Courage over complicity: Addressing the DEI&B crisis in ad agencies

After three years, the 4A’s still finds a significant lack of diverse representation at the most senior levels of agency communities.

By Tahlisha Williams

Headlines over the past few months have painted a clear, yet disconcerting, picture of the DEI&B landscape.

Across most industries, companies are struggling to chip away at the DEI&B commitments they’ve made to provide underrepresented communities access, exposure and opportunities.

Unfortunately, the advertising industry is among them.

After three years, the 4A’s 2023 Diversity in Agencies Survey Report still finds a significant lack of diverse representation at the most senior levels of agency communities, and this is a signal in the wrong direction of progress. The most recent report found a significant drop in representation at higher levels among Asian American, Hispanic/Latinx and Black/African American talent, while representation levels for Alaskan Native/Hawaiian/Native American/Pacific Islander employees remain near zero.

We’re openly shifting away from the basic principles of inclusion. Inclusion that ensures that the industry mirrors the representation of the creative brilliance and innovative thinking that comes from all people. I question whether we truly recognize the plight of underrepresented talent, or perhaps we’re choosing not to see it.

There’s not an availability issue; there’s an access issue. And instead of actively stewarding and advancing diverse talent within our industry, we continue to overlook them.

This industry is at a critical crossroad.

As a woman of color who is also living and walking through this space while trying to change it, I’m compelled to ask: Why is the industry not taking a collective stand to protect its greatest asset: our people?

When comparing nationwide DEI&B data against cultural events over the last few years, a troublesome trend is emerging. We saw many corporations publicly commit to improving DEI&B within their organizations in response to the murder of George Floyd in 2020. However, in the last three years, those commitments have been tested against economic uncertainty, anti-DEI&B policies and a growing fear of backlash against those who take a stand in support of DEIB.

We’ve also witnessed that once the focus on matters of equity for the Black community were no longer “trending,” many companies were quick to abandon their DEI&B agendas and return to status quo practices.

The urgent opportunity for the advertising industry is to place a higher value on ensuring that our DEI&B stance doesn’t fluctuate when we’re faced with challenges. We should be steadfast and immovable about prioritizing DEI&B. The 4A’s annual Diversity in Agencies Survey Report is part of our own ongoing commitment to the belief that prioritizing DEIB as a business imperative creates better business strategies, amplifies workplace culture and attracts, retains, and develops the best talent.

It’s time for the industry to reconvene on the state of DEI&B, and I believe that this work has to begin at the agency level. When agencies decide to get clear on why they believe DEI&B is important to their people, business and work, and follow through by taking the steps to ensure that this belief is sustainably embedded in their organizations, will we begin to see greater progress.

Agencies should focus on these five key areas to establish and advance DEIB as a core, strategic business imperative:

  • Initiate uncomfortable conversations: We need to continuously confront the difficult truths about systemic industry practices, microaggressions, privilege and power within agencies to work toward curative solutions. Only through open and honest dialogue can we continue to dismantle barriers and biases that hinder DEI&B progress and invoke the change we want to see.
  • Know and grow your culture: Talent attraction falls flat if your culture is not built to support and retain the diverse people you seek. Be honest about where you are in your DEI&B journey, but be intentional about creating a culture that represents what you believe — and, more importantly, is equitably illustrated through your actions.
  • Create internal DEI&B talent opportunities: Agencies have to invest in underrepresented talent by hiring and developing them from within. This equity investment begins with a decision to find and hire diverse, emerging, non-traditional talent and a commitment to creating career paths where they can see themselves represented across the business. Talent succession requires intentional investment, preparation and planning.
  • Go beyond mentorship and sponsorship: Mentorship and sponsorship programs help to guide, grow and cultivate diverse leaders. Find and hire program alumni. These future leaders represent some of the best and brightest talent in the industry and are ready to contribute to your agencies.
  • Promote supplier diversity: Our industry thrives on partnerships, and by deliberately collaborating with diverse suppliers such as production houses, media companies or freelance creatives, we can ensure better representation within work that is reflective of the communities and consumers we serve.

It’s time for the industry to come together and be its own agent of change. It’s time to be willing to take courageous steps to represent and protect the people who create the work. Let’s shift away from the awards mentality, where we’re patting ourselves on the back, to addressing the uncomfortable spaces and actions needed to advance the diversity of talent who help the industry create its greatest work.

We can — and will — change. It’s simply a matter of courage over complicity.

Tahlisha Williams is EVP of talent, equity and learning solutions at the 4A’s.


Read on Campaign.