by Donald Thompson — September 28, 2022 .
Editor’s note: Veteran entrepreneur and investor Donald Thompson writes a weekly column about management and leadership as well as diversity and other important issues for WRAL TechWire. His columns are published on Wednesdays.
RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – I’m not a mind-reader, but talking to many C-suite leaders gives me a glimpse into what topics are on the minds of executives. In nearly every conversation, culture soon takes centerstage. Executives are thinking about culture, because we all now understand how central the subject is to winning in today’s marketplace.
We can’t talk about culture without considering diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), especially as it links to workplace excellence and cultural transformation. Based on my experience as former CEO (and now board chair) of digital marketing firm Walk West and sitting on the boards of directors for several other agencies, I have deep interest in how marketing and communications intertwines with DEI. Sitting at the intersection of marketing and DEI enables me to see the impact of the work agencies do for their clients, as well as how they operate as businesses.
Recently the importance of the tie between DEI and marketing became even more apparent as I spoke with leaders at several communications agencies about their request for proposal (RFP) processes. Clients expect more from their agencies when it comes to implementing DEI initiatives. This is a fundamental change that can’t be ignored.
For example, while at one time DEI was an insignificant part of RFP evaluation, over the last couple of years it has become a critical differentiator. What we are learning – fast – is that having diversity, equity and inclusion built into an agency’s story is no longer small stakes or a “nice to have,” but rather a driving factor in current and future success.
Clients are searching for branding partners that understand DEI. If an agency hasn’t figured out DEI internally, then many CEOs and CMOs are concluding that there is no way they will get it right as a partner. These are smart leaders. They want to know that their brands are going to be managed by agencies that have worked these ideas into their own DNA, before they spend a dollar hiring them.
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In other words, considering how important culture is internally and externally, why would any C-suite leader trust their brand health to an advertising agency or marketing firm that wasn’t authentic in their own DEI efforts? As a result, agencies are losing RFPs and future business because they can’t prove to potential clients that they have a cohesive, authentic, measurable story around how they will deliver multicultural content that aligns with the client’s goals and aspirations.
Agencies aren’t sure where to turn for help. Their question: “How do I fix this?”
Marketing firms, advertising agencies and integrated communications shops are interesting business case studies. Clients entrust them with their most precious assets – their brand and reputation – essentially the lifeblood of organizations. If we’ve learned anything in the last several years, it is that culture is now at the center of how organizations win in the marketplace – and culture is the agency’s primary business.
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As C-suite executives and board members, we can learn important lessons from looking at how these firms work. The key idea here is that in light of societal upheaval now and on the horizon, cultural change is redefining the workplace, just as it is transforming our communities. Clearly there are high stakes at every turn when a client partners with an agency to manage its culture.
Clear-headed assessment of how the agency sets up teams, conducts content reviews, and goes into the market is a necessary first step toward working DEI into its DNA. These are incremental steps, not fast wins. Agency leaders should be assessing what projects teammates are working on and whether those individuals are representative of the markets their clients are pursuing.
Looking at how they function through a DEI lens will enable agency executives to address shortcomings and then find solutions. At a fundamental level, this effort entails breaking down all the elements of how the work is done and searching for ways to make each component better.
So, what can you do now if you run an agency or are a board member evaluating strategic or brand communications firms? One of the first things I tell agency leaders is to focus on what you know best: storytelling. This is your superpower, so create authentic storytelling avenues to demonstrate how you walk the talk when it comes to DEI.
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Honestly, there aren’t any easy fixes when it comes to building workplace culture. Many business leaders and organizations have been approaching DEI from a limited perspective, searching for quick wins and then telling anyone who will listen about how great they are doing. It is just not authentic.
If you hold onto one idea from this column, it is this: DEI is multigenerational work. You are planting trees that will one day be towering forests, but the work is not quick or easy. DEI success necessitates a long-term view.
No one expects to see that you have solved generations of inequities overnight. However, your clients and prospects want to see the same thing your employees and customers demand – meaningful progress toward a winning future.
As an agency leader, you can take incremental steps right away. These include working with diverse partners to make sure you’re implementing inclusive hiring practices and finding advisers who bring a different set of beliefs and values to a campaign when its intended target audience does not look like your current employee base. The effort equals the degree of authenticity you will have in telling that story.
For example, I recently had a conversation with the CEO of a communications firm that had grown quickly and won a lot of new business. Yet, the leader knew they were vulnerable on DEI issues. My advice was straightforward: you assess the types of clients you want and people you plan to hire, so use those tools to partner with a diversified group of smaller agencies that will support the work you do, while you are trying to figure out the broader demographic goals.
Bringing in agencies led by women, people of color, and others as partners will broaden your perspective and show prospective clients that you have woven DEI into your DNA. Hearing this suggestion, the leader paused and said, “I can do that. It sounds smart and effective.”
Organizations can rarely make major changes overnight, but they can plant the seeds for winning right away. Begin by building inclusive marketing into the foundation of what you do and who you are. Then, via authentic storytelling, be prepared to say what you have done and what you plan to do in the future. The long-term view can help your agency get through tough conversations as you create the kind of culture you and your clients desire.
About the Author
Donald Thompson is CEO and co-founder of The Diversity Movement. He has extensive experience as an executive leader and board member, including digital marketing agency WalkWest. Donald is a thought leader on goal achievement, culture change and driving exponential growth. An entrepreneur, keynote speaker, author, podcaster, Certified Diversity Executive (CDE) and executive coach, he also serves as a board member for organizations in marketing, healthcare, banking, technology and sports. The Diversity Movement has created an employee-experience product suite that personalizes diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) through data, technology, and expert-curated content. The microlearning platform, “Microvideos by The Diversity Movement,” was recently named one of Fast Company’s “2022 World Changing Ideas.” DEI Navigator is a “chief diversity officer in a box” subscription service that provides small- and mid-sized businesses with the tools, advising and content that leads to action and results. His leadership memoir, Underestimated: A CEO’s Unlikely Path to Success, is available wherever books are sold. Connect or follow him on Linkedin to learn more.
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