DEI? or DIE?
In late January of 2022, the CEO of a well-known British retailer walked into a board meeting, sat down and proclaimed to those around the table that, “We are at the beginning of our journey on DEI (diversity equity and inclusion).”
The room sat in silence. Firstly because a number of people at the table likely thought that he was correct. Brows raised, they wondered how they’d perhaps catch up with other brands who've so deftly seized the moment to be sure that every consumer knows how woke their organisations are via adverts, brand campaigns and social media.
Yet a few others at that table were aghast. One with enough wits about him to say, “But we could have said that, and in fact likely did two years ago.” His remark was a tacit admission that the brand had failed to “read the room” in terms of what it could have spent the past two years doing — in the fashion world, no less.
An even more glaring admission is the mistake many people have made in this moment of increased focus on DEI: suggesting that the need for it only started two years ago, when George Floyd was murdered at the hands of an American police officer.
While our survey was engineered to capture broad takes on the current state of creativity, there were responses that both called out the creative services industry for not doing enough (for ourselves and for our clients) and pointed us to necessary steps for brands like those in the above example. Some complicated and, yes, uncomfortable, but ultimately beneficial for both people and profit.
A tough thing to hear
Other respondents recalled scenarios like this, which they argue are driven by an industry with a really high barrier to entry for women, non-white people and queer people.
Kelli Robertson is a partner at Hyphenated, a California agency, who says agency ownership and leadership in the C-suite is predominantly white men. “They’d have to rip and replace 50% of them to really be and live what they talk about or what they should be. And they're never going to do that.”
Robertson’s colleague, Hyphenated founder William Esparza, says it’s on people like him to prove his worth, just to get a seat at the creative table. “This industry for someone of colour, someone Black or Brown or Asian, as well as for a woman or someone from the LGBTQ community, they make it clear what your flaws are. That's the game,” he says. “If you can get through the flaw bit, then you're the exception. So that means you're excellent. I just don’t believe in this.”
“Disrupt or Die, Our industry is great at image making and slogan writing, which disguises what is really not happening.”
William Esparza, Founder / CEO
He argues, however, culture has progressed to a point where the audiences who used to be voiceless, obscured by clever slogans and messaging, now have a voice. Platforms like Twitter, TikTok, Facebook and Instagram have given them immeasurable power to demand that they’re accounted for.
To accurately and effectively account for these audiences, agencies and brands are learning that it’s not enough to simply mention marginalised groups in their messaging, but actually ensure those in the creative discussions represent their audiences.
“For many, it's now about diverse perspectives generating more business. Right? So it's still around the bottom line,” Esparza says. “For us, it's more than just a point of view. It's about progress, progress in communities through the nuances of the storytelling, through the norms of the business and the boards that is really consequential.”
“Ultimately, there is no one way to be perfectly inclusive or diverse, but there are ways to strive for equity. Capitalism and this current system can only get us so far.”