Execs Grapple With Diversity Issues At Advertising Week

The CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion initiative began as an idea to change the way leaders address race and has quickly evolved into a major industry commitment to advance diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

During NYC's Advertising Week on Monday, BSSP’s Keith Cartwright (who co-founded the diversity-focused group Saturday Morning); WP Engine's Heather J. Brunner; Sonic's Clifford Hudson; MDC Partners’ Scott Kauffman; Interpublic Group's Michael Roth and Ariel Fund's John Rogers joined Fortune magazine's Ellen McGirt to discuss the tangible actions they are taking to make a difference.

Leaders must create a corporate culture that is reflective of the broader society, the panelists agreed. "There are more of us than them," says Cartwright, alluding to the fact he feels there are more people who are against the current political climate than are for it.

Ariel Fund's Rogers recommends that companies strive for certain goals in order to become more diverse. Firms should assess their workforces to make sure the culture is representative of the world at large, and make an effort to do business with minority-owned companies. Rogers also advises businesses to support philanthropic initiatives, like the NAACP and the Urban League.

As the ad industry attempts to do a better job of attracting a wider network of talent, agencies say they still struggle with getting diverse candidates in the door. "We haven't done a great job of promoting ourselves” says Kauffman. MDC, to that end, is aligning with other inclusive groups to expose a wider audience to what it does. "We just have to keep pressing on."

"No one I ever met says they want to grow up and be in the advertising business," says IPG’s Roth.

According to the panelists, advertising's outreach to more diverse workers is hindered by the education system and poverty.

Social media allows leaders to emote in real-time, says Kauffman. This can be either a good or bad thing, depending on one's perspective. He began expressing his thoughts in light of the current administration, but his social-media expert daughter advised him to stop. "Colleagues may think it is a hostile work environment. Clients may disapprove."

He usually refrained from expressing his opinions until the tragic events that unfolded in Charlottesville this summer. "My community needed to hear from me," he says. This moment solidified his decision that his speaking out was more important than remaining silent to avoid offending others.

After Charlottesville, both Kauffman and IPG's Roth wrote letters to their teams to remind them there is a place in the world for positive change. "Sure enough, if you have liked-minded people truly humanistic, we have a megaphone," says Kauffman. Both leaders say they were surprised by the outpouring of support, from workers and competitors, as well as clients.

Others said they aren’t as certain of their public statements.

“My big issue is whether I work quietly or do I become more public about it?” said Hudson. The answer is not clear, he added, but Sonic is actively raising consciousness about diversity issues and engaging in discussions across all levels of his organization.

There are no easy answers, but the leaders say they must walk the walk. WP Engine's inclusion push isn't just women and people of color, but also those without degrees and veterans. MDC Kauffman also points out that ageism is a looming concern.

“I would have never thought that corporations are going to save us,” says Fortune's McGirt. “But they are taking big risks and holding us all accountable.”

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