Building the Agency for Tomorrow

04/26/2016 10:56 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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By Amber Guild, President, Collins

The lawsuit against Gustavo Martinez has brought much needed attention to the sexism and racism that runs rampant in our industry. It’s also rightfully highlighted the fact that the leaders of our industry in no way reflect the diversity of the world we live in.

While I could happily and righteously wax poetic about the morals and ethics of why I think that needs to change – I actually think there is a correlation we haven’t been making between our industry’s tone-deaf response to the lack of diversity and the business challenges our industry is facing.

If you haven’t noticed already, more and more clients are bringing their creative services in house. As of 2013 ANA reported that this number had doubled versus five years prior and the trend sees it increasing in the future. Frustrated CEOs are going on record: “What agencies are selling doesn’t work anymore.” And worse, agencies “just don’t get it.” 

Agency responses to this have been around changing what they do and​ adding new skills.

The way I see it, ​ the real ​problem around what we do for clients would be more easily solved if we placed more importance on who is doing it. And how we’re doing it. Because guess what - Clients are.

In the past six months I've heard of several major clients asking their agency prospects about the diversity of their teams - telling them they want to make sure they'll have a team that reflects the cultural, gender and ethnic diversity of their customers. 

And, of course that makes sense given women make up 50% of the population but drive an estimated 70-80% of consumer spending with their purchase power and influence.  In fact, 50% of products marketed to men are actually purchased by women. Globally women control $20 trillion in annual spending – in the next five years it’s expected to rise to $30 trillion. According to Nielsen, in the U.S., African-American, Asian American and Hispanic consumers account for more than 120 million people (38% of the population) and are projected to increase by 2.3 million each year before becoming the majority by 2044. Not to mention the coveted “Millennial” target is the most racially diverse generation in American history - 43% of Millennials are non-white, the highest share of any generation. 

Diversity in our talent is not just the right thing to do it, it is business critical. 

Staying relevant in today’s economy for businesses like ours will always be about the talent we attract and the ideas we generate to grow our clients’ business.  

We can’t have one without the other.  

The only way we can grow our clients’ businesses is if our ideas inspire and motivate the humans on the other side – the consumers. How can we do that well if the people who come up with these ideas only come from one increasingly shrinking slice of our population? 

And while that may seem intuitive for some of us – research now validates it. Katherine W. Phillips’ article, “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter” which ran in Scientific American discussed how research proves that diversity enhances creativity.  She states that “social diversity encourages the search for novel information and perspectives, leading to better decision making and problem solving. Diversity can improve the bottom line of companies and lead to unfettered discoveries and breakthrough innovations.”

I’ve sat around way too many conference room tables watching both the client and agency men discussing the needs of the brand (a brand that is solely purchased by women) without ever mentioning women. I’ve been in presentations where the description of the target was “they are multicultural” (code for not white) as if that was an actual insight into a human need that could fuel creative work which would resonate and inspire a group of people.

Agencies of tomorrow will create cultures that encourage and value the complexity of diversity. And yes, that means some big shifts to how we work. It’s time to re-build what creative culture looks like in order to attract and retain the incredible diverse talent of today that will help us move our clients businesses.

Value the job performed, not the time spent performing the job.

We need to stop equating dedication and hard work with hours spent on the job and being physically in the office.  We need to put the focus on the outcome – the work, the ideas that are generated.  We’ve created a culture where we wear “I worked all through the weekend” like a badge of honor. Without asking ourselves, but did it help the work? The ideas? Given that studies show that consistently working long hours actually hurts productivity, creativity and ability to problem solve, is the cost of a culture of over work even worth it?

This is also a hurdle that has (historically) disproportionately hurt mothers. When we start to wonder why aren’t there more women in senior positions, the industry needs to realize it has been asking us to choose time at work over time with our families. And for many of us, there is no choice. Not really. And with rise of two-parent working households and Millennial fathers becoming just as active parents as mothers, we’ll soon see talented young men also refusing to make that choice.

What if we let our people play other roles within their lives? What if we allowed them to be engaged parents and/or to pursue the other passions in their lives, to actually live outside the company and experience the life our consumers are experiencing? Imagine what THAT would do to their work, their ideas, and their engagement in the company.  

I can tell you from first-hand experience that becoming a mother and being an active parent has led to exponential personal growth for me and without a doubt has made me more effective in my professional life. I am a better manger, leader and have a lot more insight and empathy in to the very people we create brands for. And yes, the businesses I have run have seen the positive effects of that personal growth and perspective.

If we shift the value to the outcome, then allowing people flexibility and working from home is no longer an issue, which will allow a more diverse group of people to stay within our industry.

Close the gender and race pay gap. 

It seems obvious, I know. But the reasons for pay inequity begin so early on in our culture and are a result of significant structural and economical realities it can feel overwhelming to fix. But let’s just start with – paying men, women and people from different ethnicities and cultures the same wage for the same job. 

According to the statistics white women make an average of 78% of what non-Hispanic white men earn; African American women only make 64% and Hispanic women only 54%.  Black men make 75% and Hispanic men 67%.  And while these are national averages across occupations it is still relevant for our own industry. 

Review the salaries in your own company and review your pay structure. Set it up so that people in the same discipline, doing the same level are on parity with one another. 

Stop hiring for "cultural fit"

As author and Wharton School Professor Adam Grant says, “Hire for cultural contribution.” If we continue to hire for cultural fit we will end up with the same thing. Hire people for what they contribute to the company’s culture – if you do- research shows that you will find a team that is more creative, more diligent and harder working. 

Have realistic expectations

Having a diverse group of people working together isn’t walking into some form of progressive utopia. It’s hard. People are uncomfortable around people who are different or who think differently from them. But it’s that very tension that ultimately makes them better at creative problem solving and leads to more empathic and innovative ideas. 

Create cultural values around respect and create values around team-work, collaboration, and, of course, results.  

And for the people in the room who are worried about their culture “becoming too PC, ” (BTW – I’ve only heard white guys say that), I have empathy for you. Look, it's going to be be tough to lose your sense of privilege and become part of a culture that wasn’t made only for you. It’s like when I tell my four year old son he has to share his Legos with his play date.  He hates it. They’re his! But in the end, together, they end up building something bigger, cooler, and way more interesting than he ever could alone.