Representation, democratisation and the need to do less, better

DEI needs a broad skill set and here is why...

Last year Devin O’Loughlin spoke to DiversityQ about how RAPP was one of the few advertising agencies actively driving DEI. We caught up with her to find out what, if anything, had changed in the industry generally.

To truly embrace DEI, advertising agencies need to democratise it to create accountability and achieve true representation.

That is the view of Devin O’Loughlin, who points out: “If you don’t have representation, it impacts the work that you produce, what the clients put out and the culture. That said, realising that it is an issue, devising a plan to address it, and implementing it is a very long tail. There must be a systemic seismic shift in how organisations are structured.”

Although many advertising companies have now employed someone to look after DEI, it was more of a tick-box exercise and the people filling the roles are being challenged with the scope of what is required. Also, there has to be more than one person doing the job.

O’Loughlin is the Global Chief Diversity, Equity & Inclusion & Communications Officer at RAPP and has experienced first-hand the importance of having a team. She says: “You need a team. There’s no way one person can do DEI. The other layer of democratisation, which I don’t think is talked about or adopted enough, is that it’s not just the responsibility of one team or someone with the appropriate job title; or even dedicated hand-raisers.

“DEI must be bought into and owned by everybody in the organisation because it requires thinking and acting differently and creating a safe space when you mess up, as long as you’re learning from missteps.”

DEI needs a broad skill set

Asked what skills DEI professionals needed, O’Loughlin answered that they had to understand all facets of the business. This included knowing how to evaluate talent trends – where there were gaps in representation – and how to prioritise in the wake of budget cuts. Also, understanding strategy and the creative side to ingrain DEI into the business operations so that it becomes part of the way people think and how they approach client briefs.

She adds: “You need to have the organisational skills to consider all of that and put on events, such as Pride Month, Black History Month and LGBTQ History Month. Then it would help if you had a certain level of EQ because it’s a people role. Even if it doesn’t fall under HR, people will come to you because they expect you will support them.

“Because there isn’t a ton of precedent, we’re building the plane as we fly it, coupling that with the fact that the DEI conversation changes daily. As it becomes a more prevalent part of our world, people feel more comfortable being more authentic, creating new nuances and components of the conversation.”

While leaders were buying into DEI, there was still a gulf between verbalising and doing: enforcing policy changes, calling out people who use inappropriate language and showing up.

“At RAPP, there are pockets where different offices and markets struggle,” O’Loughlin admits. “We are working to ensure that leaders don’t just voice their support for initiatives but also turn up to events. This will help avoid a culture where that suggests they don’t care enough to show up.”

Addressing the middle layer, which tended to be the most resistant to change, would involve hard conversations. She adds: “The advertising and marketing industry is a little incestuous and rife for letting people slide. We need to start having those conversations where we say, ‘this is our stake in the ground; this is where we stand.’”

Succession planning and sponsorship

RAPP’s stake in the ground is to make a conscious effort on DEI. While the leadership is still made up of white males, O’Loughlin is confident that the agency is moving in the right direction. It’s already embarked on succession planning, growing and retaining talent to increasing representation at the senior level.

“I’m excited to be rolling out our sponsorship programme, which aims to grow our BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) talent,” she explains. “They’re in high demand, so they have a choice. And we’re not going to change our representation if we can’t show them why it’s worth staying.”

Last year saw the launch of RAPP’s first DEI sentiment survey in the US and the UK. It asked employees if they felt included in the conversation and whether they had seen a difference in the talent acquisition and retention processes. The first lot of data is being analysed, and the plan is to conduct the survey quarterly.

From talking to people in the UK team at different levels, O’Loughlin was surprised to learn that “we’re trying to do way too much. We need to do less better. The DEI coach I worked with for a year said, ‘you need to pick a focus for every year because you’re never going to be everything to everyone. If you can lay some groundwork that helps change the tide for a certain group, you can replicate that across another group.’ I don’t think organisations have cracked that yet. So, focusing is how you make the impact.”

Sustainable improvement

She is optimistic that improving representation at RAPP and within the industry generally is sustainable, partly due to public accountability, which means that “consumers aren’t letting brands slide with doing poorly anymore. We are having conversations with clients who want to ensure we’re working with diverse suppliers. They want to understand the breakdown and the representation on their team to ensure that it’s not homogenous and they’ve got diversity of thinking,

“Similarly, when a client or brand approaches RAPP, we have what we call the three Cs – culture, commercial and conversion These questions evaluate whether it’s a good partnership for us. I added in DEI questions because we need to understand what potential partners stand for, what they believe in and how they work with their people.”

O’Loughlin has also been preparing a client maturity survey to discover if clients are supporting their people with training and establishing ERGs. And to which intersectional groups they are aiming their products and campaigns. That would enable RAPP to have a more symbiotic relationship with clients regarding DEI.

Creating a broader safe space

However, there was an issue with intersectionality, particularly when individuals spanned different groups. For example, someone could be Black and gay but feel they had to join either the Black ERG or the one for LGBTQ, but not bo h. Often, they chose the one where they felt the safest.

“It’s going to take a lot of work to bridge those gaps,” she explains. “Because there are so many places to split your energy, focus and attention. We need to get to a place where we can have a full holistic conversation because people will burn out if they keep having to code switch to fit a certain group they want to be part of.”

During Pride month, RAPP’s holding company, Omnicom, partnered its LGBTQ ERG with its Asian ERG to bring in queer Asian talent to discuss how their dual identities impacted their lives and work. Creating these “cross-pollinating conversations” was the way to “create a broader safe space for people to show up in all their facets.”

Disability and the fear factor

O’Loughlin’s focus over the next year is to create a global DEI framework, considering that people’s needs differ around the world and with an emphasis on doing less better.

One area that she feels is consistently overlooked is disability, and not just in the advertising industry. Fear played a large part because of the many different disabilities, some of which were invisible, which meant there was much to understand and create awareness around.

O’Loughlin adds: “It becomes a bit of a legal rabbit hole, which organisations are not necessarily ready to tackle because, once you give someone with a disability an opportunity to disclose it, it becomes incumbent on the organisation to create a safe space as they do for other marginalised groups. People are afraid to see the disability community represented in mainstream society because they don’t understand it.

“I’m thankful that our diversity strategist, who is part of my team and is a Black LGBTQ woman, has a huge passion for disability because a member of her family is neurodiverse. She’s brought thoughtful research to some of our automotive clients and an audit showing how their cars are inaccessible.”

“I think there are ways to start those conversations, but it must be something the client buys into because it will require them to change their product. If they don’t know the return on investment, they’d rather say they’d look at it next year.”

Finally, she emphasised the importance of succession planning to ensure better representation, especially as, with a recession looming, there was a danger that DEI initiatives could be seen as an overhead to be cut.

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