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

Tiffany R. Warren / July 2020

Tiffany Warren, chief diversity officer at Omnicom Group and founder and CEO of AdColor, shares how creative and tech companies can extend their momentum in the age of heightened calls for inclusion to create a lasting shift in their organizations and the broader industry.

I first noticed inequities in my preschool classroom when I was 3 years old. At the private school I attended, it was clear to me that some people got opportunities, while others got handouts. It was then that I knew my calling was to advocate for people and create opportunities for everyone to succeed. Fast forward to the start of my career in advertising as an account executive, where I found myself “code switching.” I spent more time remembering what I could and couldn’t do or say as a Black woman in the industry, instead of focusing on honing my craft like my peers.

Those twin experiences set me on a path to champion diversity and inclusion, something I now do as the chief diversity officer for Omnicom Group. My passion for elevating diverse perspectives also led me to found and lead AdColor, an organization that supports and celebrates underrepresented professionals and inclusive work within the creative, media, and tech industries.

To make a lasting shift in the industry, we need to develop and sustain deeper empathy for each other.

With the emergence of the modern day civil rights movement, I am more encouraged in the last few weeks than I have been in all of my career. Progress feels tangible and swift, but, as an industry, we cannot let the momentum stall. To make a lasting shift in the industry, we need to develop and sustain deeper empathy for each other, unlearn the norms holding us back, and take accountability for past actions and our commitments moving forward.

Develop deeper empathy within your company and team

The confluence of the pandemic, the recession, police brutality, and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement has a disproportionate and deadly impact on Black and brown people. Addressing racial inequity has been an afterthought for too long; the hard work of tackling this issue cannot wait any longer.

Though brought out of pain and struggle, quarantining has gotten rid of a lot of distractions and has forced us to focus on what really matters, like family and friends. Seeing so many people who look like me lose their lives because of racism and disparate treatment hits me hard. But instead of masking my emotions and suppressing my feelings, I feel closer to my colleagues than I ever have because we are sharing more with each other. We’re connecting in this moment through shared commonalities, whether it’s dealing with the complexities of working from home or juggling competing priorities in the face of a health crisis. Superficial conversations are replaced with asking each other how we are really doing and truly meaning it. When my office reopens, I will feel closer to my colleagues because of this new way of relating to one another.

We need to … develop deeper relationships and empathy for our personal differences, our cultures, and our communities.

We need to continue thinking about the ways that we can develop deeper relationships and respect for our personal differences, our cultures, and our communities. Living through a pandemic has forced us to develop more empathy, and we must continue to tap into that.

Unlearn the meaning of ‘normal’

The word “normal” will never be the same again. We cannot hold onto the word “normal” anymore, because the reality is that we cannot go back to what was. It is a nostalgic, comfortable, and honestly painful place to be when you think about what was. However, when you move into the present and understand how the world is shifting, what awaits you is more creativity, innovation, empathy, closer connections to colleagues, and a trusting environment that will align for better work. That’s the unlearning.

It’s not enough to be nonracist — that’s normal. We must learn to be anti-racist. Non-racist is passive and generally viewing everyone as equal. But anti-racist means actively putting a stop to racist behavior when you see it. For example, speaking up when you see a person of color always being asked to take notes even though they are a core part of the team, or advocating for someone who has not been promoted despite being on par with their colleagues. We must move beyond the notion of “we’ve always done it that way” to examine and correct the behaviors and systems that prevent people of color from moving into leadership positions in our companies.

Take accountability and move forward

While brands are promising to make changes to their leadership teams, hiring, and brand image, part of the frustration and backlash comes from not acknowledging or addressing the systemic patterns and problems that led to a homogenous workforce.

Accountability is a huge part of moving forward.

As an industry, in order to change the system, we must take accountability. Accountability is a huge part of moving forward. There is a lot of talk in this moment, but how are we putting the proper structures and programs in place to correct problems?

At Omnicom, we expanded the role of chief diversity officer to get more people involved throughout the organization. We have “chief diversity champions” across our network of companies through the Omnicom People Engagement Network (OPEN) to ensure we stay accountable to our goals of creating more inclusive work environments, increasing relationships with diverse suppliers, and fostering networking and business opportunities. We recently started an OPEN Conversation across the organization, a regular series to discuss current issues and share experiences. Our first episode focused on the significance of Juneteenth and how to create a more equitable and inclusive workforce.

People often ask me, “How can I be a better ally?” or “What can I do to make our company more inclusive?” I think about the energy that people put into acknowledging gender disparities and the ongoing work to advocate for equal pay and opportunities for women. The energy, effort, and programs it took to see a significant shift in gender parity is the same type of energy that we need to have for Black, Indigenous, and people of color to advance in the workplace.

One of my favorite pieces of advice is, “The quicker you deal with what is, the faster you move from what was.” As an industry, we cannot let this moment and opportunity to create change and inclusivity in the workplace escape us. The time is ripe for us to rise to the occasion and make our workplaces reflective of the consumers we serve, so that a year from now we can all look back and be proud.

Now is a time for change in the industry