How one marketing agency is raising the volume on DE&I

RAPP is one of the few marketing agencies actively driving DEI throughout its operations

RAPP’s DEI efforts extend to how it hires, nurtures talent and services clients. Global Chief Diversity, Equity & Inclusion & Communications Officer Devin O’Loughlin and her team at RAPP have produced a white paper outlining the initiatives that the agency is embracing to achieve real change. Here is how…

They say that actions speak louder than words. In that case, the volume at marketing agency RAPP is up high, following the company’s commitment to ‘A Mission of Fierce Individuality’ that prioritises DE&I through its people and work.

The white paper, produced by RAPP, states: “The harsh truth is that the advertising industry is woefully behind in diversity, equity and inclusion, and almost every agency has been complicit. The problem is twofold: There isn’t enough diversity within the industry itself, and the content coming from agencies and brands hasn’t done a good job of portraying the lived experiences of people of colour, the disabled, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, and other marginalised groups.”

The document then outlines how RAPP is bucking the trend. Initiatives include creating a diversity strategist role, developing an internal playbook and marketing best practices guide, updating creative briefs to prioritise DE&I and recruiting based on culture add, rather than culture fit, to name but a few.

“I decided to put the white paper together because I was having so many conversations with so many people across our business, partners, agencies, clients, etc. It gave me a way to put all of that information together,” O’Loughlin explains.

“I had started the year with a roadmap outlining all of the initiatives I wanted to tackle at various points throughout the year. Creating the white paper midway through allowed me to stop and evaluate where the holes were and where I wanted to keep pushing.”

Attracting a diverse workforce

O’Loughlin is justifiably proud of the way RAPP is trying to attract a diverse workforce. The company is building partnerships with historically Black colleges and universities across the U.S. Similarly, in the U.K., it is launching comparable programmes with organisations such as Brixton Finishing School.

“We’re starting to engage with the talent we hadn’t previously made a connection with,” O’Loughlin reveals. “I’m also really excited about our Emerging Leaders Programme, based in the U.S. and piloting in our LA office (with expansion plans for 2022). It’s been designed as an apprenticeship-to-hire programme and is open to individuals in high school, recent graduates or other young talents without a degree. It serves underrepresented populations who may not have thought about entering higher education to study marketing or advertising; or who may not have the opportunity.

“In terms of inclusivity, we’re developing our employee resource groups (ERGs) and building coaching and mentorship programmes. Those sorts of initiatives are helping to grow and nurture our existing talent, which supports inclusivity as well.”

Although committed to recruiting based on culture add rather than culture fit, O’Loughlin admits this is easier said than done as it requires some ‘rewiring’ to combat unconscious or internal biases. Unconscious bias training has now been integrated into hiring manager courses, and a standardised curriculum is in the works to roll out throughout RAPP generally.

RAPP recognises that it is important to have diversity on the talent acquisition team to attract diverse candidates and emphasises coaching hiring managers. As O’Loughlin points out: “The talent acquisition team may bring in six candidates, five of whom are Black and one is white. However, if the hiring manager is white and in a hurry to recruit, the danger is they unconsciously hire someone they believe they have a stronger connection with – someone in their likeness.

“If we want to continue diverse, equitable and inclusive hiring, I want 2022 to be the year we focus on training our hiring managers to make better decisions while empowering them to nurture that talent.

“And it doesn’t just stop with the hire. The first 90 days of onboarding are critical. This is a fantastic opportunity to showcase RAPP’s culture as our new hires build connections with their team while learning our DE&I foundational offerings. Inclusive hiring managers and strong onboarding ensure the process is not only inclusive and equitable but also not a revolving door.”

Diversity strategists

The push for better DE&I is not confined to internal practice; RAPP encourages clients to embrace it. A marketing best practice guide is in development to support clients and partners in integrating DE&I into their organisations’ practice. A contract that holds both the clients and the company accountable is also being considered.

“What has made the most impact for us is developing our diversity strategy discipline,” O Loughlin states. “In our U.S. and U.K. offices, we’ve got dedicated diversity strategists. Their sole remit is focusing on all things diversity. For example, we’ve got an automotive client for whom we’ve developed a disability focus group to understand and provide insight and recommendations on accessibility. We’re working with other clients on their general marketing presentation and targets and what programmes might work for different groups.

“Those diversity strategists have revamped our entire creative brief so that we’re considering diversity, equity and inclusion at the outset of every project for every client, even if the diversity strategists don’t put their hands on it explicitly. Concerning supplier diversity, I’m working with our operations lead, looking at our spending over the past year against industry benchmarks for supplier diversity to make sure we’re on track.”

Leadership support

One of the main reasons RAPP is achieving success in the diversity sphere is leadership buy-in and support. O’Loughlin believes that DE&I roles are ineffective when they fall within the umbrella of HR and do not report to the CEO and other leaders. She explains: “There are, of course, aspects to the role that are heavily people-related. But DE&I spans every facet of the business. To lump the role squarely in HR limits what that person can do and how they impact change in the business.

“A senior DE&I leader should report directly to the CEO, with a dotted line to both the people leader and the CFO. It becomes more difficult to push forward initiatives and programmes if the role does not have direct access to the CFO because everything costs money. Having the connection to the CEO helps to impact the broader business-wide change and, obviously, you want to have the connection with the people lead.”

Much of O’Loughlin’s budget supports RAPP’S mentorship and sponsorship programmes, coaching and the ERGs. Other initiatives include bringing in small businesses from unrepresented communities for discussions or events.

The top-down approach should be backed by proper documentation so that people know where the organisation stands. This is also important for partners and potential clients.

O’Loughlin advises that companies wanting to recruit a DE&I professional should hire someone who fully understands the business or industry. She adds: “That person needs to be empowered to ask questions and to stand up and say difficult things. A lot of what this role requires is having uncomfortable conversations; being able to tell a leader, ‘I don’t think we should do that, or the organisation is going in the wrong direction.’

“I would continue to drive home how critical it is for organisations and people to enforce these considerations in these conversations in their everyday life. It’s not a switch that you can turn on and off. And if you try to do that, you’re bound to miss things.

“It’s important to listen and to learn and not necessarily lean on people and tokenise them for their expertise, but know that you’ve got blind spots. The only way to move forward in the right way is to admit that, ask questions and be open.”

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