Can the marketing world turn promises to do better into real action?

With calls for an end to systemic anti-Black racism continuing to rise across America and the world, there have been signals of change coming from around advertising.

In the two weeks since George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police, there has been a steady stream of pledges to listen to and learn from the Black community. Previous promises to fight racism are increasingly being replaced with new commitments to tackle systemic racism and to adopt a more proactive anti-racist posture. The big question, of course, is whether promises become real action.

Some of the specifics about what real change could like have started to come into focus in recent days, with the release of actionable recommendations for marketers and ad agencies.

One list, published Tuesday in an open letter written by two Black ad industry professionals in the U.S., was co-signed by more than 600 industry professionals across the country.

Written by Nathan Young of Minneapolis agency Periscope, and Bennett D. Bennett of Aerialist, the letter emphasizes that promises to do better aren’t enough: “Though we are encouraged by these messages, their words ring hollow in the face of our daily lived experiences,” it reads in part.

“After decades of well-intentioned diversity & inclusion efforts, we have seen little progress in making Black voices a more representative part of the creative process. We have seen even less progress in ensuring equitable representation of Black professionals in senior and leadership positions.”

The 12-point action list (provided in full below) includes tracking and publicly reporting diversity data to create accountability; requiring agency leadership to be active participants in diversity and inclusion initiatives; and creating diversity review panels to stop the spread of stereotypes and other culturally insensitive work in advertising.

Similarly, the Association of National Advertisers, along with The Alliance for Inclusive and Multicultural Marketing, released a joint letter containing a “list of systemic interventions.”

“As marketers and industry leaders, we commit to unflinchingly examining our own history and current practices to shine a light on systemic and institutional bias that exists within the industry,” it reads. “We can no longer accept the shortcomings of many of our diversity and inclusion initiatives. We commit to examining why they haven’t done enough and what action is needed to advance.”

While less specific than Bennett and Young’s list, the ANA list includes seven different commitments, including greater representation across the industry and at all levels; the elimination of bias from all advertising, and improvements to multicultural marketing.  There is also a pledge to support an “equitable creative supply chain through strategic investment in agencies, broadcasters, suppliers, and producers that are owned or run by Black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, LGBTQ+, and People with Disabilities segments (read the ANA letter here).

Those statements follow a similar open letter co-signed by much of the British industry last week. Coordinated by Creative Equals, the 10-point action list includes a call to make representation a quantifiable and trackable goal: “Empower leaders and boards to drive representation and inclusivity by being a core part of the leadership team’s strategic priorities with clear KPIs, actions and objectives, transparently communicated. Deeply understand and monitor the data of your company and understand what goes on within it.”

Meanwhile, there have been a number of statements of support for the cause and similar signs of action from Canada’s industry associations.

The Association of Canadian Advertisers said it will introduce a new program and council to encourage greater diversity and inclusion by the end of the month. “I like to think that we have done a good job in Canada in providing greater representation be it race and ethnicity, disabilities, sexuality, gender identification or age. But there is much more we can be doing,” said president and CEO Ron Lund. “The composition of the pictures in front of us is a beginning, but it’s when the people behind the advertising  (creatives, cameras, set builders, everyone) have greater representation in the process that we’ll  truly move forward.”

The ICA, meanwhile, has added an anti-racism section to its website with suggested reading and resources, and on Wednesday hosted an open Zoom meeting entitled “Do we only start listening when things start burning?”

“Over 240 people from across the agency sector joined to hear Black speakers Kevin Johnson, CEO of MediaCom and psychologist Dr Helen Ofosu. They shared their personal experiences of racism in Canada, including at the hands of police in our country,” said president and CEO Scott Knox. “They also spoke of their anger and exhaustion of the past week.”

The ICA launched its Inclusivity, Diversity & Equity in Advertising (IDEA) initiative in 2018. That included an industry survey to understand how diverse the ad world was. According to that survey, visible minorities comprised 26% of the industry, compared to 21.6% of Canada’s general labour force according to StatsCan. “However, there are differences across the country, and we know that in Ontario agencies, those who identify as Black made up only 2.9% of our teams in comparison with 7.54% of those in the Ontario labour force generally,” said Knox.

The CMA also issued a statement late last week:  “We do not and will not tolerate discrimination, hate or injustice. We are deeply troubled by the death of George Floyd and we recognize that racism does not only live in the US. We support the need for justice and equality in the black community and the many communities of colour in Canada.

“We can and must do better. Through our new Talent Council, we will explore why the Black community is not better represented in our profession, and seek solutions to overcome this.”

And on Tuesday the CMDC put out a letter stating its commitment to making real change.

“As leaders in the media community, we must start by having the uncomfortable but necessary conversations about how we can ensure that no one is harassed, held back, or given any less freedom and dignity because of the colour of their skin,” states the letter co-signed by CMDC president Shannon Lewis and CMDC chair and GroupM CEO Stuart Garvie. “We must also acknowledge that while this topic has risen to the public consciousness in recent days, the solution to racial injustice is not a one-off event. This letter is the beginning, not the end, of this conversation.”


In a public letter headlined, “A call for change,”  Nathan Young and Bennett D. Bennett presented 12 actions for the ad industry to adopt. The list was co-signed by 600 Black ad professionals across the U.S.

“We are asking all U.S. advertising agencies to take the following actions to address the systemic racism that is afflicting our industry:

  1. Make a specific, measurable, and public commitment to improve Black representation at all levels of agency staffing, especially Senior and Leadership positions
  2. Track and publicly report workforce diversity data on an annual basis to create accountability for the agency and the industry
  3. Audit agency policies and culture to ensure the environment we work in is more equitable and inclusive to a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives
  4. Provide extensive bias training to HR employees and all levels of management
  5. Extend agency outreach to a more diverse representation of colleges, universities, and art schools
  6. Expand residencies and internship programs to candidates with transferable skills who may not have taken a traditional educational path toward advertising
  7. Create, fund, and support Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) for Black employees
  8. Invest in management and leadership training, as well as mentorship, sponsorship, and other career development programs for Black employees
  9. Require all leadership to be active participants in company Diversity & Inclusion initiatives and tie success in those initiatives to bonus compensation.
  10. Create a Diversity & Inclusion committee made up of Black and NBPOC employees to help shape diversity & inclusion policy and monitor its progress
  11. Establish a diversity review panel to stem the spread of stereotypes in creative work and ensure offensive or culturally insensitive work is never published
  12. Introduce a wage equity plan to ensure that Black women, Black men and people of colour are being compensated fairly
David Brown