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Culture Doesn’t Just Eat Strategy, It Eats the Best of Intentions

The now-infamous Starbucks #RaceTogether initiative is a reminder of how challenging it is to even have a dialogue about, much less solve, the persistent and growing diversity and inclusion gap in the industry. It has been nine years since the Human Rights Commission created a “stir” in the industry and 16 agencies signed memoranda of agreement. The issue was that the agency employee population was not reflective of the demographics in New York City. Not off by a little, but by a lot. 

There are industry leaders that believe the next generation will organically correct this problem because they are “color-blind” (translation: “I don’t see you”).  I was visiting an agency last week and noticed a gathering of new young faces. I was told they were a group of newly recruited interns. This group did not reflect racial or ethnic diversity. These (I am sure) bright young minds all looked alike – with the same hairstyles, physique, attractiveness, etc. The future of the industry looked the same as it did when I started at an agency 30 years ago.

Like many other leaders, organizations, and initiatives (AdColor, AAF Mosaic, Madison Brown, TORCH, MERGE, etc.), I took on the self-appointed mission of becoming part of the solution: Bring light to a persistent and resistant opportunity for evolution and innovation in the ad industry. After thousands of interviews with industry professionals, blogs, events, and even industry and thesis research later on, I believe the lack of significant change is a result of the systemic culture permeating the industry.

What I now know for sure is that change will require a shift in culture from within the industry. And by the industry, I mean within the walls of the agencies that want to win and grow business moving forward. The most competitive agencies will need to embrace inclusion from the behaviors we value and reward just as they have created digital cultures. What I know for sure is that we all (including under-represented groups, leaders, managers, millennials, boomers, etc.) have a role and a responsibility to create awareness and a consciously inclusive culture. Yes, it will take an integrated approach and investment from visionary and courageous leadership to transform the culture in a sustainable way.  There are habits formed since Mad Men days that contribute to the culture that exists today.

What you can do to change your organization’s habits?

  1. Ask someone out for coffee/drinks/dinner that you think you have nothing in common with
  2. Find a creative way to ensure that all voices are heard before, during, and after the collaboration session
  3. Take a moment to test your assumptions about a resume, an interviewee, a colleague’s performance
  4. Choose to mentor someone that you think you have nothing in common with
  5. Make an effort to expand your social circles to reflect the changing demographics
  6. Stop and ask if you’re curious, or better still, do your own research and then engage in a meaningful dialogue to build your cultural competency skills

The spirit of checking our assumptions and unconscious habits and assuming positive intent can go a long way to shifting an industry-wide habit. Who knows, we may find that #RaceTogether, simply a dialogue, becomes something we can actually rally around.

Carol Watson, Founder/President, Tangerine-Watson, Inc. Executive Search, Facilitation/Consultant, Executive/Career Coach, The Cross-Cultural Career Hub, 2012 Impact Study of Perceptions of Ad Industry by Diverse Professionals, Masters Thesis, Embedding Cultural Inclusion Throughout the Integrated Marketing Communications Process.