Why diversity of talent is a matter of life and death for creative agencies. And what to do about it

“It took too long, but the industry has finally realised we need to more actively address the glaring diversity gap in creative agencies,” says FCB’s Global Chief Creative Officer Susan Credle. Here she shares what she’s personally doing to fill the diversity void – and what she wants her fellow agency colleagues to act on.

A version of this article originally appeared in Campaign.

When I started my career in advertising, I had very few female leaders around me to look up to. My first agency job was intimidating. I felt like I’d be laughed out of the room (full of men) if I presented ideas that came from my truth.

In the last 20 years, diversity in our business has evolved from being a nice thing to do, to being a responsible thing to do, to finally becoming a business imperative. It took too long, but the industry has finally realised we need to more actively address the glaring diversity gap in creative agencies.

In an industry that demands innovation and with diverse consumers who demand representation, homogeneous agencies face an existential threat.

Agency leadership has to prioritise and advocate for diversity of talent 

Diversity of talent in our offices has progressed in a lot of ways, particularly with women. I’m proud to help lead an agency that now has female CCOs in India, Canada and Brazil, as well as Chicago and San Francisco in the US. It is a gift to partner with our incredible head of talent, Cindy Augustine, who is relentless in her commitment to developing truly diverse work forces.

Last year FCB was very involved in helping launch Alma Har’el’s Free the Bid pledge, a global initiative aimed at agencies and brands that ensures that, for every commercial production job, at least one bid comes from a female director.

Diversity in our business evolved from being a nice thing to do, to being a responsible thing to do, to finally becoming a business imperative.

The hypothesis was if we guarantee that one in every three bids is from a female director, we would see change in a heartbeat. I thought it was a brilliant idea. So I called all my CCOs in North America to see if they agreed (they did), and then I called my CCO friends in other major agencies to ask if they’d be willing to sign on. Within 24 hours, our entire company and just about every other major agency were on board. 

That’s one benefit of being a woman in a position of power: being able to quickly network with other CCOs and advocate for women. As a result of Free the Bid, FCB has significantly increased our outreach to women directors and they’ve been awarded many of the jobs.

It also started an encouraging trend among production companies. They’re developing more young female directors for their roster because they know that talented women finally have a realistic chance of winning a job. After years of gender bias, we’re finally seeing women directors getting opportunities to build competitive reels and gain the recognition their talent deserves.

Find and nurture diverse talent 

Today, people don’t just want ads to be relevant to their interests and needs; they want to see ideas that speak to who they are and where they come from. Thanks to the internet and social media, today we’re all exposed to a multitude of stories.

This is especially true on platforms like YouTube. Due in part to its strong creator culture, YouTube has been a home to groups that have been underrepresented in traditional media. Case in point: nearly two thirds of black millennial viewers say YouTube is a place where black people have a voice. And, in the US, 60% of self-identified LGBT respondents see positive change for LGBT people on YouTube in a way they don’t in traditional media.

I’m proud to help lead an agency that now has female CCOs in India, Canada and Brazil, as well as Chicago and San Francisco in the US.

It’s clear that people want to connect with and be inspired by others who share their background. I also believe most people are interested in diverse storytelling, seeing the world through someone else’s truth. We must hire people who can help tell these stories. 

First and foremost, we have to make the industry itself more attractive, particularly to first-generation college graduates. It’s on us to show that the industry is purposeful, respected and financially rewarding, and that we truly believe our work makes a difference.

Secondly, we should look beyond portfolio schools – and advertising portfolios. Where are the poets? Where are the painters? Where are the photographers that tell amazing visual stories but haven’t thought about advertising?

Third, we need to value and embrace diverse voices. We can’t hire diverse people and then ask them to act like everyone else. Remember when women went to work and tried to act like men to succeed? That won’t happen when we build work environments that embrace diversity.

A lot of agencies strive to bring in young people with diverse backgrounds and expertise – and that’s a good first step. But research has shown that there needs to be significant diverse-talent representation in an agency for people to feel comfortable speaking up. If you’re the only person of colour in the room, it’s that much harder to find your voice. Leadership must commit to making people feel creative, not intimidated. Mentorship is critical here, I mentor several people once a month so they know they’re valued team members and have someone at the top to talk to.

How to stay accountable as we make progress on diversity efforts 

The time is now for agencies to make change. Lip service isn’t enough. Here are the three tenets I use to hold myself and my teams accountable:

1. Commit: Diversity in our business can’t be a one-and-done effort. You have to wake up every day committed to making it work. And, when it’s not working, ask why. We should be incentivising organisations to treat diversity as more than just a box to tick; it’s vital to business because it has real economic value. Even more importantly, it’s a moral imperative.


2. Measure: Support diversity efforts with hard data. If another agency is watching what you’re doing and sees tangible proof that diversity is making a positive difference, how quickly do you think they’ll want to do the same thing? That’s what happened with Free the Bid. When people saw that more great female directors were suddenly being awarded jobs, more wanted to commit to the cause.

If diversity isn’t part of the hiring conversation, it becomes invisible.

3. Talk: Keep the conversation going across all levels. Especially down the management funnel. Every time I talk to my CCOs, we discuss how they’re approaching diversity, and if we’re hiring people who will push us to the next level creatively. If diversity isn’t part of the hiring conversation, it becomes invisible. It’s one of those things that has to be front and centre all the time.

I truly believe the more you show diversity out in the world representing your company, the faster your company will become diversified. At FCB, PR is an important part of that effort. We’re always pushing for diverse representation on panels, award juries and in the press. For instance, I’m thrilled FCB is sending the first “Working Parent Cannes Correspondent”, Sarah Latz, and her son Henry to cover the Cannes festival for us this year. We also have a woman of colour, Yenani Madikwa, from our South Africa office as our Social Eye at Cannes.

The challenge we, as an industry, have to collectively take up 

Advertising is a people business, and it only gets better when we have talented people with different points of view. The industry has been too slow to commit resources to ensure that diversity is present in every company. Progress is finally being made in some areas, such as hiring, but I’ve seen very little change when it comes to retaining people of colour. That’s a high priority for me. I want to make sure that in every circumstance industry-wide, we all recognise that a group isn’t complete unless it includes people of colour.

We’re not going to solve the diversity gap overnight. It’ll take a high level of focus, urgency, and commitment across the industry. But it’s a goal we must fight for – one that is essential for the future of advertising.

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