When DEI Initiatives are Uncritically Promoted As PR

By From Advocacy to Activism Archives
Cover image for  article: When DEI Initiatives are Uncritically Promoted As PR

When Medical Marketing and Media (MM+M) titled their July/August 2021 magazine The Diversity Issue: The medical marketing biz confronts its DE&I shortcomings, I was intrigued and decided to take a look. What I found was a refreshing array of soul-searching ensconced within a predictable framework of puffery and spin. Of course, it's a trade publication and so some "synergies" between ad and editorial are to be expected. But this particular issue of MM+M provides a revealing case of what happens when DEI initiatives are uncritically promoted as PR without any publicly reported standards of what outcomes count, how they are measured, and what constitutes success and failure.

MM+M Magazine's inside cover hints at what's to come. It's a full-page ad with the words "unity," "impact" and "change" written in large capital letters above a note from WPP, OmnicomGroup IPG, Vayner Media, Doner and Code and Theory thanking Johnson & Johnson (J&J) "for bringing us together to create a more diverse inclusive industry."

Who is this ad for you might ask? Well, at face value, the copy suggests that a bunch of rival ad agencies and holding companies banded together to publicly praise their client for helping them get their DEI ducks in a row. So, I guess the target would be J&J or, better yet, given its placement, other prospective clients.

While flattering/promoting a client (or, indeed, oneself) in a trade advert may be a tried-and-true marketing tactic (similar to Omnicom Health Group's CDMP, TBWA World Health and Klick Health buying ads in that same issue to celebrate their own "Hall of Femme" honorees), MM+M goes even further by referencing the page one J&J thank you note advert within a more editorial framework on page 34: "Marketing's Diversity Problem — And Why It's About to Get Even Tougher. And while the article includes mentions of advertising's dismal DEI stats, candidates asking about DEI during interviews, and quotes by outspoken DEI advocates like VMLY&R's Walter Geer, the coverage of the J&J/agency collab looked, walked and talked like sponsored content.

The web version even included a screen grab of a video conference between reps from J&J, IPG, WPP, Omnicom and MM+M, respectively, as though the conversation was, in itself, newsworthy. The article quotes participants gushing about how "we inspire each other to do better" and "cross-pollinate" by using "intel-swapping" that "made us all better more quickly" in a "holding company collaboration" not seen in "40 years."

So, why now? The article drops a hint, briefly mentioning a J&J shareholder proposal to have the company undergo a third-party racial equity audit and annually disclose diversity reports. J&J sought to remove the proposal from the proxy ballot on the basis that it's already doing enough, but the SEC wasn't having it and neither was Blackrock, the largest money manager in the world, which has a 7% stake in J&J and supported the audit proposal.

Though the J&J audit measure ultimately did not pass, according to Morningstar, this year's proxy voting season saw a dramatic increase in shareholder activist resolutions including 34 that focused on diversity and inclusion and received an average of 43% of shareholder support with nine actually passing. Furthermore, EY reports that recent proposals seeking disclosure of EEO-1 demographic workforce data or increased board/executive diversity have averaged 70% shareholder support with 67% of those proposals passing.

So, it's no wonder J&J is eager to brand itself (along with its agencies) as having good intentions for DEI while blocking any public audits of actual results behind the scenes. And this "humble-brag" turn to agencies to help them do the right thing is both ironic and fitting. Ironic, because Adland has so spectacularly failed to self-regulate their own diversity problem for decades and fitting, because Madison Avenue has, over time, refined and perfected all the tools of its trade to hide this from clients, customers and regulators alike while implying progress through misdirection techniques like diverse casting. If only MM+M had correctly diagnosed the real story behind the ad, the article's headline could have revealed a much harder truth: "The Blind Leading the Blind — Why Agencies and Brands See No Evil."

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