] for their [diversity] numbers, that in and of itself is a powerful step forward because that means I’m watching and I listen and check every time we get together,” he responded. “I wanted to know, within our agencies, what’s their diversity profile? Where are they on women, Black, Hispanic, Asian, Native, Indigenous? At every level in the planning, the account and the creative ranks?
“The reality is with agencies, what we’ve looked at is, ‘Here’s what we expect. And if we don’t see it, we start hiring additional agencies and new agencies,’” he continued.
P&G, Pritchard said, has made the same commitment internally. After realizing it only had 11% female representation behind the camera, “We said, ‘We want to be at 50/50 worldwide.’” P&G discloses on its website that 26% of its U.S. employee base is multicultural, versus its goal of 40%.
Pritchard also said he’s been frustrated by the slow pace of change. “The reason why is because there’s deeply embedded systemic issues that need to be broken down. And that’s where I really want to encourage the industry to keep going.”
While Pritchard stopped short of holding agencies to specific diversity levels, Geer nonetheless characterized the conversation as a success.
“All in all, it was a great conversation,” he said on Tuesday. “He was authentic and real. It showed a broader community of people of all colors that code-switching and passing is a very real thing.”
The fact that one of the most powerful individuals in advertising essentially kept his ethnicity to himself for 30 years and finally came out only three years ago “is a big deal,” Geer added. “Being able to get to where he is meant him not fully disclosing his identity to many people who, quite frankly, he said wouldn’t have allowed him to move further with his organization. That speaks to the greater problems many of us have in this industry.”