DEC 10, 2020

How to Advance Diversity, Equity & Inclusion in Advertising


Brands and the agencies that support them have dealt with multiple crises throughout 2020. The global pandemic and economic fallout are top of mind, of course, but there is an equally important crisis that has come to the forefront this year too--the convergence of racial injustices. 

This crisis has encouraged (or in some cases, forced) companies and organizations to seek authentic ways of joining the conversation and advancing the cause. Brands like NASCAR and Nike are taking a stand and taking action to support diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) both inside and outside of their organizations. It’s no longer just something reserved for the most woke brands out there; DEI is something that every brand, and every agency, must address.

DEI was an important theme at SWRV 2020, the Global Summit for Worldwide Partners agencies. Industry leaders from multicultural agencies Quantasy + Associates and Consciously and WPI Partner Brownstein Group spoke with Nancy Hill, CEO of Media Sherpas and Former President/CEO of 4A's, about the need for advancing DEI both within the agency and with clients. 

Following are the key ways that agencies can help lead their clients and their own businesses to elevate the messages of DEI and make improvements around key social issues. 

Know They Self

To successfully advance DEI, you must be authentic. “People have good BS detectors, specifically when it comes to race” said Rai-mon Nemar Barnes, Founder and CEO of Consciously. “They’ll know if your message doesn’t match who you are or what your brand is about.”


Barnes encourages his clients to “Know They Self.” He recommends that brands think about where they came from, how they got started, and how they’ve grown over the years, and then tie that understanding of self to marketing and advertising messages.

“Our clients call it ‘brand therapy’ because we have to dig into the subconscious core of what makes them tick,” says Barnes. “If we don’t do that, that’s when we get a reactionary response from the public that the business can’t back up or people will see right away is not authentic.”

When thinking about inclusion amongst groups, most people will tell you to identify your shared values or find the things you have in common. Will Campbell, CEO of Quantasy, recommends the exact opposite--look for the gaps in relationships between brand and customers, find what values you do not have in common. “If you want new answers, you have to be willing to ask new questions,” said Campbell. “This will allow you to uncover entirely new ways to work together and drive positive change.” 

Campbell recommended asking two other new questions, which can help to uncover brand purpose and set the tone for long-term impact: How can we be our most honest selves? And what is the vibe we want to leave behind?  “These questions help you decide how your business can make real improvements around social issues, instead of just joining the conversation,” said Campbell.

Quantasy + Associates has helped Honda make real improvements around social issues through their work with HBCUs. Honda’s annual Battle of the Bands competition for HBCU marching bands supports the black community by providing grants to all participating schools, generating awareness for the schools and bands, and helping to increase student enrollment and thus funding by hosting recruitment events.

2020 Honda Battle of the Band Competition. Source: Battle of the Bands website

Identify the Champions 

Determine which people within the company are passionate and knowledgeable about DEI, and encourage them to help drive the necessary changes. If you’re looking to bring DEI into your recruiting process, it makes sense to have someone within the HR department. It’s also important to have advocates in the C-suite to ensure support is coming from the top. 

It’s not always as simple as naming a few champions though. Everyone throughout the entire organization must get on board. To do that, Brownstein Group recommends using facts and figures to explain why diversity matters. Powerful facts and figures like: 

  • 70% of consumers believe it’s important for brands to take a public stand on social and political issues. (Sprout Social)
  • The millennial and Gen Z generations are the most diverse in history. (CNN Money)
  • Organizations with above-average gender diversity and levels of employee engagement outperform companies with below-average diversity and engagement by 46% to 58%. (Fast Company)
  • Diverse management boosts revenue by 19% (Forbes)

Let’s say you have a client that’s not convinced. How can your agency help them understand the importance of DEI in campaigns and messaging? Use demographic data to show the diversity of their target audience, and talk about it from the perspective of the consumer. 

Make It a Way of Being

If you’re serious about DEI, stop calling it an “initiative.” Melinda Ramos, Brownstein Group’s Director of Talent and Diversity, explained how this word makes it seem like DEI is a separate thing from the everyday business decision making. “The word ‘initiative’ implies that it’s a project or side effort,” said Ramos. To enact long-term change, DEI must become second nature. It must become a way of being.  


Two years ago, Brownstein Group set out to make DEI a way of being both inside and outside the agency through their BG 20 x 2020 program, a pledge to have 20% of staff comprised of talent from underrepresented backgrounds by 2020. 

“We created BG 20 x 2020 because I fundamentally believe that a diverse agency is a better agency,”' said Marc Brownstein, CEO of Brownstein Group. “It allows us to be reflective of our clients’ customers, generate ideas from diverse experiences, backgrounds and points of view, and prevent unconscious bias in our work.” 

Brownstein and Ramos shared several tips for agencies just getting started on their own DEI programs:

Hold Yourself Accountable - Brownstein Group’s BG 20 x 2020 pledge was made, not because they planned to hit this date and then call it quits, but rather as a way to hold themselves accountable with an aggressive yet attainable goal. 

Get Educated - Brownstein Group brought in outside counsel to help them understand the language of DEI, and uncover the ways in which unconscious bias can sway decision making. 

Expand Your Networks - You also can’t rely on referrals only for recruiting. To create a broader pool of candidates, you need to create new networks--reach out to universities, ask for help from the market, even spark interest in younger students by connecting the dots between their love of brands and the advertising that inspired it.

Be Patient - A diverse and inclusive agency won’t happen overnight. To truly make it second nature, it will take time and you’ll probably even make some mistakes along the way. But every small step will lead to a stronger foundation for the agency and better work for clients. 

DEI must become a way of being for brands, too. That’s because everything you do as a brand matters. Every billboard, every commercial, every tweet. “It’s not just a message anymore,” said Barnes. “All of the things you do as a marketer matter, we now know that they matter. We know that we’re affecting people.”

Don’t Wait

Amongst all the turmoil of 2020, there has been one positive outcome--we’ve been given permission to have tough conversations and make changes. Right now, brands and agencies are allowed to admit they have some work to do in this area. They’re allowed to show vulnerabilities and be transparent about their steps to learn, grow and change. 

“As a marketer, this particular time is exciting,” said Barnes. “There are people who have been led through the civil unrest and pandemic by brands. Brands have a great deal of power right now.”

And it’s not going away. Social issues are nowhere near being resolved and we have a long road ahead. All the more reason why DEI must become a way of being, not just a one-time marketing message and never just an “initiative.”

Written By:
Angie Pascale