On creating diverse and inclusive workplaces

Named to EMPower's Ethnic Minority Leaders list, Isobar's Kai Exos talks about fostering D&I for the company and its clients.

Kai Exos-featuredLast month, Kai Exos, Isobar’s co-CEO and CCO, was included in the 2018 EMPower Ethnic Minority Leaders list for the second year in a row. Once again, he was the only Canadian executive to be named to the list, which acknowledges leaders from North America and the U.K. who are “helping bring diverse talent to the business world.”

Exos (pictured) spoke to strategy about the initiatives he has implemented at Isobar (part of Dentsu Aegis Network Canada) about what other Canadian business leaders can do to make their organizations more diverse and inclusive.

On the initiatives he has helped implement at Isobar

Exos and his co-CEO Jeff Greenspoon have fostered diversity and inclusion by partnering with organizations like The 519, a Toronto group that advocates for the inclusion of LGBTQ communities. Many partner organizations conduct research and have literature that can be used as a precursor to in-person training within a company, he says.

Partnerships like those with the The 519 have led to internal initiatives – “I say that they’re small, but of course they’re not” – such as asking employees to present their preferred pronoun on their online chat profiles or while introducing themselves at meetings.

As Isobar has grown (it now counts about 150 employees), the agency has introduced a VP layer of management. Exos says he and Greenspoon set out to achieve equitable representation between men and women at that level. A year-and-a-half later, four of its seven VPs identify as women. He says it boils down to “being patient, and trying to focus on what you want to achieve.”

On the dangers of appearing disingenuous

This year has seen many brands throw their support behind Pride. While that can go a long way in helping foster inclusion, Exos believes consumers can see when that support is not core to what the organization stands for.

“When it feels wrong or slotted in or just a passing thing, you don’t see the return on [investment], you don’t see the engagement,” he says. “I trust the audience, and they can see that stuff a mile away.”

He says that as an Isobar client, Stoli vodka has successfully activated at Pride because its support is year-round and inherently part of the brand. “It has to be a long-term strategy, and can’t just be a piecemeal thing that happens once a year,” he says.

On creating ads that are mindful of inclusivity

When it comes down to “the nitty-gritty,” Exos says producing great ads that are also mindful of inclusivity requires questioning traditional processes. Occasionally, he says, a client will ask to cast a 30-something, athletic white male without questioning why they are the most appropriate person for the ad. Sometimes, the answer is simply “We’ve always done it this way.”

Organizations should instead be rethinking how they navigate their briefs and strategies in order to cast a broader net than they may have in the past.

On why there’s more to diversity than the business case

Exos says that while the business case for diversity is well-established, that shouldn’t be the primary reason for doing it. Brands are “the voice of everything” and should be implementing D&I initiatives for the right reasons.

“We have a saying at Isobar, which is respect the craft. It’s born of that understanding that everyone brings value to the work,” she says. “Yes, there’s a business case for it. But fundamentally, the reason that we’re doing it is that we believe in it.”