Getting to Inclusion in Advertising: Finding and Using Your Voice

Diversity is important, but the industry must go further

A good friend of mine passed away recently, after an extraordinary years-long battle with glioblastoma. A Harvard-educated published author and early tech influencer, she was also one of the funniest and brightest people I've met in my life. In the end, the disease started to slowly rob her of her language, to the point where she suggested that I needn't visit her, because if she couldn't speak, it wouldn't really be worth it. Shocked, I tried to comfort her by letting her know that words aren't necessary between us, that I know who she is and just want to spend some time together. Fortunately I had that opportunity.

But now I am learning to appreciate that she was teaching me a much bigger lesson, which involves a discussion about diversity and inclusion that's been going on for so long in our industry and beyond. Losing your voice is devastating, because the ability to express yourself is so fundamental to being human. Not being able to do so hits right at our notion of self-worth.

This is why it hurts so viscerally when we are silenced in meetings. When we aren't recognized for our work. When we aren't represented. When we feel we aren't heard. When someone robs us of our voice.

Many in the advertising industry are taking commendable steps to ensure that we stop the vicious cycle of harassment and discrimination. This is, of course, fundamental—because until we stop this cycle, we will continue to lose not just women but people of different genders, gender identifications, colors, faiths ... the very broad-reaching perspectives that we so vitally need to serve the audiences that our brands ultimately deliver to. But I'm encouraged by the momentum I'm seeing in stopping harassment and discrimination, because that means we'll ultimately be in a place where we can have an earnest conversation about inclusion. 

Often, "diversity" and "inclusion" are used interchangeably, and though they're related, they really aren't the same thing. As diversity activist Verna Myers puts it, "Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance." We should go a step further, though—where diversity is being invited to the party, and inclusion is being on the selection and music committees. 

Certainly, diversity—ensuring broad and varied representation—is important because its presence is fundamental to bringing about real growth. That said, inasmuch as skillset, expertise and cultural fit should remain critical hiring criteria, diversity won't work unless we also screen for values. We don't have to look or think the same way, but we do have to have some sort of shared conviction about what is right, and what is worth doing. 

Further, we can't stop at simply hiring diverse talent and claiming a job well done once we've hit some arbitrary quota. And it's categorically not about assimilating those diverse people into pre-existing structures and norms; authenticity should never be stifled.

We need to figure out the right structures, supports and ways of working that enable everyone to come together in authentic, meaningful ways. In order to be inclusive, we need to set the stage for inclusion that is safe, that is open to new work modalities, that affords experimentation and optimization. We have the technologies, but perhaps not the policies or the tolerance. Or we're afraid. It is as much a structural learning as it is a cultural learning. But once we create an environment where people can actually live their best lives, we can do our best work. 

It is hard, but this is how we can and must give each other voice. 

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Yumi Prentice
Yumi Prentice is president and managing partner at David&Goliath.