“If it doesn’t appeal to multiple demographics, it’s not marketing.” — Karen Alston, CMO

Community Forum February 2021


“If it doesn’t appeal to multiple demographics, it’s not marketing.” — Karen Alston, CMO

What is the role of the marketing, communications, and advertising industry in cultivating inclusion and fostering diversity and equity? That was the question explored throughout AMADC and AAF DC’s first Community Forum of 2021, featuring a dynamic panel with Karen Alston, CMO; Sheila Brooks, Ph.D., founder, president and CEO of SRB Communications; Dr. Gavriel Legynd, CEO of Visioneer IT, and Eric Winkfield, vice president and agency lead for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at M. Booth. Andrea C Smith, founder and CEO of JLC Consultancy, LLC and AMADC’s vice president of marketing, moderated the conversation. 

In her opening remarks, Smith noted that diversity, equity, and inclusion have come to the forefront for most organizations, with some making progress and others struggling to change. The question, then, is why diversity, equity, and inclusion are critical in communications communities today.

Dr. Brooks noted that we are today engaging in the same racial unrest as what occurred in the 1960s but what she is seeing in the backdrop is that marketing and PR agency leaders have a renewed desire to address diversity, equity, and inclusion. “Marketers need to be intentional in reflecting diversity not only in hiring but in creative and content when it comes to marketing campaigns,” she noted. “Because truth be told, the general market is the multicultural market.”

The conversation moved to intentional actions to improve representation, equity practices, and policies when launching a marketing campaign. “Let’s make sure we have the right folks at the table helping us craft our messages,” said Winkfield. He also noted that we have to challenge each other to do our own education, as well–and that this is a commitment to keep learning. “The learning and the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion–you never know it all.”

As Dr. Legynd noted, people should be able to see themselves in marketing. Alston further built on that point by urging that “we normalize multicultural marketing is general marketing.” Marketing cannot just appeal to one segment of our population, she said. “Our country is just too diverse.”

Alston noted that too many women and too many people of color aren’t getting the opportunities to grow and get stretch assignments, especially when they reach their 40s. Not seeing opportunities, they leave to create their own agencies. The industry has a retention problem, particularly in middle management. “That is the problem we need to solve.”

Dr. Brooks added that leadership on this must come from the C-Suite; it has to lead and to be accountable, she said. “Tie bonuses to executive’s pay in order to encourage racial equity and hire more people of color as well as women. Hire diverse leaders who are decision-makers,” she said. “Increase the number of contractors, diverse suppliers, and increase that spend that you have with many of those contractors.” But above all, “you must set and track diversity and inclusion goals and report it.”

“If diverse spending is not part of a company’s strategic plan, are they really walking the walk?” said Dr. Legynd. “And that’s the question we really need to ask: what does your strategic plan look like? Are you really serious about what you say you want to spend each year on diverse suppliers or are you just really checking the box?” 

Companies should have a vision that is authentic and realistic, said Winkfield, and identify the milestones for success if you have an aggressive vision. It can be easy to have a broad statement, but Winkfield noted that it is the intention behind those targets, how they are being integrated in every facet of your business, and the need to hold all accountable to meeting that same goal. 

Those goals should also align with how many were retained, said Dr. Legynd. “How many people actually stayed with the company and were happy?” he asked and pointed out that this is reflective of the culture within the company. Looking at retention rates will give people a sense of whether or not a company is really behind what they say they are on paper. 

“What gets measured, gets done,” said Dr. Brooks. You have to look at retention, at promotion, at recruitment, and at pay and benefits. She pointed out that it has to come from the C-Suite to make that commitment at the top and to hold managers accountable. 

The conversation then turned back to supplier diversity. Dr. Legynd pointed out that COVID has impacted Black-owned businesses at a higher rate, citing a recent report from the National Bureau of Economic Research which showed that the number of Black-owned businesses fell by 41% in the first part of 2020. “We need more allyship,” he said, with decision makers opening doors from the inside. He also recommended strategic partnerships. 

“The issue isn’t that they don’t have supplier diversity,” said Alston of businesses. The issue, she noted, is that all the women-owned and minority-owned firms are competing with each other for a small percentage of what companies set aside for diverse suppliers while larger firms have access to the larger contracts. The larger companies should look to mentor the smaller companies to give them access to the larger contracts and support them to grow.

“We as minority and women-owned businesses, we have to be committed to the advocacy efforts, too,” said Dr. Brooks. “That’s where we fall short…. You have to make the time. You have to be at the table.” She pointed out the importance of speaking out on these issues at public service commission hearings about supplier diversity and on Capitol Hill. “We have to be bold enough to speak out about it and give of our volunteer time in order for us to still be a player.”

Panelists then answered questions from the audience, with the first asking about what is needed from white-passing allies in the workplace. Winkfield highlighted the importance of self-education and of coming from an authentic place if you have any questions. Audience members also asked about metrics to track, with Dr. Brooks recommending looking at retention and promotion and Winkfield adding that it is about the plan in addition to the measurements.  Dr. Legynd also spoke of the importance of surveying employees to see how they are feeling.  

Another question asked about what AMADC and AAF DC could do, with Alston recommending a white paper as a starting point. She also noted the importance of having these forums as conversation starters. “It’s our own biases, it’s our own blind spots when we go to work every day–that’s what is impacting the day-to-day. It’s the words we speak, it’s the actions we don’t take in the meeting when we’re all sitting there thinking the same thing but nobody says a word,” she said. “That’s the change that needs to happen.” 

Winkfield also challenged AMADC and AAF DC to think about how it is partnering with colleges, but also with high schools in the area, particularly with how to increase access to programming so that students can get experience sooner rather than later.