Kevin Johnson wants more action to make media more inclusive

GroupM Canada’s CEO is the third participant in our annual Wish List.

The Industry Wish List is back. MiC is looking at the issues and trends of 2021, asking industry insiders what challenges lie ahead and how brands, media companies and agencies are adjusting. See our other interviews here.

Kevin Johnson has big plans for GroupM Canada in 2022. It’s been a little over a month since he was named CEO of its operations in Canada, which includes agencies Mediacom, Mindshare, Wavemaker, Essence and m/Six, as well as programmatic audience company Xaxis. Just before the appointment was made official, he spoke to MiC about the company’s growth goals and how the industry is going through a period of change.

Johnson recently took another minute to share what worked in 2021 and how the media investment company is working to make the industry more diverse and inclusive.

This interview has been condensed for clarity and length.

What do you think people in the media industry will remember 2021 for?

Well, obviously, it will be remembered for how the industry maneuvered through COVID. Specifically from a work perspective, how we decided to adjust our hybrid working styles towards our people collectively. I think there was an increased focus on things like responsible media, and how we addressed things like fake news in our market.

What are GroupM’s biggest priorities going into 2022?

We set out our five key beliefs in terms of the future of work and we’re working on what that will look like right now. Our belief is that work is a part of life and not the other way around. Clarity is essential. The idea of how flexible is flexible, and that flexibility should be equitable, thinking about inclusion and how the idea of flexibility crosses all people. That remote [work] can be productive, and we know that is a hot topic especially in the world that we live in. The last one, and I think most importantly, is that culture is built in person. And so how do we find the right balance and hybrid approach in the new working world?

The second part of that is, as we look into 2022, is that this year GroupM launched the idea of responsible investment. And so that ties itself to some of the keys for this year, with how are we dealing with brands and consumers; how are we dealing with data ethics? What does diversity and inclusion look like from a media perspective? What does responsible journalism look like? And then the big bucket of sustainability and the impact on our planet. So in 2022, you’re going to see us really beginning to tackle that in Canada.

A couple of examples of that would be, in the U.S. [GroupM] recently launched the idea of the media inclusion initiative, which recommended 2% of their investment from clients go into Black-owned media. We will be doing our own Canadian version of the media inclusion initiative that would be able to help and support Black investment in Black audiences and Black media ownership as well.

Will the Canadian initiative contribute the same percentage?

We’re actually working on a percentage right now. Obviously, you know the market as it relates to Black-owned media is very different from that in Canada. But what we do know is we’re going to make sure that the percentages that we create will have the same type of piece and intention that they have in the U.S. and the but it will be reflective of the Canadian market and making sure that whatever we do is real and impactful.

How have your conversations changed with clients over the past year?

It’s interesting over the last couple of years, particularly when COVID came, we saw that our relationships with clients, through this challenging and interesting time obviously got significantly closer. And I think that that was due to the fact that we were really stepping up and not just playing the role of media agency, but playing the role of partner and adviser. And being able to not only leverage what was happening here in Canada, but across the globe and being able to tap into other markets and share and replicate best practices. I think overall we were able to, like any personal relationship, get closer as challenges come up and I think that that’s been really great for us.

What do you see as the biggest challenges that the industry is facing right now? 

One of the biggest challenges is how do we really nail and create a more inclusive industry and ecosystem. I think in the last year particularly, we’ve done a lot of talking around identifying new and underrepresented communities. And clearly, we’re not where we should be as it relates to the industry. I think in 2022, now the opportunity is to truly begin to bring some of those underrepresented communities into our industry. And not only bring them in, but make sure that they’re able to stay and thrive within our ecosystem, which I think is critically important.

We are working on an initiative right now, but the concept is around being able to bring in more underrepresented communities, we know that there’s a shortage in terms of talent. How do we begin to make sure that we are tapping into and pulling from the wells that we haven’t gone to before?

One of the largest challenges that we have as an industry is that we keep going to the same well. And so how do we make sure that we are committing to the Black community and making sure that we’re tapping into that community and bringing in new people, new faces into our industry. The same thing for the Indigenous communities? So we’re actually creating an initiative where we are going to reach out into those communities, bring them into a training cohort, and then train them so we can address some of the shortages that we have across our agency. And put them in a great position – not only to jump into those agencies with a very solid foundation of learning, but making sure that they are able to have a very long and strong career within the GroupM family.

It addresses the new audiences and the new wells that we need to tap into that will address some of the talent shortages that we have. And at the same time would be able to invest in them initially by being able to train them up and prepare them for a life and a career potentially in the advertising and media industry, which I think is great.

What are some areas the industry should be thinking about in the coming year? 

Clearly, there was an extremely strong resurgence after COVID in 2021, and I would challenge our industry to take a look at how we’re spending and ensure that we continue to think about being extremely holistic about how we spend our clients’ dollars. When we look at the spend today, a large part of that is dominated by the likes of Google and Facebook. Let’s continue to challenge ourselves to make sure that we’re connecting with the consumer in a very holistic manner. And also, let’s make sure that we’re also committing to supporting Canadian-owned media and making sure that remains to be a viable option for advertisers in the future.

If you could get the entire media industry and make a collective resolution for 2022, what would it be?

I think as an industry, we need to put a stake in the ground and talk about and commit to some solid KPIs on how we want to measure inclusion that we see in the industry. Currently, we don’t have any specific KPIs as an industry around diversity and equity and some of the commitments that are willing to do. And I think our resolution should be not only, are we going to talk about it, because we’ve done a lot of that, we need to hold ourselves accountable as a community around being able to invest and support racialized communities. And I think the first step of that is setting some clear expectations on where we want to be and then holding ourselves accountable for them.