ad industry

Diversity in Advertisements Starts with Diversity in Agencies

Last week, PepsiCo’s president Brad Jakeman addressed a room of advertisers and gave them some serious tough love and while I was totally here for it, it felt oddly familiar and problematic at the same time. It seems like the past year alone has brought more conversation about diversity than ever before and I’m just wondering two things: 1) what took so damn long and 2) why are white executives getting praised for saying things that multicultural agencies and people of color have been saying for years?

It’s great that Jakeman is calling for more women in leadership roles, but that isn’t all diversity is. It seems as if lately so many companies that have seen the error of their past ways want to just cry “We need more women!” as if that is going to solve all their problems and make everything equal.

Agencies need justice, not equality. Equality is hiring three women after hiring three men, justice is working a little bit harder when recruiting to find a person of color. It’s accepting that they may not have the same background as their white peers, but that what they bring to the table is just as valuable. Justice is not passing over or giving up on applicants from backgrounds that are different from majority of the agency. Sometimes it’s not just about cultural fit it’s about meeting people halfway and accepting their differences.

It’s both dangerous and irresponsible for advertising agencies to have all white people working on a brand that has a target market that is mostly people of color. However, in the same vein, putting people of color on these accounts doesn’t mean shit if you stifle their creativity and silence their voice.

Frankly, I’m annoyed that such a brilliant businessman could chalk up shitty advertisements to a need for more women in leadership positions. While I agree, there do need to be more women in leadership positions I also understand that doing so doesn’t solve the diversity problems that agencies have. Women and people of color can’t be considered for executive positions when they’re passed up for entry level ones. They can’t be considered for executive positions when they are silenced or ignored as an intern and they can’t be considered for executive positions when they aren’t even exposed to the industry and the possibilities it holds.

So while Jakeman was right about a lot of things, he was also wrong. When most listings for entry-level positions expect that you have agency experience, agencies (probably without even realizing it) are pulling from the same homogenous group of people that Jakeman was preaching against. When some of the best agencies are on the coasts, in an area that people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds (generally people of color) cannot readily move to without assistance, you miss out people with fresh perspectives from different backgrounds. So no, simply sticking more women in leadership positions won’t make the industry better, it won’t make ads stronger and it won’t stop the next executive (read: white male) of a Fortune 500 company from standing up at an event and telling us that the industry needs more diversity.

Here’s an idea: why not lead the way, last time I checked most of PepsiCo’s executives, white men. Why not challenge more of the agencies you work with to use people of color in their ads? Why not create a program that allows people of color and women in entry-level positions to rise up through the ranks and ensure that while they are doing so, they are supported in their journey? Don’t just talk about it be about it.

Sorry Mr. Jakeman, you don’t get a gold star for being yet another executive to cry diversity while failing to recognize just how difficult it is to navigate white male spaces as a woman or person of color.