Fixing Advertising’s Diversity Problem Shouldn’t Fall to Minorities

Doing this additional work isn’t in their job descriptions

It's time for creative industries to embrace change and break away from tradition. - Credit by Getty Images
Headshot of Steve Stoute

Let’s talk about what diversity is not.

Diversity is not hiring a person of color or a female executive to save a predominantly white company from public backlash.

Diversity is not recruiting culture creators from different ethnicities to serve as global ambassadors of top companies in exchange for checks that represent only a fraction of the profit their influence will generate.

In regard to preeminent awards shows, diversity is not just appointing a few prominent people of color to the jury.

For instance, there are 27 juries at Cannes Lions this year, and I am one of only four persons of color serving as a jury president. So while I’m proud to play my part in pushing culture forward at the festival, I recognize that there is still a long way to go.

Setting the benchmark for best-in-class communications across many forms, Cannes also has a responsibility to set a benchmark in diversity. Cannes, like the advertising industry at large, has no diversity legacy. As a result, too many talented young men and women don’t believe there is a space or potential for them in the business.

The only true way to reflect the world you’re aspiring to shape is to embrace diverse backgrounds and perspectives.

The only true way to reflect the world you’re aspiring to shape is to embrace diverse backgrounds and perspectives. It’s the only way to understand cultural codes, tap into a range of emotions, grasp the issues impacting different communities and understand how messages are best communicated across different groups.

Advertising is rooted in developing a deep understanding of the shared values that define a generation. It’s about being authentically tuned into an ethos that transcends demographics.

This understanding is expressed through stories, conversations and experiences that translate the relationship between culture and commerce. A win in the new economy isn’t measured by clever campaigns or units purchased; it’s measured by authenticity and cultural equity.

This thinking also applies to an awards jury. Standing at the forefront of an industry with such tremendous global influence and power, it’s critical for Cannes to embrace diversity in all its forms.

Leaders everywhere must see value in doing things differently and do what it takes to change. This is even more true for the ad and music industries because they are businesses rooted in culture, and the culture is demanding change.

However, it’s still difficult to find diverse talent in advertising because diversity is undervalued and misunderstood within an industry that traditionally requires a marketing degree, years of experience and climbing the corporate ladder. For years, it has also required assimilating into a uniform industry culture.

That structure needs to change. The same talent that has been shut out, overlooked or, frankly, intimidated must now drive it: the storytellers, the design thinkers, the artists, multi-hyphenates, the tastemakers and other unconventional creative leaders.

I started in the music business, which has more diversity in relation to artists, yet like advertising, it needs more diversity at the top. Coming from music and specifically working within hip-hop culture, it was always understood that these diverse groups were invaluable contributors.

Embracing diversity forces companies out of comfort zones, out of silos and breaks them out of every other narrow way of operating that leads to the missteps and failures we’ve repeatedly seen companies make. Every creative industry is evolving to take on a new identity in the digital era, so now is the perfect time to stop being trapped in tradition, terrified of transferring power, and open the door for more diversity across the board.

Otherwise, to quote Shuri in Black Panther, advertising becomes “another broken white boy for us to fix.”


Steve Stoute founder and CEO of UnitedMasters and Translation.
Publish date: February 25, 2019 https://dev.adweek.com/agencies/fixing-advertisings-diversity-problem-shouldnt-fall-to-minorities/ © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT