8 Lessons: We need to do what?

For companies that are committed to DEI but lack a clear pathway, Ishma Alexander-Huet offers a guide to get out of the starting blocks.

Once a week, Initiative’s Ishma Alexander-Huet will be offering a lesson she has learned after a year of asking questions about how to make the media and advertising industries more equitable. Read her previous lessons here.

By Ishma Alexander-Huet

Over the past year, one thing has been abundantly clear: while there is a lot of willingness to do the right thing, there is a broad spectrum of understanding in our industry about what needs to be done or how to begin to tackle systemic racism.

In June 2020, we posted black squares among our social feeds to make space to amplify the voices of the Black community. In July, there was a move to boycott Facebook and move media spend elsewhere to  protest the platform’s handling of hate speech. Companies issued statements supporting the need for change. It was a start – people and brands seemed ready to identify, if not address, the issue of systemic racism at play.

I was scared it was going to stop there at performative measures, but momentum continued in the form of allies and companies stepping up to ask one big question: so now what?

Through speaking engagements and conversations, people started to ask me “how can I be a better boss to my Black employees?” and “how can I authentically engage Black Canadians?” The toughest of them all was “what can I do as an ally?”

Keep in mind I wasn’t an expert, just one person with lived experiences willing to have these conversations, but I realized many of us were in search of tangible action items to not just navigate this “new” reality but create change. We needed a playbook.

Sadly, our industry hadn’t truly identified DEI as an issue to be addressed before last year. While playbooks existed in the D&I space, few agencies and even brands had a dedicated D&I specialist at the global level, much less local. That meant there was a lot to learn over the past year, and while it can appear that there’s been little movement, I’ve experienced and witnessed companies align onto one of three general tracks:

Starting Line: Companies that are still trying to define what “diversity” means to them, deciding they are too small to be involved or expecting the BIPOC or LGBTQ2S+ community to lead the charge.

Tactical Checklist: Companies that went straight to putting DEI training in place, creating a DEI  committee or focused recruitment efforts on BIPOC communities. All essential initiatives as part of a larger plan, but whether well-intentioned or performative, they’re not enough to create systemic change on their own.

Full Playbook: Committed companies that have been doing the work and getting the education to learn best practices, put infrastructure in place and create comprehensive change management plans covering everything from their people, product, marketing, community/partnerships and supply chain. This group will emerge differentiated as full action plans begin to roll out.

When I hear stories about companies in the first two groups, I wonder what is holding them back – a lack of commitment or lack of a clear pathway? A year ago, I was in search of a pathway, but I’ve had the benefit of a committed global and local network, peer learning through various volunteer roles with organizations such as POCAM and Code Black and eight months of study, so I’m packing what I’ve learned into this “quick start guide” to help others.

1. Data: The first step is information. Some argue we don’t need another survey to tell us that systemic racism is a problem, but as the saying goes, what gets measured gets done. Hopefully by this point your company has done surveys, focus groups and research to not only create benchmarks, but also to gather insights from your stakeholders – on both diversity and  inclusion. The results need to be reviewed without bias to identify areas of opportunity and create short-, mid- and long-term SMART goals.

2. Resources: Concurrently, identify resources, both in terms of talent (who is going to be held accountable, is a consultant needed, how will you engage volunteers) but also tools. And there are many accessible resources to help you create a plan:

o People of Colour in Advertising and Marketing (POCAM) Call For Equity: This online tool provides 15 tangible action items needed to impact systemic change for POC in your organization, as well as a tracker to publicly update your progress.

o Kanter Change Wheel: This model identifies ten comprehensive categories required in a plan to create behaviour and culture change in any organization.

o GDEIB (Global Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Benchmarks): A clear framework and method for a company to self-evaluate where they sit across all DEI parameters – not only representation and inclusive culture, but products, marketing and supply chain, to name a few.

3. Plan: To do this work effectively, there needs to be structure and infrastructure created at the company level to support it. It’s an actual change management process, which means leadership must not only be on board, but also play an active role in the journey. Too often this work is left to HR, a DEI committee or individuals in the organization who are passionate about the work – often the people who are the most impacted by a lack of inclusivity and diversity. If the heavy lifting is left to equity seeking groups, you’re not creating change.

4. Implement: It’s important to remember that this is an iterative process, one you must measure, evaluate and revise as you move along. This job is huge, and it needs to be done in phases.

Not in leadership? Ask your leaders about your D&I plan and the expectations of allies and POC. Volunteer and get comfortable being uncomfortable. We all have a role.

For me, the first step was realizing just how big the job was. It allowed me to step back and realize I need tools, education and a plan before rushing into tactics that may have felt like action but delivered little long-term change. I’m not discouraged by the lack of measurable change so far, but excited to see programs come to fruition over the next year. We must be patient, but persistent.

Ishma Alexander-Huet is VP, client advice and management, head of learning and culture at Initiative.