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Why Diversity in Creative Agencies Must be a Priority

by Frank Chang, Creative Director, RAPP NY

Note: This is the first article in a two-part series on DE&I. Read part two here.

I’m a middle-aged suburban dad born in the United States. For all intents and purposes, a pretty typical mainstream consumer. But I’m also Asian American, and what your brand says — or doesn’t say — about the increased attacks against Asians matters to me.

And no, an isolated supportive hashtag or social media post won’t cut it. Neither will a few pictures of Asian Americans in your latest campaign. #YouShouldDoMore.

As a consumer, I’m evaluating companies on what they do, not just what they say. I don’t want a diversity play. I want to know that the businesses I choose put meaning behind their words. I want to know that they’re in touch with different cultures and viewpoints.

In other words, I want them to be enmeshed in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I), not see it as a way to win my disposable income. And I’m not alone.

A world of shifting loyalties, responsibilities, and expectations

As a society, we’re at an important crossroads when it comes to DE&I. Creative agencies are feeling the pendulum shift strongly as consumers demand more check-ins and check-ups from brands.

This moment in time reminds me of when digital marketing first took hold.

In the infancy of digital (and even into its tweens and teens), advertising agencies treated it as more of a tag-a-long. To them, traditional marketing was seen as the lead hero, with digital marketing as its lesser sidekick. Today, everyone realizes that’s an antiquated way of thinking: There should be no separation between digital or traditional marketing. They’re one and the same.

Yet agencies continuously commit the same faux pas by segmenting traditional and so-called “multicultural” campaigns. That is, they see them as separate verticals. They’re not. (Just look at me.)

Consumers engage with a brand holistically. They don’t consume some of the branded content; they consume every last morsel.

This isn’t to suggest that agencies focused purely on multicultural creative aren’t vital. They provide an audience depth and understanding that many mainstream agencies won’t possess for a while.

However, mainstream agencies need to realize that they can’t sit back and think that multiculturalism or DE&I is another agency’s responsibility. Rather, they need to make changes toward serving the public beyond using hashtags, featuring models who are people of color, or posting black squares on Instagram once annually.

Pitfalls and perils of ignoring a dramatically changing market

Of course, change isn’t easy. Brands and their agencies haven’t had their feet held to the fire the way they have in the past year-and-a-half. Moving forward, most won’t be able to stay silent when something social or even political happens. They’ll be expected to take a stance and back up their stance with action. People will be watching. (In fact, they already are.)

What’s the downfall if an agency chooses to ignore the massive DE&I movement taking place around the country and world? First is a potential loss of business opportunities. Progressive companies want to work with progressive ad agencies. And lots of companies consider themselves progressive — or moving in a progressive direction.

Secondly, the swath of Gen Z emerging talent won’t want to work for an ad agency that doesn’t align with their beliefs. Why should they? They’ll be submitting résumés to the aforementioned progressive ad agencies, and those progressive ad agencies will win their loyalty every time.

Finally, agencies that refuse to see all the viewpoints necessary to launch modern, effective campaigns will become labeled as places with “siloed thinking.” In fact, some might suffer intense backlash if their messaging or imagery comes off as out-of-touch. Agencies not tuned-in will find consumers (and brands) tuning out.

You may be stumped as to how to stay ahead of this steep learning curve. That’s understandable. Still, as a leader, you’re expected to make decisions. In the companion article to this post, we’ll explore six ways to move forward with DE&I systematically, confidently, and sustainably.