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Diversity is an industry challenge that is, at long last, getting more than just lip service. But for all the talk about diversity from leaders at the top, there’s also much to learn from the organizations on the front lines — the consultancies, nonprofits, and collectives — that are partnering with a number of brands and agencies to move the needle from talk to action.

Three such partners — the Marcus Graham Project, Livity, and the Cannes Can: Diversity Collective — have collaborated with the Cannes Lions Festival to identify the next generation of creative leaders for the Roger Hatchuel Academy, a five-day training course offering students from underrepresented backgrounds expert mentorship and exclusive access to the festival.

We asked representatives from those three organizations to share their views on diversity in the industry, the quality of current initiatives, and what more can be done to boost representation among minority groups.

Why diversity in advertising matters

As technology makes marketing increasingly personalized, the diversity of the advertising industry matters more than ever. “Creativity and diversity are inextricably linked,” says Alex Goat, Chief Executive of Livity, a youth-led creative network based in London, “and it has been proven time and time again that more diverse teams lead to more creative solutions and more innovation.”

Lincoln Stephens, CEO of U.S. nonprofit, the Marcus Graham Project, agrees, emphasizing that brands are putting themselves at risk if they ignore issues of representation. “Perspective breeds thoughtful creativity. When they lack perspective, brands have the ability to be tone deaf.”

Our industry has far too long looked at diversity as a charity initiative instead of a business imperative.

With such a clear connection between the breadth of representation and the quality of output, you might assume that the industry has been investing heavily in diversity initiatives, but, according to Adrianne C. Smith of the Cannes Can: Diversity Collective, much remains to be done. “From a historical perspective, progress has been made,” says Smith, “at least in terms of the level of awareness. But these conversations are still happening, while the percentage of people from underrepresented communities has not changed much, and in some cases is worse than ever.”

Assessing the current state of outreach initiatives, Stephens perceives the same disconnect between good intentions and positive action. “There’s more ‘talk’ about diversity and inclusion,” he says, “however the hard line action to widen pipelines and increase retention efforts is somewhat underwhelming. Our industry has far too long looked at diversity as a charity initiative instead of a business imperative.”

The way forward: more focus on retention, values, and investment

Several factors block or undermine efforts to improve diversity, according to these experts.

Retention: “In our experience, the biggest barrier to balancing diversity is retention,” says Goat. “There are a number of great initiatives and schemes now which introduce diverse young talent to the industry, but we see very little being done to create environments and roles that keep that brilliant talent in the business.” According to Goat, too many companies fall into the trap of “ticking the diversity box by signing up to one initiative focused on gender, ethnicity, or age. They ignore the rest, and don’t do anything meaningful to address the issues within their own organization.”

Values: Smith agrees, suggesting that “when designing onboarding and career development programs, businesses should focus more on values and community rather than culture and diversity. Focusing on values and community creates a more authentic and intentional environment for culture and diversity to grow. When done in reverse, everything is contrived.“

Investment: For Stephens, lack of investment, in time and money, is at the heart of the problem. “Simply put, businesses are not investing the proper financial resources for the scale of this challenge. One company explained to me that their diversity budget was cut significantly, meanwhile they spent over $20 million on registering for and attending awards shows. Companies are not putting their money where their mouth is.” And according to Goat, brands may be better equipped to lead here more than agencies, “Brands have the scope to think about and invest in long-term change. Agencies, for the most part, are too reactive.”

Focusing on values and community creates a more authentic and intentional environment for culture and diversity to grow. When done in reverse, everything is contrived.

To this diagnosis, Smith adds that other less easily acknowledged issues may also be at work. “Even the most well-intentioned recruiters, hiring managers, and supervisors have unconscious biases,” she says. She proposes increased investment in training and tools to help employees overcome their personal blind spots.

While there’s much still to be done, projects like the Roger Hatchuel Academy at Cannes are a cause for great optimism. “We’re excited to see participants give as much to each other as they get out of Roger Hatchuel,” says Goat, “but I hope they’ll take away confidence, exposure, a brilliant new network of global peers and connections, and inspiration — being inspired and inspiring others.” Echoing these sentiments, Smith is already expecting great things from the academy graduates, “I hope that participants will come back with the confidence to freely contribute their ideas and the vision to see themselves in leadership positions in the near future.”