It Isn’t Time to Celebrate Progress—It’s Time to Double Down on Diversifying to Encourage Action

Putting the onus of power on brands to force agencies to change

Clients call the shots, and they can ask for more diversity from their agencies. - Credit by Richard Schneider/Getty Images
Headshot of Sarah Jenkins

When it comes to daring to take a stand for equality and justice or pointing out the imbalance of power in the world, it can be tempting to feel we’ve made progress. Take, for example, the widespread criticism of Liam Neeson’s astonishing interview last week about a moment in his past when he wanted to murder a black man after his friend was assaulted. Meanwhile, it’s only been a few months since Nike’s decision to make Colin Kaepernick the face of its campaign was greeted with rampant shoe-burning and a boycott.

Rage is the pervading emotion of our times (if Twitter is anything to go by). And much currently seems to be emanating from those with privilege who are clinging to their entitlement like it was the last lifeboat on the Titanic.

While brands can console themselves knowing they’re on the right side of history for taking action, it’s deeply worrying to see discussions around race still spark such a high level of ire. And even more so if you believe that, rather than being the actions of a very small vocal minority, this is the tip of a very ugly iceberg

This is surely the case. As the importance of diversity is recognized and forces change in society and business, alongside it comes the entrenchment of those who stand to lose the most.

As the importance of diversity is recognized and forces change in society and business, alongside it comes the entrenchment of those who stand to lose the most.

As we saw with Brett Kavanaugh’s ascendancy to the Supreme Court, a man credibly accused of sexual misconduct and assault, the powerful elite will rally to protect their own. And likewise, we should be aware that the recent push for greater inclusivity in this industry could result in a backlash of its own from those who feel threatened by it. If we’re not careful, all the hard work could be undone if we don’t make diversity absolutely fundamental to our business.

We are an industry that can take leadership on this issue. We have the ability to influence and drive culture at true scale. We hit millions of mobile and TV screens every day, and there’s also power in our own numbers.

Forming industry-wide collectives is a great start. When it comes to making sure our industry is fit for purpose, however, the most powerful person in the room is the client.

Clients hold the purse strings and can, therefore, call the shots. In the same way that Hollywood stars can demand an inclusion rider in their contracts (as Frances McDormand urged her fellow actors to do in her Oscars speech last year), brands can force agencies to step up to the plate and deliver on diversity.

If agency CEOs aren’t buying the carrot on diversity (that the work will get better), then the reality of the stick (clients walking away) should make them take notice.

We are at a critical point in the diversity journey. For this reason, now is not the time to simply celebrate progress but to double down our efforts and translate the momentum around diversity into concerted action.

Our industry is facing huge challenges, but we will not just survive but thrive when all talent is welcomed and represented. There are those who would prefer to stick to the status quo and prevent positive change because it threatens their position, but they are the relics of this industry’s past, and all of us must ensure its future is not in their hands.

Sarah Jenkins is CMO at Grey London.
Publish date: February 14, 2019 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT