By Melinda Gipson
The time to “study” diversity is past, Dr. Dara Richardson-Heron advised a recent AAF-DC breakfast gathering. “It’s time to be like Nike and ‘Just do it.’” Despite the assertion, the African American CEO of the YWCA made an impassioned case for making the advertising, marketing and public relations industries more inclusive using a treasure trove of conclusions and statistics:
- Basic economic theory suggests that many consumers will correct for a business’ lack of diversity by just not spending money there.
- Companies that embrace diversity are more profitable. That’s because diversity is a very critical component to enabling a company or organization to innovate and adapt in a changing environment. Diversity breeds innovation and innovation breeds success. She quoted a recent article in Forbes: “Successful companies are not the companies that build a business then look at diversity as a nice to have attribute. Truly successful and innovative companies are those that build diverse teams when they are just starting out in their own apartments or their folks’ garage.”
- Job seekers prioritize diversity: two-thirds of job seekers say a diverse work force is an important factor for them when they consider job options. “The gains in employee engagement, effort and retention alone make for a compelling diversity proposition.” Add to that the satisfaction consumers feel when they believe you actually care about them and have insight into who they really are and “the case for diversity is really hard to ignore.
- Companies that embrace diversity will better reflect their consumers. By 2050, it’s estimated that the majority of people in the United States will be people of color.
- Purchasing power for Latinas, Asian Americans and black women grows annually. Hispanic women have become a strong influence on the mainstream economy with 52 million in the US population. Hispanics collectively have an impressive buying power of about $1.2 trillion.
- Asian American buying power increased 7% to $770 billion in 2014 and continues to rise. It’s expected to reach $1 trillion by 2018.
- According to Nielsen, nearly 40% of African Americans expect the businesses they patronize to support social causes and 78% also say that their cultural ethnic heritage is an essential part of who they are, which can in turn affect the purchases they make.
- Black consumers are no longer a niche market. Black buying power is expected to reach $1.2 trillion this year and $1.4T by 2020. “That would make black America the 15th largest economy in the world in terms of GDP,” Richardson-Heron said.
- Nielsen also speaks about multicultural audiences and consumers as transforming the American mainstream, not just with their population growth and young age, but projected longevity. They’re, “at the leading edge of converging demographic and social trends that are reshaping how advertisers and marketers use culture to connect with increasingly diverse consumers.” They’re “media savvy and empowered,” so brands that speak to their culture, image and aspirations will be rewarded as these trendsetters and tastemakers adopt them and become loyalists. Their adoption, as well as that of women, is “key to long-term growth for products and brands and organizations for that matter,” she added.
Brand Refresh Reflects Y’s Mission
When it comes to making her brand reflect the constituency it serves, Richardson-Heron spoke from personal experience. After being around for 158 years, the YWCA found itself in need of a brand refresh, she explained. It’s mission, to empower women and end racism in society, mandated that the group first an agency to assist in its rebranding that mirrored the diverse society it was trying to impact. The Y chose Chief.
“YWCA recently went through a recent brand refresh led by our friends at Chief,” she related. “When it came to representing a diverse organization like YWCA, representation of diverse voices was critical, because we recognize fully that a mono-cultural perspective would not get us where we need to be. We wanted to make sure that our marketing and branding work resonated with all audiences who are interested in joining us in our mission to eliminate racism and empower women…. We wanted to take an approach that would resonate with broad and diverse multicultural audiences.”
The group acknowledged the legacy of its founding members, whom she says “knew the world would be a much better place if everyone irrespective of race, age, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, ability, national origin, geographic location, political orientation, physical size or appearance not only acknowledged and accepted but also respected cultural diversity and influences.”
At the same time, the group thought the centrality of the word “Christian” could prove a barrier to serving people of diverse faiths – so it took it out. In an exchange with a questioner in the audience, Richardson-Heron explained:
Questioner: “The word Christian still appears in the name of your organization. I wonder if you could speak to the role that faith might play in advancing diversity?”
Richardson-Heron: “Interesting. We changed our name from Christian. Our organization was founded on Christian principles in 1858, just as most organizations were back in that day, and we were an organization that was always faith based. But for many years, we have been receptive and responsible to all people irrespective of religion. As part of our brand refresh, we felt that particularly the C in the YWCA… We realized that the YWCA used to stand for Young Women’s Christian Association. We realized that we were no longer young after 158 years, we were mostly women but not all women, we were certainly not all Christian and we weren’t even an association. About a year ago we officially changed our name to YWCA” where the letters represent the group but no longer represent an acronym. “What I will say is that there are some of our associations that are still very steeped in faith and we’re not just a national movement, we’re a global movement so certainly our YWCAs abroad are very much steeped in the faith tradition. We firmly believe that we want to be an organization that benefits all people so that was the impetus behind removing the ‘Christian’ in the C of our organization.”
Questioner: “It seems like there should be a way that you can bring faith back into the ecosystem and the conversation without it being a bludgeon — more like flypaper to draw people together?”
Richardson-Heron: “I would agree with that. Our approach is, we want people to be who they are. You don’t have to be any specific person for the YWCA to be there for you. We just as equally will advocate for a Muslim as we will a Christian. That’s who we are as an organization. So, we removed it not because we no longer believe that there are people who have strong faith beliefs, but we didn’t want to impede others who may find that offensive.”
Advertising Too Often Lags Culture
As for the advertising and marketing industry, diversity has yet to find its way into its DNA. Richardson-Heron laid the mandate for change squarely at the feet of AAF-DC members as leaders in their field to speed up the transformation of advertising as a reflection of the society it serves.
“1947 was the year Pepsico was the first to directly address and include African Americans in advertising…. African Americans have been consumers of products for a very long time but it was not until 1947 when they could actually see themselves in an ad. It really wasn’t until 1963 that other major companies announced that they would incorporate African Americans into their ads. It was 1974 when Jello was one of the first major American companies to use an African American spokesperson. It was not until 1994 when Ikea ran some of the very first ads featuring a gay couple in the mainstream media. It was not until 2012 when Target featured a child unceremoniously with Down’s Syndrome,” Richardson-Heron related.
“Certainly each of you in this room as leaders in creative industries have a responsibility to change this narrative and make your work more reflective of our changing world and our changing demographics (as) people who are driven to deliver new and even more fresh ideas.” During the reception, she said she spoke with a woman who said, “I’m not a leader.” Retorts Richardson-Heron, “You are. You were brought into your organization and you need to lead within your realm. Whatever you can do in your area, that’s what you do. Don’t wait until you’re the CEO because then it’s too late. You have to lead from where you are. I tell my team, ‘everyone in my organization is a leader, I don’t care what you’re doing from the bottom to the top because we all have to work together we all have to lead to deliver positive change.’”
“You have the power and you must take it,” she exhorted, “because, honestly, those who do have the power don’t have the passion to move it forward.” Each person should, “make sure that you’re infusing real and authentic diversity of thought, diversity of perspective, viewpoints, backgrounds, and expertise to deliver a new innovative approach that engages all populations and audiences.”
Not that taking a “bold unapologetic approach to diversity” is without risk. Vitriolic, racist backlash met a recent Cheerio’s commercial that featured a multiracial family. “For some marketing professionals and companies, risk of that kind of backlash may be a deterrent, but I would encourage each of you not to be deterred, but rather be emboldened. I would encourage each of you to push the envelope forward in the name of diversity. Because what that backlash symbolizes to me is just how rare it is to see positive and celebratory depictions of diversity in all lines – diversity that very accurately depicts who we are as a nation.”
Signs of Hope
In November, the Public Relations Society of America announced that they will provide their foundation with up to $100K in funding for programs and initiatives each year for the next five years to support the foundation’s efforts to increase diversity in the public relations industry. Richardson-Heron read her favorite quote from the release, from Torod Neptune, PRSA President of the Foundation and Corporate VP for Corporate Communications of Verizon Communications:
“We’ve done enough research. We’ve talked about the problem for too long. It’s now time for comprehensive and solid action, to work throughout our profession to accelerate progress – to create tools and approaches that can be used by all – to make an industry-wide, and societal impact” he said. “By focusing all our energy on funding high-impact programs exclusively within the areas that we know have the greatest impact on the diverse makeup of our industry, we are committing the PRSA Foundation to spurring meaningful and immediate change. Furthermore, by serving as a catalyst and collaborating with our industry colleagues, we believe we can make even more progress and ultimately see meaningful impact at scale now.”
What made this a hopeful sign for Richardson-Heron was that, “it’s widely known within the public relations and communications industry that not only is there a general lack of diversity in the industry but there is also clearly a divided gender line. Women overwhelmingly hold PR positions while men typically hold upper management positions. Many cite this lack of diversity and division along gender lines as a reflection of what’s happening in the greater society, but let me be perfectly clear – that doesn’t make it right.”
In ad agencies, the 3% Conference found that women make up just 11.5% of creative directors, “and that’s progress, because that’s more than a three-fold increase from prior years when the percentage was just 3%!” Richardson-Heron commended Kat Gordon, a former agency exec, and the other women behind the organization for their commitment not to give up until women represent 50% of creative directors at agencies. “These women are passionate about it and determined to change the conversation about marketing and women and I really like their style.”
She’s also heartened by campaigns like “Miss-representation” and #notbuyingit, efforts to shine a light on underlying sexism and racism in commercials. “Women are now thankfully holding advertisers accountable for the content and placement of their ads and I, for one, think it’s a good thing. But gender, racial, cultural and all other forms of diversity in advertising, is not just good for women, it’s good for businesses and the economy.”
Like them, “we too are passionate about and committed to achieving gender balanced leadership in every realm from elected officials to the public sector to academia to business and to the public sector and, simply put, it’s just unconscionable that more than 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the institution of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that race, gender and cultural diversity and equity — particularly in higher positions of leadership in just about every career you can imagine –continues to be a struggle,” Richarson-Heron said.
For Her, It’s Personal
Beyond the rhetoric of racial and gender equality, it’s clear that, for Richardson-Heron, her mission is deeply personal.
“Since I don’t know when the next time will be that I will have a coveted opportunity to have a captive audience of so many leading marketing advertising and PR media experts, just let me get this off my chest: Why in the world do women continue to be represented in the media the way that they are? Guys can you help me? Somebody’s got to help me because there are endless images of women who generally have one look: white, young, able bodied and airbrushed.” Such images are devastating to young girls who see 400-600 ads daily, and over 250,000 by the time they’re 17.
“Although only 9% of commercials have a direct statement about beauty, many more implicitly emphasize the importance of beauty, particularly those that target younger girls,” she said. One study of Saturday morning toy commercials found that, “50% of commercials aimed at girls spoke about physical attractiveness, while none of the commercials aimed at boys referred to appearance. These stereotypes reinforced in advertising not only fail to connect with women as individuals and consumers, but they have the potential to negatively impact the way men and boys see women and girls, and they impact the way women see themselves.” Such stereotypes can contribute to low self-esteem, an imbalance of power, physical and sexual abuse.
“Diversity in advertising is vitally important because you can’t be what you can’t see,” she explained. Many of the children the YWCA serves in after school development and leadership programs, “rarely see a professional person of color that is not an athlete or a professional singer. Sadly, even some of those because of their own personal biases and the lack of regular exposure to people of color are surprised when they see a person of color with strong credentials and professional achievement.”
A recent example of stereotyping from the news resonated with the African American medical doctor on a “deeply personal level.”
Dr. Tameka Cross, a black female physician, tried to medically assist a fellow airline passenger in distress on a Delta flight but was blocked by a condescending flight attendant. “Despite identifying herself as a doctor the flight attendant told her they were looking for ‘an actual physician.’ “ (Dr. Cross’ original Facebook post about the incident drew more than 22,000 comments.)
“So here we are in 2016, and I just remain hard pressed to explain why the flight attendant refused to even consider or entertain the possibility that Dr. Cross, an African American physician was qualified to administer medical help but, for some reason, she was perfectly comfortable in her position and perception…. I have to wonder if her incredulous actions were at all bolstered and emboldened by the perceptions she has derived from the many negative perceptions of women of color that are perpetuated in the media.” The flight attendant, “did herself, her company and the passenger in need a major disservice.” Likewise, “when advertisers, marketers, PR professionals and others underestimate the perceptiveness, the cultural interest and the buying power of women and multicultural audiences — just like this flight attendant — they do themselves, the companies and products they represent and all consumers a major disservice. When any of us underestimates the power of diversity we do ourselves, our nation and our world a real disservice.”
“I didn’t come here this morning to depress you,” she said, but she did come to, “encourage each of you to find your own compelling reason to amplify and celebrate diversity in your own life and work. I encourage you to just do it, stop the talk and do it. And, certainly, during this time of change and uncertainty, as diverse and complex as we all are, I encourage each of you to always take a moment and stop and think about what is best about each of us as members of one race: the human race.”
It might help to, “Think about diversity as a mentality, a state of mind, not just a strategic imperative or a corporate social responsibility initiative,” she concluded.
‘What do you do when you’re the only woman in the room?’
In response to a question from a woman about how to react when it seems like you’re the token woman in the conversation, Richardson-Heron again revealed a personal vignette.
“It’s very important for women to bring their whole selves into their work,” she advised. Twenty years ago, she said, a reviewer in her job graded her as excellent across the board on her work product but said, “’You’re very buttoned up. People would be more comfortable around you if you would maybe be relaxed and maybe be more girly.’… That was a moment for me. I could have either just accepted that and just let it pass, or do what I didm which was address it very respectfully. I made it very clear to him in no uncertain terms, ‘You will evaluate me on my work performance and my productivity not on how I look or how I dress and I will not change who I am to make others comfortable around me.’ That was a risk, right, because I could have gotten fired, but the bigger risk for me was not being able to look myself in the face and allow this person to get away with that ridiculous comment.”
The ultimate test is, “always what can I live with. My key word is authenticity. I can’t be someone I’m not, and the risk was worth it for me. If more people took a stand when things weren’t right — when there is a joke that happens that you know is not right — we have two choices. We can either just walk away and act like we didn’t hear it, or we can do the bold step which is to say, ‘You know what, that really isn’t going to contribute to the positive environment that we’re trying to create here.’ I think if more people took that stand, people would feel less comfortable being not appropriate.”
The same is true in the context of the recent presidential election. One African American woman expressed a sense of unease that decades of advances in racial equality “seemed to hit a wall.”
Said Richardson-Heron, “We are in uncertain times and, to be honest, it is yet to be seen where this will all end. But, as I said, it’s up to each of us as individuals to decide for ourselves and our families in places where we have leadership roles. It’s up to us to make sure that we are not contributing to the negativity. It’s up to us when we see it – particularly those of us who have a powerful platform –to stand against it.” The more people that choose to be positive, the more uncomfortable will be those who harbor ideas of turning the clock back. “What needs to happen is that those people need to gain momentum and make sure that we all move forward as opposed to retreating and retrenching,” she said.
Melinda Gipson does business development for Sabio Mobile, a minority-owned, mobile ad targeting company. Chief hosted the breakfast at its Massachusetts Ave. office where one whole wall proclaims, “Be Bold.” AAF-DC breakfasts, which occur at least monthly, are FREE to all members and should never, ever be missed.