The Garden announces new diversity and inclusion plan

After a period of what it described as “serious reflection on its blind spots” stemming from its promotion of an internal project that drew criticism from the BIPOC community, Toronto ad agency The Garden this week announced a formal plan to improve its diversity and inclusion practices.

Agency co-founders Shari Walczak and Shane Ogilvie said the agency’s new “Diversity, inclusion and intercultural competence plan of action” was developed in consultation with members of the BIPOC community—both people within their professional networks and their staff—as well as outside experts in diversity and inclusion.

“A few weeks ago, the fallout from a public misstep related to an internal project caused us to pause and take a deeper look at ourselves when it comes to diversity, inclusion and intercultural competence,” said Walczak and Ogilvie in a LinkedIn post outlining the plan this week. “When we did, we realized that despite an explicit desire from day one to build a company around inclusivity, it is clear that we are still not where we need to be.”

Stressing that it represents only a first step, The Garden said its new plan is shaped around three key objectives: 1) signalling its commitment to anti-racism and anti-oppression, 2) providing a starter list of steps to draw from to begin taking immediate action, and 3) serving as a reference point for a “comprehensive” three-year action plan detailing specific actions, milestones, timelines and accountabilities for the processes, policies and culture change initiatives.

“[T]his isn’t a moment in time, it’s an ongoing effort,” said Ogilvie in an email interview. “These plans won’t end up in a binder that sits on a shelf. We intend for our commitment to diversity, inclusion and intercultural competence to be something we live and breathe every day throughout The Garden. The goal is to have it completely integrated into the way we hire, who we collaborate with, and the way we create—starting from the strategic process and the brief, all the way through design, creative development and production.”

The Garden conducted its own research, reading and consultation to arrive at a list of possible actions, before enlisting Maureen Brown and her Toronto-area company Rock Diversity to help shape the plan. Founded in 1997, Rock Diversity has worked with several government and health agencies including the Ontario Human Rights Commission and the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, as well as corporate clients like Tim Hortons and Winners.

“[Brown] actually [said] that our initial collection of ideas wasn’t at all sustainable for a company of 20 people” said Walczak. “She helped us focus our list on actions that would be meaningful and sustainable.”

While Brown did not speak specifically to The Garden’s plan, she said it’s not uncommon for companies to be overly ambitious when it comes to implementing their diversity and inclusion practices—which can be problematic if they are not anchored to bedrock policies around things like internal culture and hiring practices.

“We as much as possible try to to encourage organizations to not just do an action plan… but make it part of the business,” she said. “You’re not going to ditch your operational plan, so therefore you won’t ditch the diversity aspect of your operational plan either.”

Similarly if the scope of a diversity plan is too sweeping, it can undermine even the most well-intentioned efforts, she said. “You’re better to do less but do it well than to commit to a broad range [of measures] and do it in a more shallow way.”

Walczak said the experience served as a “painful” reminder of the amount of work that remains in achieving true equality. “We all saw ourselves as allies who’d read a lot of literature, gone to events [and] protests, and could trust that our personal beliefs would naturally be reflected in our work,” she said. “It’s clear we still have work to do.”

Brown, meanwhile, said that it’s important that during events like this for companies not to call out their colleagues or rivals, but take the opportunity to look inside their own organization. “Have some grace towards those who have fallen, use the opportunity to look [at yourselves], and use it as an opportunity for a sector-wide conversation.”

Chris Powell