Dear Canadian advertising: There’s a difference between inclusion and tokenism

—The Message wants to be a platform to have real conversations about important topics affecting the industry, to share honest opinions and ideas. Today, we start one of those conversations—about diversity, or more accurately, the lack thereof. Gavin Barrett says that while the industry talks about its progress on diversity, it’s not nearly enough.—

Something strange happened while I was hard at work over the last 15 years, trying to help my clients reach Canada’s underserved visible minorities.

Diversity and inclusion in advertising suddenly became sexy. Or good business. Or both.

How else to explain the sudden flood of white men championing this largely ignored cause?

I know. I should be grateful.

After all, diversity and inclusion in advertising have been bereft of any champions. Unless you count us—invisible visible minority professionals—slaving for decades. Of course, nobody does.

Regardless, I suppose I should be grateful.

When mostly white agency presidents plug diversity and inclusion, I know I should be grateful—finally, they’ve noticed what we’ve been calling for for well over a decade.

They speak about diversity at their own agencies—championing the cause of visible minorities and women with such charming lack of awareness of their own privilege. So well-meaning. How can I not be grateful?

When they talk about diversity and inclusion as the right thing to do and—yay!—good for business, I know I should be grateful.

I’ve been saying this for 15 years, but it’s hard to notice us brown folks, since we tend to blend with the shadows. Now that we have our advocates in mainstream advertising, surely someone will pay attention.

I suppose I should be grateful that this awakening has occurred—even though it also means they may be coming for a piece of my business.

At least the entire industry will become believers now. At last, we ad people of colour have white champions to save us, to rule us, to settle our unruly affairs.

When I came to Canada in 1996, I could find only two other immigrants of colour working as creative people in Toronto. Today, in an industry that employs around 30,000 people, there might be 200 immigrant people of colour working as creatives (though I can barely count 50.) At the launch party for this very publication, in a room of 100 industry leaders and influencers, I could find three other brown faces; and three other people of colour in total. Still, at least it’s better than it was. I should be grateful.

And indeed I was grateful, when I learned of a conference on diversity and inclusion in Canadian advertising—the kind of thing we need more of in Canada. Naturally, I wanted to see how they’d call out the lack of diversity in Canadian advertising. Undoubtedly they would flag how visible minority immigrants rarely find work in the ad industry. Surely, I thought, they would invite Canadian speakers who have worked in multicultural advertising and who are visible minority immigrants to share their journeys, their hopes, their fears.

The event was well-intentioned and appeared to be a genuine effort to address inclusion across a number of marginalized groups: women, persons with disabilities, LGBTQ and visible minorities. But, despite the ambitious agenda, by my count only one of the 45 speakers came from Canada’s largest visible minority communities—Chinese and South Asian. I counted one Indigenous Canadian speaker.

That’s when I stopped being grateful and wrote this letter to the industry.

Dear Canadian Advertising,

I am a rare creature in your midst. I am a person of colour who happens to be the founder of a Canadian ad agency.

An all-too-rare agency where visible minorities own most of the company.

But as a visible minority immigrant, I’ve seen a disappointingly small amount of inclusion progress in the industry in the 22 years since I came to Canada.

As a person of colour, I don’t buy the self-congratulatory “how wonderful and progressive we all are” kool-aid that much of the ad business is drinking. Most changes have been merely cosmetic.

I also do not accept that it can’t be done because we’ve done it. My own agency (50-50 men and women) has no gender gap in salaries, and 80% of our employees are visible minorities.

All of these are first generation immigrants—a chronically underemployed group in Canada.

Dear Canadian Advertising, stop talking about people like me and start talking to people like me. People with skin colours of every shade. People whose accents may not be like yours, but whose turns of phrase and cultural wealth and intelligence will make you richer in more ways than you know.

Because it’s people like me who will tell you the difference between tokenism and inclusion, and how we, as people of colour, have been asked to feel grateful when served the former but are rarely offered a glimmer of the latter.

There are stories you need to know, stories we can tell you.

Like the one about the client who—when the brown person finished presenting—turned and spoke to the white person at the table.

Or the one about the agency head who kept being mistaken for a cabbie picking up a package when he entered agency lobbies.

I’d like to help you understand the difference between diversity and inclusion—a nuance those on the outside struggle to understand. 

But, dear Canadian Advertising, if you’re the kind of industry that is a bunch of white folks explaining how important P&G’s “The Talk” is to each other, well, then, I don’t want to hang with you. No matter how cool you think you are.

It’s time to actually do something real for diversity, equality and inclusion.

And, by something real, I don’t mean an ad that makes a few, mostly white, people feel good for 30 seconds. Call me when you hire a visible minority immigrant, an indigenous person, or a black man or black woman as CEO. Or any position of real importance and power.

When the work you do is actually made by a creative team that looks like the Canada we live in and not the Canada you live in, in your head.



Gavin Barrett is co-founder and chief creative officer of Barrett and Welsh, a minority-led agency and a charter member of Multicultural Marketing Alliance Canada. He is a frequent writer on diversity and inclusion within advertising.