5 agency leaders share their approaches to diversity, equity, and inclusion

Artwell Nwaila / September 2020

Although the incident that put the Black Lives Matter movement back in the headlines is one based in the U.S., the concept of racial inequality is something that is widely understood across the world, and especially in Africa. The colonial history of our nations can unfortunately still be felt and seen in everyday life, and even in some advertising.

What movements like these remind all of us to do is to commit to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as part of the fabric of how our businesses and teams operate. We know that marketing has the power to both break or solidify stereotypes, and it’s up to each of us to dedicate our energies to the former every day.

We spoke to five Black agency leaders to understand their approaches to DEI, to understand how marketers can move from a knee-jerk reaction to sustained change.

In-Line_Bongani Gosa.jpg

We are not all the same

You need a diverse marketing team in order to communicate effectively, because the guy from ekasi who’s fluent in multiple languages is very different from the guy in the ’burbs whose parents bought him his first car. He is also very different from the girl who only buys Louis Vuitton bags and red-bottom shoes. And that’s just profiling three kinds of Black people. In reality, there are more variations of Black people than there are shades of grey, but everyone who isn’t Black assumes we’re all the same. That’s why we have grossly stereotypical ads with dabbing gogos and desert dances.

Transfer power and control at the executive level

Creative work is still widely developed, approved, or rejected by white creatives who present it to white clients for a Black audience, yet the South African population comprises 80% Black people. This makes no sense to me at all and, frankly, 26 years after the end of apartheid, this status quo is unacceptable. Even if Black brand managers and Black marketing managers exist, where are the Black marketing directors, MDs, and CEOs? This void on the client-side sets the seal on any pressure that should be applied on agencies to enforce real transformation.

In-Line_Mona Zwambila.jpg

Slow transformation is costly for businesses

The McKinsey Delivering Through Diversity 2019 report shows that diverse companies outperform their counterparts by 36%. That said, there is a lot of work to be done in South Africa and, despite broad-based Black economic empowerment (BBBEE), transformation remains unacceptably slow. The challenges are deep-rooted and systemic. Change has to go beyond the right appointments to reach across to the value chain where brands insist on working with independent, transformed, and Black agencies.

Remember that activists are also consumers

Marketers should care about DEI because the activists leading the charge for change in movements like Black Lives Matter are also consumers. As an industry, we need to start by understanding the critical role we play in influencing behaviour and changing perceptions. With that comes the responsibility of ensuring that, as marketers, we are a reflection of the consumers that we represent. We can only truly understand and interpret insights by having diverse teams that understand the underlying cultural nuances at play in any given market.

In-Line_Sylvester Chauke V1.jpg

More than philanthropy

When we think DEI, we often think of it as some philanthropic duty. Do a little bit here, get your BBBEE points there, a gender equality policy here, and get your certificate boxes ticked there. This is neither transformation nor inclusion. Our brands need diverse leadership and our teams need to reflect different viewpoints and backgrounds. Brands that don’t make a seat for the right people at their table repeat the same mistakes. Black people, women, and minority groups all deserve a seat. Having all-white marketing teams serve a Black demographic makes no sense in 2020.

Consumers want to matter

Black consumers want to be taken seriously. Similarly, women and the LGBTQI community want to be valued. Those who fail to understand this and act in a way that recognises these needs are inadvertently limiting their potential. Marketing that does not reflect the reality of the consumer raises a lot of questions. How do we build connections with consumers we don’t understand, care for, or respect? This may very well work for the time being but the hour is near when it will no longer. Shape up, dear marketer. Stretch out your hand and be part of the movement

In-Line_Xola Nouse V1.jpg

Don’t just care, do something

Merely caring about DEI serves no purpose. Business owners have to actively drive it in their teams, in their value chain, with their stakeholders, and across entire ecosystems that drive their products, solutions, or services to market. Diversity of thought, ideas, backgrounds, and talent in the co-creation process will allow for marketing solutions to resonate authentically with audiences. The net result will be an increased affinity among the intended market extending beyond mere retail transactions.

Deliberately desire to transform

Brands need to be reflective of their audiences and, at the very least, attempt to connect with and understand the lived experience of their consumers. Authenticity and a sensitive grasp of nuance is key to creating that connection. Output is a direct result of input. Input in creative services is often a function of experience, exposure, and environment. If businesses are falling short on their DEI imperative, it’s often because there isn’t a deliberate desire to transform to begin with. The strategy to drive DEI should consistently be measured and monitored, much like financial metrics that steer the business. Ultimately, it will have an impact on the bottom line.

In-Line_Zibusiso Mkhwanazi.jpg

Diversity leads to truth

Diversity provides perspective into solving complex problems. The human truth behind data can only truly be understood by diverse teams of people. The best advertising work is produced when the insight and human truth is right because audiences can relate to the message and subconsciously imagine themselves as part of the communication. We spend too much time being politically correct and finding lots of reasons why DEI can’t be done.

We need to stop talking and start doing

If we are sincere, let’s deliberately push people with potential into our executive committee meetings and give them real authority. Let’s coach and mentor along the way, instead of waiting for them to gain the levels of experience we want or it will just never happen. Criticism must lead to decisive action by company leadership. This will ensure that inclusion does not become a campaign but a culture. As marketers, we pick up on an insight and amplify it, spending billions to get messages across the country and the world. We have the power to either maintain how Black people are portrayed in advertising or choose to play a bigger activist role.

‘Keep that same energy’: How the ad industry can sustain momentum for racial justice beyond this moment