Why Diversity Efforts Fail on the Creative Side, and How to Fix Them

Let's get it right this time, finally

If you want to fix the diversity problem in advertising, you have to start by fixing it within creative—the soul of the business—where it's particularly grim if you consider the percentage of Black and Brown creatives within U.S. agencies, and their fortunes. 

To do this, we need to examine why well-intentioned (and the half-hearted, superficial, jump-on-the-bandwagon) diversity initiatives of the past have largely failed on the creative side to begin with.

It's also worth realizing that the quickest way to change the equation is by having clients demand it, and that the onus of change rests on the C-suite at both ends—client and agency. It has to flow from the top and permeate into the organization. Success, or failure, is on them.

These observations and opinions are based on my experiences as an educator, and an acculturated–English-is-my-first-language–naturalized immigrant–creative person of color (often the only one in the room), who's spent more than a decade in the business, on brands and at agencies big and small.

Think different, but think like me.

Or confirmation bias. 

Black or Brown creatives can't hide who they are. They stick out, they don't look like the majority, and they often have names that stick out too. It's almost impossible for them to blend in. They're naturally seen as intruders or outsiders in a world that isn't theirs.

If you belong to the dominant group at an agency that has but a mere smattering of diversity, and given the degree of idea-self love within creative, it's very hard for ideas and opinions from outside your group generated by the talent that doesn't look like you—with very different personal realities and perceptions—to be considered over your own. They don't compute with your realities and perceptions. Their truth is not your truth. So their work ends up dying, and never makes it to the client. No one ever goes, "I can't relate to this, but it might be worth presenting to the client." It explains the ocean of sameness in the work we see today.

When it comes to relationships and hiring, we tend to partner and hire those we think are a "good fit"—people who look like us, think like us (despite all of us loving the Apple manifesto … oh, the irony), share the same values, tastes and cultural experiences as us … essentially reflections of ourselves. It's easy. It's comfortable. No one ever walked out of an interview thinking, "I have nothing in common with this person and can't relate to their experiences. And I didn't get some of the cultural cues in the book. Hmmm … I need to hire them."

It's a very human trait. No one is immune to it. Case in point, the strong bonds between South American-owned U.S. brands like Burger King, Heinz and Bud, and South American-owned agencies in Miami.

Discrimination is easy. Proving it is very hard.

Creative work is highly subjective because it's an art, not a science. Everyone's opinion is valid. This makes discriminating against a POC very easy. 

A creative director usually does it by killing their ideas, with simple comments like ... "Meh!" "Not on brand." "It seems familiar." "Not the right voice." "It's been done." "I don't get it." Etc.

One can do it by appropriating and taking credit for their ideas, tweaking them ever so slightly and making them your own, or handing them to a team you have a soft spot for.

Another way is by creating a false narrative about them, with comments like ... "Talented, but not the right tone for the brand." "Not a good fit." "Difficult." "Riding their partner's coattails." "Ungrateful." "Expects too much." Etc.

As a POC, you're usually seriously outnumbered and on your own, so defending yourself and your work becomes a monumental and often detrimental task. You don't want to seem angry or like you have a chip on your shoulder. And you can't prove that you sense unfairness or discrimination because it is so damn subjective after all. Litigation is never really an option because you know it'll scar you for life … you'll be a marked creative in a very small industry. So you absorb it, brush it off and move on.

The education pipeline is very narrow.

A bulk of top-tier agency creatives come from a very small pool of schools, most prominently VCU, Art Center, SVA, Miami Ad School, Portfolio Center and Creative Circus. These are expensive schools and typically attract upper-middle-class suburban students who share very similar socio-economic and cultural experiences and perspectives. And this includes the odd second-generation immigrant kid and the international students (who come from even more privileged backgrounds to be able to afford them). Through their instructors—often working professionals and products of the same schools—they develop creative standards and tastes very much in line with existing conventional creative wisdom. It's almost impossible for someone from outside this system to waltz in and reframe the notion of what constitutes good advertising.

Predictable and lazy recruiting.

Advertising used to be the refuge of oddballs and misfits. People who'd tried other things, were unhappy, but then happened to wander into an agency by accident, often looking for coffee, the restroom or a lost pet. The ease of recruiting someone who's fully trained in the game, ready to hit the ground running from a portfolio school, or through a simple LinkedIn post, and the absence of agency mentors (with ridiculous attrition rates at agencies, nobody sticks around long enough to give a damn) willing to train the misfits, put an end to finding raw, uncut creative talent from the other side of the tracks.

Look, an international!

Agencies often hire international talent to tick the diversity box. These candidates are usually Cannes winners who're very steeped in current advertising idioms and are masters at winning awards. Sure, they do help tick the diversity box and bring a new and fresher perspective to the table. But they also tend to be from cultures with European or Anglo roots, and don't solve the main issue—the absence of homegrown Black and Brown talent.

It's who you know.

Networking is huge. New, and better gigs are very often found by word of mouth, through friends, former colleagues, and your ad-school cohort. Agencies value pedigree and don't consider one's circumstances and journey. Not a very conducive system if you're an outsider, someone with raw talent who's stuck at a smaller, B-list agency, yearning to play in the big leagues. You lack both the opportunities and the network for growth.

Creativity is not quantifiable.

Employees of color do well in industries where they can prove worth, and performance, with numbers on a balance sheet. The heads of Google and Microsoft are prime examples of this, with long track records of managing business units profitably. Wall Street only cares about who can make more money for them, so you see POC doing well at public companies where results are numerically quantifiable. An impossible task on the creative side of advertising. Awards aren't a metric because everyone has them. Great ads and campaigns are created by teams, and everyone involved claims ownership. We've all met more than one person that claims the Nike tagline as theirs, haven't we?

Biases—cultural, implicit and unconscious.

Asians are good at math. Swedes are cool. You can sell anything with an English accent. That sort of thing. We're in the business of creating perceptions and are not immune to them, or existing cultural stereotypes and biases, either. If the same idea were presented with an Australian accent and a Kenyan one, which one do you think would sell?

We live in a world where our perceptions have been shaped by the Industrial Age and colonization that heavily favored Anglo-European culture. While the colonized were admired for their traditional craft, creativity and design were largely seen as Anglo-European strengths. Advertising is very much an extension of this belief. The giants of art and literature revered by advertising come overwhelmingly from Western culture. Quick, can you name 10 Black, or Brown, artists (besides Basquiat)? This lack of awareness and positive perceptions about literary and artistic creativity in minority cultures subliminally influences the subjective nature of our business. Simply put: Why should I consider your idea seriously if you come from a culture or place not known for being creative in this field, while I do?

Assumed woke-ness.

There's an assumption that this is a Red State problem, within liberal woke coastal Blue State agencies. I don't think that's true at all.

I spent a decade at a privately owned, fairly conservative agency in a very Red State, as their first international hire and one of two creatives of color in a department of around 100. Unlike what one would assume, I never felt discriminated against. Not once, in 10 years, in a post-9/11 world. I credit the robust culture of respect and decency at the agency, its rock-solid leadership, and the moral character of its founder for this. 

I moved to an international network agency in a coastal Blue State (en route to becoming a director) and faced my lowest moments there. The constant turmoil in leadership, and the ascension of a very political, nativist GCD to the ECD role, who was very unlike the previous worldly occupants of the office, resulted in the creative department losing all its diversity, especially all the international talent the agency had spent a small fortune recruiting, within nine months.

Diversity and inclusion is very much a leadership and agency culture thing, not a coastal versus heartland thing.

The rank and file don't share your enthusiasm.

CCOs and ECDs tend to travel globally and hobnob at industry events all over. They grow to know, appreciate and value diverse talent. The rank and file of the dominant group within the creative department aren't usually on the same page because they don't have it easy. They're too busy dealing with student debt, job insecurity, health insurance, living expenses, ageism, awards, assignment cluster fucks, and the herculean task it is these days to sell and produce anything decent (which is why they took a loan, went to school and got into the business in the first place), to give a damn about a diversity initiative. It only means more competition and tougher odds of producing anything.

HR is not your friend.

I wouldn't be writing this if I still worked at an agency. I wouldn't want the attention. Employees of color don't trust HR departments, as they exist to protect the institution, and any complaints that could lead to embarrassing litigation in the future for the organization result in the employee having a giant spotlight and/or target on them. So, employees are left with just one option … keep your feelings camouflaged, and when you're able, leave for another place with your dignity intact.

Lack of empowerment.

Creatives of color are often tokenized within departments, to check a box, and not consciously groomed, despite all their differences, for leadership roles where they can effect change. They have to conform to the culture of the place rather than be an element encouraged to add a new dimension to it, because that's what they were hired for in the first place. This requires a great deal of foresight and introspection from management … leaders who can see the flaws and shortcomings and can implement change.

It's fucking exhausting.

Navigating a workplace, and an industry, where there are so few like you, while balancing perceptions, biases, your work, your self-expression and your emotions, will wear anyone out. You're also expected to be the gatekeeper for your culture and your kin, when all you're trying to do is make an ad that you can be proud of, to have your ideas accepted on their merits. You're aware that you can't be too passionate and argue for your ideas with conviction as you may be seen as too emotional or ungrateful, and you can't be dispassionate either. It's a tightrope. At some point, POC on the creative side throw in the towel and opt for whatever Plan B they've been silently building on the side.

So, do we need diversity at all? 

Absolutely. Because it leads to better, more interesting, and more effective work. We owe it to our clients, the general public, and ourselves as an industry. It's no surprise every Covid response ad was the same thing, to a point where they've been mocked mercilessly on YouTube. When was the last time you saw something on TV during regular programming that made you go, "Wow! That ad was different/smart/funny!"?

A 2019 Gallup survey on industry perception had advertising's positive rating among U.S. adults below the oil and gas industry.

Maybe the work isn't getting through to people as we'd hoped? Maybe the industry isn't a reflection of the population, and has lost some of its ability to speak to and engage the citizenry at large?

If your organization is serious about creative diversity, here are a few things you could implement to get rolling in the right direction.

There are three stages to doing this well vis-à-vis talent of color:

Stage 1: Finding the Talent

These notions involve attracting talent of color to your creative department, and into the world of advertising.

Recruitment and mentorship.

Commit to hiring from outside the norm. Give résumés and books from outside the portfolio school pipeline a closer look. Go to art and writing programs at state schools. You find the raw talent that can't afford portfolio school here. Don't hire the book. Hire someone for their life story, their journeys and experiences. Consider their books with the context of their lives and their circumstances. Start mentoring inner-city Arts Magnet programs in public schools. Most of these kids aren't even aware of advertising as a career path. The hardest thing for a creative of color is getting their foot in the door. Internships help, so put robust paid internship programs in place that lead to jobs, or at the very least add to the résumé. Only kids with trust funds and well-heeled parents can afford unpaid internships.

Michelle Obama writes about this in the context of law firm recruiting.

Agency reputation and culture.

It's a small industry. Word gets around. If your agency is known for doing work that's woke and edgy, with a culture to match, you'll naturally attract talent of color. They will seek you out. If your agency, or its leaders, have reputations of being inhospitable to talent of color, you're going to have a very hard time changing perceptions and attracting them. So start with an audit or some simple market research to discover what the industry thinks of your organization before kicking your diversity initiative into gear.

A deep bench of committed creative leadership.

Hire CDs, GCDs, ECDs and CCOs who've been exposed to multiple markets, international juries, and have traveled extensively to places known for things other than their beaches. Due to the high churn at these levels, it's important to have such people in the first, second and third rungs of creative leadership to sustain the agency's vision for building a diverse creative department. 

Almost everyone in creative feels pressured to climb the org chart and chase titles … CD, then GCD, etc. Not everyone is cut out for these roles, especially the managing people part. Organizations mistake good self-promoters for good managers. They're often not. So pick your managers carefully. Pick creatives who're secure, inspiring, trustworthy, apolitical, thoughtful, modest, and give satisfactory answers to why a piece of work deserves to live or die, and why it's good or bad. If a CD keeps killing work from a POC with inconsistent, vague and feeble reasoning, the creative is going to eventually wonder, "Does the CD have a problem with who I am?" And they're going to leave. 

This is the first frontier for a creative of color within an agency. 

Stage 2: Retaining Your Talent

Great. You've found some promising creative talent of color. Now how do you see them thrive and produce work knowing they don't look like the rest of the creative department, or share the same interests, and don't necessarily "fit in"? Start by understanding that at the core of every creative person lies a very simple, inarguable truth: If I'm not creating stuff I like, I'm going to be miserable. How an organization reconciles this truth in a highly subjective, dog-eat-dog, hyper-competitive field where everyone loves their idea best is key to the success of any diversity effort.

A culture of creative honor.

Agencies can institutionalize processes and codes that make creative functioning transparent and above board, minimizing the wiggle room for politics, toxic personalities and behavior. These need to lay down norms regarding attribution of credit, principles on ownership of ideas, equitable distribution of assignments, client interface, production … essentially an honor code for creative. There needs to be a strong sense of fairness within the department … one shared by its ranks, if you want to retain your talent of color.

We've all heard the stories. Creative department politics. It's everywhere, and it affects everyone. Agencies love saying they're asshole-free places, but it's rarely true, and toxic work environments seem like the norm. If it's bad, assume it's going to be worse for a POC, someone who's an obvious outsider in the space.

Lose the Hunger Games.

Now that we've all had the shit kicked out of us by Covid, maybe it's time for a kinder, mellower business model. One that isn't laser focused on extracting every last cent of the client's dollars by adding excessive layers of billable hours to the process. We have to shed the Battle Royale–All Hands On Deck–Winner Take All model creative departments have become.

If everyone has to fight tooth and nail for a few tasty assignments, you'll have a toxic political creative work environment overnight. You don't need 15 teams on everything. It's not going to make the work better, and it'll certainly destroy morale.

People get tribal when they have to compete for scant resources, and the next thing you know someone's wearing a MAGA hat to work. Politically charged environments never favor people who are in the minority.

Create diverse teams.

Match your talent of color with someone who isn't. Mix and match them often. Give them time to build a rapport, to find common ground and understand each other's worlds, and give them assignments they can sink their teeth into. This builds a much-needed kinship between creatives and leads to better ideas and work.

Assume they're right, maybe?

Creativity is a function of one's imagination—a magical, limitless human trait—which we need to accept can come from anyone and isn't rationed out by race or ethnicity.

As a creative, strategy or account head, if an idea doesn't feel relatable to you, and it comes from someone not like you, be open-minded and admit that it may very well be the right solution. Be humble enough to admit that you might be wrong, or not know what's right. After all, how can you be 100 percent certain about anything in this very subjective business? Take it to the client. You can caveat it as something that's a different take on things, and no client will begrudge you for it. It may end up winning, and make you look really smart.

See something, say something.

Now that we all know this is a very real problem, and not the creation of an over-sensitive person's imagination, if you notice signs of it happening, speak up and be an ally. It'll rarely be overt. It'll be subtle. It'll be the constant ignoring of someone of color, the arbitrary killing of their ideas with some feeble excuse or the other, the creation of false narratives about them, etc. Pay heed, and if it persists, run it up the chain however you need to. 

If you want to work in a place that has a healthy, vibrant culture, you have to be actively involved in creating and preserving it.

Read the signs.

If you start losing talent (of color or otherwise) at an abnormal rate, you have a problem. It's that simple. And it's someone in power who's the problem.

Address this quickly or you'll hemorrhage more than you'll be able to recover from, and it'll cost the agency a small fortune in recruiter fees. Make sure exit interviews are taken seriously, and employees believe in their efficacy. Having a diversity officer, or a group of assigned creative mentors, can stem the tide. Very often, just having someone to talk to in confidence goes a long way in retaining talent.

Stage 3: Growing Your Talent

Client face time.

Within agencies, power flows from the client. 

Let all your creative talent get in front of the client often, and present their work, especially your minority talent. Give them the ability to build their relationships and rapport with the client. Give your client some credit. Meeting creative people is usually the highlight of their day. Denying creative talent access to their clients is a sure-shot way of suppressing their growth.

Concrete goals and in-depth reviews.

Set concrete, attainable goals in writing for your talent of color, and review them in-depth periodically. Do this knowing that people who tend to discriminate love moving targets for POC in an attempt to frustrate them, and escape acknowledging their contributions. 

Leadership and empowerment.

There is no real substitute for this. You really won't know how diversity can improve your creative product if you don't give diverse talent the power and the responsibility to shape the work. A lot of POC tend to get stuck just below CD level, and that barrier needs to be broken, for starts.

Likeminded support.

A CD of color needs to be supported by a team of account, production and strategy heads that share the same goals for the business, and have each other's backs. A narrow-minded account head, or client, can stymie a creative POC's efforts just as well as anyone else. Advertising is an incredibly collaborative business, and not a solitary affair, so any serious D&I effort in creative has to be paired with partners of the cause in the other departments on the agency as well. It needs institutional support that has their backs, and doesn't put short-term profits above long-term organizational goals.

Allow them to fail.

There's no shortage of people who've failed upwards in the industry. So allow your talent of color to fail, just like everyone else. They need room to grow, to learn, to get better with time. Very often, because they have a lot of attention focused on them, one single failure dooms them to snap judgments and opinions that stick. 

The diversity problem isn't going to be fixed overnight. It takes 12-24 months for a CD to start showing results, while the gestation period for a creative from junior to CD is usually about 8-10 years, so invest the time this deserves.

Let's not squander this long overdue collective woke-ness. 

Let's get it right, finally. 

For the industry. For the work.

If not now, when?

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Kiran Koshy
Kiran Koshy is a director at Slash Dynamic LA, and former agency creative. He teaches the Advertising & Art Direction program at his alma mater, Texas A&M.

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