4 min Read
June 29, 2016

Fostering diversity is an inside job

Lisa Sherman, President and CEO of the Ad Council

This piece was originally published on on May 26.

Difference is not deficit.

For those of us in the communications industry, attending to our differences helps us craft messages with meaningful impact. Across industries, doing so makes us stronger. And as individuals, it can help us flourish.

When it comes to diversity, I believe we are approaching a tipping point in America. Boycotts by leading companies in response to discriminatory legislation in Georgia, Mississippi and North Carolina demonstrate that the business community is well on its way to a progressive consensus. And it’s not just the business community. Bruce Springsteen’s cancellation of a concert in North Carolina has been a clear message that discrimination is unacceptable, and others in the entertainment and sports industries have followed suit. The NCAA announced that they will not host any future events – from Final Four championships to education conferences – in cities without inclusive and anti-discrimination laws.

We’re also hearing it from the leaders in our country. At our Washington Conference in April, a longstanding tradition where the Ad Council Board meets with White House staff and other influencers, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (one of only 20 women in the Senate) spoke passionately about how diversity of backgrounds leads to greater perspectives and solutions. And at the 4As Conference in Miami I heard passionate, personal statements about diversity from executives at many of the leading ad agencies. There was a sense of urgency to what people were saying and a curiosity about how they might utilize their growing awareness. It felt to me as if we, as a collective, are more ready than ever to take meaningful action.

There is a strong business case to be made for diversity, as well. According to McKinsey, the US could add up to $4.3 trillion in annual GDP by 2025 if we achieved full gender parity in the workplace. A study of over 180 publicly traded companies in the EU and the US demonstrated that those with more diverse boards of directors performed better than average by a number of different metrics. And in the advertising business, case studies show that brands that showcase diversity in their campaigns have a more positive perception among millennials.

But what practical actions can we take to foster diversity in our own lives?

The place to start is at the source: by getting honest about our differences and our unconscious biases toward others. No matter how open we think we may be, bias affects all of us. According to research by the Perception Institute, 85% of Americans consider themselves to be without bias, when in fact the vast majority of us carry biases that exist and operate beneath our conscious awareness. We do 98% of our thinking in our unconscious mind. And that is where we collect and store our implicit biases.

To move the needle on diversity, we need to challenge what we believe about ourselves.

I recently had a conversation with Daniel Diez, EVP and Global Chief Marketing Officer at R/GA, the agency that led the collaborative efforts to create Love Has No Labels.

Daniel shared with me the poignancy of the moment when those hugging, kissing skeletons on the screen revealed that they were two women. Even though Daniel is both Latino and LGBT, he shared with me, “I did not expect the couple to be the same gender. I was genuinely surprised by my own bias, and that everybody has to be made aware of their own unconscious bias, too.”

I am excited and proud that at the Ad Council we will be implementing unconscious bias training for our entire team. The training starts with diagnostic tests and other exercises designed to help uncover unconscious bias (This quiz on our Love Has No Labels site is a great place where anyone can get started). It continues with guided workshops that model ways we can all begin to change our thinking and our behavior. Examples include role playing interviews and customer interactions with people of other gender identities, racial groups, sexualities, age groups, and other areas of diversity. The tests and workshops are not meant to be a complete solution to unconscious bias, but the start of an evolutionary process.

All change, no matter how sweeping, must start on a personal level.

Reprogramming personal bias requires active incorporation of those who are different from us. When crafting campaigns, we must make sure that the diversity in the room represents the sociocultural depth and breadth of our audience.

If we can broaden the conversation and keep it honest and authentic, I believe we can turn this moment into an inflection point for our entire industry. In addition to gender and sexuality, we also need to talk about race, religion, age, and all the forms of diversity whose unique perspectives have the potential to enrich our personal and professional lives.

Recognizing and talking openly about difference is not easy. It can and often will create tension. But this tension doesn’t have to drive us apart; by working through these difficult conversations we can be propelled forward.

By helping lead the national conversation on diversity, our industry has the power to catalyze significant and meaningful change. Let’s pledge to do that together.