Media Buying Briefing: Agencies expand their DEI goals and offer their expertise to clients

In recent years, agencies have sought to increase diversity, equity and inclusion efforts through hiring and training their workforce, building community partnerships and quantifying their progress. Now, as some move beyond their own workforce diversity and internal programs, they are bringing that DEI expertise and strategy to clients via new offerings and services.

Janis Middleton, chief inclusion officer of 22Squared parent organization Guided by Good, sees these services as a natural progression as agencies expand their DEI focus outside their own walls. While they built a lot of momentum throughout 2020 and 2021 to start DEI programs and install diversity officers, there remain valid questions about how much progress the industry has really made.

“[Our offering] is here to help to fill that gap both for ourselves, our clients and then even clients that we [get] down the road, to help them fill that gap because it is a need,” Middleton said. “It is the next wave, and it’s going to be here for a while. It’s not letting up like it did 10 or 15 years ago.”

Different agencies also find themselves at varying stages improving their DEI efforts: those that had a longer history of leading diversity programs in contrast to those galvanized to action following the murder of George Floyd in 2020. But Esther E.T. Franklin, chief strategy and cultural fluency officer at Publicis’ Spark Foundry, contends that companies can still be successful regardless of where they started.

“For those organizations that started a program three years ago in reaction to George Floyd, those seem to be the ones that are struggling the most,” Franklin said. “But this doesn’t mean that just because you started in a reaction that you can’t be successful – it’s that you have to be even more intentional and focused and directive to your organization to keep that momentum and energy going.”

22Squared’s focus on Embrace

In March, 22Squared began developing its client offering Embrace, aimed at helping brands build their inclusive work, culture and workshops. This month, the agency officially added the new inclusion strategy as a client offering to continue supporting brands, from the pitch through the strategy brief and working with media, creative and production teams.

With Middleton leading the new offering, it is scoped into the integrated work at the agency and offered “a la carte” in various ways for potential clients. The goal is to meet clients where they are in diversity efforts and help them build on that journey, from legacy brands to younger ones and influencer-driven businesses.

With the agency making progress toward its internal DEI goals, Middleton said this was the right time to expand on Embrace. “About two years ago, I started to see that we were in a good place [even though] the journey is never over,” she told Digiday. “I just knew that we are the best-case study. So let me pull out the things that we’ve done for ourselves and see what we can do for our clients.”

Embrace offers three pillars that help guide clients on work around DEI: people, culture and the business imperative. But the strategy is not a “copy and paste” for each of their clients, be it Baskin Robbins or Party City, so the DEI strategy will look different for each one.

Middleton believes this is why agencies need to pay attention to data, sentiment and client needs. Sometimes that includes having conversations around the difference between appreciation vs. appropriation when creating ads. For others, it’s sitting down with creative, account and production teams to further cultural representation and inclusion topics.

“Inclusion is the long game,” Middleton said.

DEI becomes a business imperative

At Horizon Media, DEI has shifted out of HR as a talent and culture function to marketing as an enterprise-wide business function. This helps drive innovation, client solutions and product development, said Latraviette Smith-Wilson, the independent media agency’s chief marketing and equity officer.

“While the vision and strategy for DEI is led out of my team, the implementation of it must be the responsibility of everyone across our organization,” Smith-Wilson added.

Horizon is continuing to build systems that will help the workforce understand DEI in their roles and how to apply it – whether they sit in finance, legal, client teams or IT. For metrics, Smith-Wilson mentioned tracking progress through KPIs like inclusion scores from anonymous employee surveys, sentiment, community touchpoints and internal mobility.

The agency’s multicultural team provides counsel to clients and partners and continues to develop the firm’s eMbrace platform, a client-facing tool for facilitating marketing strategy discussions and engagements with a “culturally equitable lens,” Smith-Wilson explained. It is a precursor to media and investment planning to help advertisers develop their DEI strategy.

“eMbrace recalibrates and reweighs population-based survey and panel outputs to produce a more equitable sample and emphasis on Asian, Black and Hispanic insights,” Smith-Wilson said.

Similarly, cultural fluency has guided DEI efforts at Spark Foundry since 2016, because audiences were getting much more diverse than ever before, Franklin explained. Across the parent company, agencies have aimed to leverage multicultural experts and build more content and supplier diversity. On the client side, Spark Foundry focuses on helping them identify those audiences through multiple capabilities and assessments.

“Who are we talking about?” Franklin said. “Who should we be talking about? It’s about understanding who’s already in the category, and then the brand and where the growth can come from – that’s the first phase of what we do.”

In 2021, Publicis Media also formed a multi-year industry initiative to increase representation of underserved and multicultural suppliers called the Once & For All Coalition. Members do not have to be a client, and they invest in minority-owned and targeted media supply, develop minority creators and create best practices.

Competitive advantage

Going forward, building DEI into the agency offering to clients will further give agencies an advantage in winning business, said Tahlisha Williams, evp, talent equity and learning solutions at 4A’s. Across member agencies, Williams said there is a wider effort to look at the business opportunity and create diversity offerings.

Within the industry, 4A’s has focused on multicultural talent development, but Williams said keeping that talent can still be a challenge. Its Multicultural Advertising Intern Program recently completed its 50th annual 22-week talent development program for young diverse advertising professionals.

Williams believes these developments become a learning opportunity for the agencies themselves, whether that is developing AI tools and dashboards for measuring brands’ diversity initiatives or creating guides to bring clients on board with DEI.

“They too are learning, it’s [an] education for them,” Williams said. “This is something that is evolutionary, because agencies are equipping their clients to be able to respond to a diverse nation.”


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