At Adweek’s Inaugural D&I Summit, Leaders Forge Ahead With Commitment to Equality

Global business leaders discuss why embracing failure is key to D&I and how to do visibility right

Omnicom's Tiffany R. Warren chats with Facebook's Antonio Lucio during Adweek's D&I Summit. - Credit by Adweek

Key Insights:

On Wednesday, leaders from some of the top global corporations and nonprofit advocacy groups met online to participate in Adweek’s first-ever Diversity and Inclusion Summit.

The 13 D&I champions collectively represent hundreds of billions of dollars in corporate revenues. Each has made strides in their field to promote inclusive hiring, advertising and overall representation. At Wednesday’s summit, they took turns interviewing each other about the long road to corporate diversity and how the Covid-19 pandemic could threaten equality.

Nearly all of the speakers are also founding members of Adweek’s Diversity and Inclusion Council. And all agreed on one thing: The economic anxiety surrounding businesses during the pandemic means more effort should be put into diversity and inclusion, not less.

Adweek chief community officer Nadine Deitz started the summit by acknowledging that not everyone was going to like everything they hear during the event, which made an impression on Kai Deveraux Lawson, WPP’s director of community engagement. “I really appreciated the fact that the tone was set from the beginning—that somebody’s probably going to say some stuff today that offends you, jolts you and makes you uncomfortable,” she said.

“The more we can have real and honest conversations, the better it’s going to be [for everyone],” added Anne Elisco-Lemme, executive creative director at Duncan Channon. “So, I loved those real moments today because I do think that the time to just have nice conversations about this is so far in the past.”

Speakers also included:

Here are some of the key themes that emerged, including select audio segments.

D&I efforts shouldn’t be canceled by the pandemic

In front of nearly 4,500 virtual attendees, Dietz kicked off the conversation with Pritchard, who stressed that brands should double down on D&I programming right now, rather than backing away. Zalis questioned why anyone would want to “go back to normal” during or after the pandemic if normal wasn’t ever ideal in the first place.

It can be tempting for employers to abandon internal diversity efforts, not just because companies are cutting costs everywhere but because diversity work is difficult. As Lucio said during the summit, D&I forces people to have tough conversations, to be embarrassed and to make mistakes. But if we’re to make progress, “we have to embrace failure.”

Lucio added that companies should be cautious about who is most impacted by cutbacks, too: “Diversity and inclusion needs to be a filter” as companies engage in layoffs, furloughs and salary reductions to stay afloat during the recession.

Professionals of color carry the added weight of racism

Several speakers pointed to the ugly rise in bias incidents that have come to light during the pandemic. Warren referenced the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and a Central Park incident in which a white woman called police on black birdwatcher (and Omnicom employee) Christian Cooper.

As she spoke about “the ‘unmattering’ of black lives and Asian lives,” Warren’s Zoom background lit up with the names of Floyd and two other black Americans recently killed in racism-fueled incidents: Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor.

“I am trying very hard to control my voice because I am in absolute rage,” said Saint John later in the conversation, adding that “it is not easy to be black in America” and that everyone should be angry about the killings and harassment of innocent black Americans. Chen also raised the issue of increased discrimination against Asian Americans, saying that it was “unbelievable” to witness it taking place during this time.

White echoed the frustration as he spoke, saying that in 2020 he shouldn’t have to get a text from his sister-in-law that reads “your life matters,” yet that’s exactly what happened this week.

White also spoke about how the cannabis industry, by its very nature, presents a D&I problem: how to reach out to and provide jobs for the many people of color who have been arrested or served time for marijuana offenses.

Visibility and authenticity are key elements of D&I

The issue of how marginalized groups are represented was raised by more than one speaker as well. Ellis cited a report that GLAAD had released in partnership with P&G earlier that day, showing that when LGBTQ people are authentically represented in advertising, it increases cultural acceptance.

But visibility is still a challenge, said Ellis, when LGBTQ people are not counted in the U.S. Census and some medical datasets that are vital for understanding a community’s makeup. She pointed out that LGBTQ people are more likely to work service and blue-collar jobs and to have preexisting health conditions, so when it comes to Covid-19, “we know we’re disproportionately affected, but we don’t have the statistics to back that up.”

Buscemi took on visibility from a different angle: how we choose to portray communities in advertising. Buscemi urged leaders to stop using images of marginalized people that primarily portray them as victims, and instead focus on inspiring images of the next generation. She stressed that businesses are in themselves a form of community, and therefore have a duty to advocate on behalf of marginalized groups.

How to move forward

As the discussion progressed, each leader offered an example of something they and their organizations are doing to improve the situation—both in terms of D&I and helping Americans survive a pandemic-fueled recession like nothing the country has seen since the Great Depression. The leaders aim to combat what Hassan called “a stockpile of caring and a shortage of action.”

Romo Edelman, founder of Hispanic Star, a new organization created to boost the Latino community and its businesses, said the organization already has 25 chapters around the country currently working on local initiatives. In Texas, Hispanic Star has donated over 10,000 food boxes to local families, she said, and in New York, the group has given thousands of routers to families who lack Wi-Fi access for remote schooling. With a similar focus on results, Scotti shared the good news of Verizon’s Adfellows program—which managed to place 90% of its graduates this year into permanent full-time jobs despite mass layoffs nationwide.

Rather than abandon D&I efforts to cut costs, business leaders now can look to D&I for examples of how to move forward, working from the bottom up. As Marcondes pointed out, diversity, inclusion and equity work best as an organic strategy rather than an arbitrary target.

Wednesday’s summit wrapped up with a brief question-and-answer session with attendees. But it didn’t end the work of Adweek’s D&I Council, which plans to continue bringing together brands, the nonprofit sector, and the advertising and marketing world to push equality forward.

@zanger Doug Zanger is a senior editor, agencies at Adweek, focusing on creativity and agencies.
@MaryEmilyOHara Mary Emily O'Hara is a diversity and inclusion reporter. They specialize in covering LGBTQ+ issues and other underrepresented communities.