Smooth words and engagement from the ad industry still need to be translated into real action, argues Belinda Smith, CEO Americas, m/SIX and WFA Global Diversity Ambassador.
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On May 25 last year, a 46-year-old man cried out for his dead mother to help him as he drew his final breaths. He was being smothered to death by a police officer in front of a crowd of spectators.
The murder of George Floyd was attended by many and its live taping found instant viral impact on social media. Unlike many other viral videos that record the murders of Black Americans, the murder of George Floyd became a global tipping point. As peaceful protests met with more police violence and spread around the globe, the discussion of anti-black racism in particular, and diversity in general, began afresh in the corporate world.
The marketing industry is not new to the accusation that corporate diversity has been little more than an empty promise. As the creators of social and cultural norms, we have a long history of being called out for appropriation, tokenization, exclusion, racism and cultural theft. When a new generation joined the debate last summer, they came with demands. No longer was a statement from your PR department enough. They wanted action, they wanted firm commitments, they wanted progress.
So here we are a year later… and it’s hard to understand if we’re stuck in the same old story. Did we actually move forward or are we just better at having these conversations in public? Are things any different for non-white people and women in this industry than they were a year ago? Has adland managed to put a dent in its own anti-black racism?
From my vantage point it seems that we’ve moved to the next phase of virtue signaling. Donations have been made, Aunt Jemima has been retired and more of the ads on my TV have more non-white characters. And while these things are important in some ways and represent a type of progress – each day we still hear workplace stories of racism and watch brands and their creators perpetuate harmful stereotypes. We haven't yet moved the needle on internal inclusion and representation.
To be sure, the progress we seek will not happen overnight. It will also not happen if we settle for anything less than system-level overhaul and widespread accountability. From my vantage point as Global Diversity Ambassador at the WFA, I have been encouraged to see this work happen in fits and starts at a company-by-company level. C-suite executives are finally talking about what equity looks like in the workplace, how to talk to their employees about race, and being more curious about the way the existing systems support them to the exclusion of all others.
I’m not one to celebrate progress before it starts and while we are having good discussions, we now need to see it translated into impact. This year we must get beyond bias training, safe room discussions, panels and hashtags. We need an overhaul and redistribution of money, power and access at the corporate level. We can settle for nothing less.
This June the WFA is taking on a massive feat – conducting a global Diversity and Inclusion survey for the entire marketing industry. We will ask brands, agencies, suppliers, publishers, platforms, adtech and everywhere in between to encourage their employees to participate. We should exercise at least the same amount of diligence to the inclusion, safety, and belonging of people in this industry as we do for ad fraud and measurement. We will be the industry’s neutral, third party working to get an unfiltered and unbiased view on how we are progressing on the issues of Diversity and Inclusion. I hope you all join us for this journey and we have much more to say on our progress one year from now.
Rest in Peace to all of those all over the world who have fallen to racism, hatred, xenophobia, and other forms of prejudiced violence. May we always continue to move forward.