Meaningful progress toward equality remains slow: POCAM study

While agencies and clients have tried to tackle discrimination and the lack of diversity in the industry, a new survey of BIPOC professionals working in Canadian marketing and advertising shows that progress has been slow.

The latest “Visible and Vocal” study from People of Colour in Advertising and Marketing (POCAM) found, for example, that just 10% of the 259 BIPOC professionals surveyed believe race relations are good in Canada, (compared to 65% of white Canadians, regardless of industry), and 59% who work at mostly white agencies or clients believe racial bias exists at their workplace.

And while there have been tangible efforts to improve on diversity, equity and inclusion over the past two years, the findings suggest not much has changed since the first “Visible and Vocal” study a year ago. “The data and the numbers still remain the same, and the BIPOC [people] in our industry are saying the same things,” said POCAM co-founder and Franklin Management Group principal Julian Franklin during an online presentation of the results on Thursday.

The study shows that many of the same issues remain: Qualified BIPOC people being passed over for promotions despite having the requisite experience or training; organizations publicly demonstrating a commitment to BIPOC, while leaving the systems that perpetuate an inequitable environment largely unchanged; and hiring BIPOC employees into largely junior and admin roles.

Chasson Gracie, group planning director at  Dieste, said the basic feeling for BIPOC marketing and advertising professionals is that discrimination exists. But a series of open-ended questions in the questionnaire also revealed the extent to which the challenges faced by those employees can be “visceral and hurtful,” he added.

One respondent said that new BIPOC hires tend to be in administrative and support roles rather than in leadership, noting that simply having more BIPOC faces on staff is “meaningless” when they’re unable to steer the conversation.

“A lot of focus was put into [DEI] in 2020 and early 2021—trainings, employee resource groups being created; people being hired in D&I positions; reporting being implemented,” said one anonymous respondent. “The truth is, beyond a bunch of junior [mostly] to at-the-most director-level [only a couple] hires, most remain the same, and unfortunately things are perhaps not better: It has become more work on BIPOC people!”

POCAM concluded that a lack of mid- and senior-level BIPOC leaders could threaten “career longevity,” while the lack of BIPOC representatives in senior roles has created a sense that there is a ceiling for upward mobility, which could ultimately contribute to them leaving for other industries.

Gracie said he personally knows of BIPOC people who failed to advance beyond junior/mid-level roles at agencies and left for other sectors where they worked their way up to VP/SVP roles. “They did what they needed to do, and when they were ready to go back into agency life, they were told ‘Well, you didn’t exactly follow the trajectory of someone who could become a creative director or an account lead,'” he said.

“To me that is really the big issue,  and until that is corrected, I think it’s going to be hard for us to see [BIPOC] people at those higher levels.”

Another respondent said that many of the actions taken by companies to show their support for the BIPOC community over the past two years have been largely performative. “We will do the basics and then pat ourselves on the back, but it’s only to make us look good,” they said.

“There’s a lot of performative action that happened within agencies,” said Chino Nnadi, a global growth strategist and diversity, equity, inclusion and access specialist. “A lot of [companies] did training, brought on a consultant, and that was it. They wrote a PR [release] about it, and that’s as far as it ever went.” It’s crucial for agencies to hire an internal DEIA specialist or a longterm consultant to truly bring about meaningful change, she said.

The study did present some positive findings: 42% of respondent said that their organization had put unconscious bias training in place, while 54% instituted DEI policies. Half of respondents said that they have taken a more active role in working to ensure their workplace is free of bias, discrimination and microaggressions.

But daily microaggressions remain a persistent part of daily life for BIPOC employees, with 89% of respondents at predominantly white agencies or clients indicating that they feel the need to be “on guard” against microaggressions. In addition, 86% of East Asian respondents indicated that they have experienced a microaggression in their workplace, while 62% said that have experienced racial discrimination.

Franklin said that advocacy and mentorship are the “key priorities” for POCAM. “We’re being told by our community ‘Help us continue to find mentors and sponsors, so we can move up the corporate ladder, because we want to stay within the industry,'” he said.

There also needs to be a focus on training for BIPOC leadership roles. There’s really a need for us to see people being moved up because they’re talented,” he said. “It’s not just because it’s a social experiment.”

Chris Powell