Rhetoric Won't Save the Industry: What Diversity Means in 2021

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Cover image for  article: Rhetoric Won't Save the Industry: What Diversity Means in 2021

A fragmented and chaotic year like 2020 makes identifying one prevailing thread exceedingly tricky. The global pandemic brought on by COVID-19 was the operating system running in the background of our lives. The social uprising in response to the extrajudicial murder of Black people at the hands of law enforcement and the election cycle were dominant themes. The tragic death of George Floyd personified the struggle for justice. Mr. Floyd became a rallying cry and a focal point for Black Lives Matter activists. BLM, as a grassroots movement, borrows deeply from the Civil Rights traditions of protest. The activism of the movement reverberated well beyond the streets and into corporate boardrooms. Corporate leadership found themselves coming face to face with entrenched systems of inequality within their organizations.

As distillers of consumer sentiment and shapers of consumer imagery, the advertising industry was front and center. By any measurement of diversity, advertising/marketing/media are failing to address long established inequality in its ranks. Corporations could not ignore longtime demands for more diversity throughout the industry. Statements were made, antiracist books were purchased, and panels were convened --- all with the desire to confront the legacy of racism that has kept our workplaces from achieving meaningful diversity. More than six months later it is a critical time to assess what diversity, equity, and inclusion will look like as 2021 unfolds. In short, what do we need to talk about when we talk about diversity?

Diversity is a War of Attrition

DEI, as currently practiced, is a war of attrition. Judging by the glacial rate of change, top leadership is content to merely issue more platitudes while promises of substantive change remain "down the road." The more distance grows between protests and calls for change favors the entrenched power structure. Leadership feels they can "wait us out" and exhaust the efforts of those working internally and externally for change. This is a tried and true method, but all of us who are invested in driving change must not allow that to happen. If DEI efforts result in an advertising industry that looks and operates differently, we must demand it.


DEI has to be better framed as a negotiation with and demand for power. As long as DEI is a function of programs, initiatives, and events without reckoning with power, there will be no change. The language we adopt must hold power as an organizing idea. Identifying power relationships makes it easier to hold power accountable for change. If organizations are not transparent regarding their diversity numbers and goals, how can we hold them to account? We can't build models that incentivize a different set of behaviors if there is no baseline to compare. The idea of allyship must be replaced with solidarity. Allyship obscures power relationships because it places the onus on the nebulous concept of support, which favors empty statements and platitudes. Solidarity is useful terminology because it can only develop shared sacrifice, clear goals, and accountability.

Most importantly, solidarity cannot exist without trust. Trust is low to nonexistent among a white corporate leadership and rank and file people of color pushing for change. DEI removed from power makes it impossible to create the type of change the moment demands. Language matters deeply. We must be specific and fearless in our use of language. Unclear or ambiguous language serves the powerful and is easier to diffuse. If we mean Black people, say Black people. If we mean Latinos (or Latinx), then we must say that. Different groups have different needs and require different redress and potential solutions. If we can't name a thing or prefer catch-all phrases, we will continue to miss the mark, and answers will remain elusive.

Reject the Business Case

The importance of DEI is often presented as a business case. DEI matters because it is "good business." Diverse workplaces perform better Case after case makes this point. I, too, have argued a business case when discussing DEI in the past but have come to limit it as it has proven to be ineffective. Why do I say so? Despite overwhelming evidence that diversity is a winning strategy, most organizations refuse to change. James Baldwin eloquently said, "I can't believe what you say, because I see what you do," and the business case applies to his reasoning. At first glance, the business case would appear to make the most sense, but it is most risky in an unstable business environment. First, a business case has historically been used to justify exploitation and extraction. Connecting DEI to a dollar and cents calculus runs the risk of obscuring the essential but elusive ways organizations benefit from diversity. Second, if DEI is only a function of driving profit in economically challenging times, it is easier to play to a "wait and see" mentality. The full inclusion of historically underrepresented groups can't be left to the whims of a corporate balance sheet.

Strategy + Culture Take Centerstage

Historically positioned against one another, strategy and culture are most potent/effective when working in unison. Strategy and culture are the foundations upon which we can come to grips with complex realities. Few realities are as complex and fraught with potential missteps as embracing diversity. Most organizations have defaulted to more straightforward so-called "fixes" like unconscious bias training and diversity workshops because they fit into a "trained and check" paradigm more neatly. Strategy requires a commitment, resources, and a long-term approach to diagnose the challenge properly and then plan for potential solutions. Culture leverages informal and formal organizational systems to put the strategic plan in motion. Is your organization capable of understanding and nurturing the expertise of diverse employees and candidates? Underrepresented groups or BiPOC or any other euphemism that translates to nonwhite are valuable because they add perspective, understanding, and cultural fluency that would otherwise be absent. Successfully unleashing that deep expertise can only occur if there is an underlying culture to support it. In 2021 we need that fertile cultural ground to bear fruit.

In the year ahead, the advertising/marketing industry has a stark choice. Continue to stall in the hopes that internal and external change agents grow tired or confront diversity to change the industry's tone and tenor. Those advocating for change have never been more organized and determined to create an inclusive industry. The stakes have never been higher. Will 2021 finally be the year that leadership that has proven to this point either unwilling or ineffective step aside and allow others to take the wheel? Will meaningful resources: financial and intellectual, be allocated to make the changes being demanded? Will there be accountability for C-suite leaders who are failing their fiduciary responsibility to steward their organizations to the best of their ability? 2021 has the potential to be a watershed year, even when compared to 2020. Will we have the foresight to see the challenge ahead and the collective will to do something about it? Time will tell. Onward.

Photo courtesy of Phil McKenzie

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