Why Canada needs its own approach to systemic racism in the industry

Advertisers and marketers tend to see themselves as progressive people in a progressive country. That has made them passive to the experiences of BIPOC talent.


Two weeks ago, an open letter was circulated in the industry, asking agencies and clients alike to commit to 15 steps to improve representation of Black, Indigenous and POC talent in Canada’s advertising and marketing industries. Released following a similar call in the U.S. days prior, the goal is to help create an approach to systemic racism that is unique to Canada.

Over 450 individual signatories have joined the call, with over 60 publicly committing to it, including leadership at agencies Zulu Alpha Kilo, Taxi, Forsman & Bodenfors, Ogilvy, Vision7, John St., McCann, Rethink, Bensimon Byrne, Anomaly and No Fixed Address, as well as one client – Labatt Breweries of Canada.

The letter was spearheaded by a group consisting of Alyssa Dominique, account supervisor at McCann Canada; Stephanie Small, creative operations manager at Taxi; Julian Franklin, principal at Franklin Management Group; Justin Senior, director of sales and marketing at SAMA; Joshua Richards, director of creative technology at John St.; and Gavin Barrett, CCO and founding partner at Barrett and Welsh.

Another goal of the letter is to send a signal that systemic racism is an issue that needs addressing. Not only have inclusivity and acceptance become known as part of Canada’s identity, but advertising also tends to see itself as a progressive industry – both of which can lead to passivity, even when evidence to the contrary presents itself.

gavinbarrett“It’s a very Canadian phenomenon to say, ‘We’re not racist, I’ve never done a racist thing in my life,’” says Barrett and Welsh’s Gavin Barrett (pictured left). “Well, yes, there are lots of good people, but that does nothing for people who experience racism. We need people to actively do good, not passively be good.”

Barrett says the letter is centred around the experiences of Black and Indigenous people in the industry for many of the same reasons that BIPOC became a term: they are the people that disproportionately face the most violent forms of racism. It might be difficult for some to see how things like police brutality is relevant to the boardroom, but Barrett points out that hiring discrimination is also a sign of systemic racism – police brutality is just one of the “most violent” expressions of the same chain.

Looking at the inner circle

Canada needs its own approach to addressing systemic racism in order to solve the issue.

According to data from the Conference Board of Canada, university-educated Black people earn 80.4 cents for every dollar earned by white peers, compared to 87.4 cents for all visible minorities. For Indigenous people, it’s closer to 66 cents.

Hiring rates do not fare much better. According to the most recent data from a poll of ICA member agencies, 73.9% of staff at agencies in Toronto are white, despite representing only 47.8% of the city’s population; 2.9% of staff are Black, despite representing 7.5% of the city’s population. In Montreal, white people make up 90.1% of agency staff (compared to 76.6% of the city’s population); 1% of staff are Black, compared to 6.8% of the population.

The numbers are a bit better in Vancouver – 1.4% of agency staff are Black, roughly in line with 1.2% of the city’s population – but only 0.72% of staff were Indigenous, compared to 2.53% of the city’s population. Indigenous talent in Toronto’s advertising agencies made up 1.19% of staff, compared to the city’s population of 0.8%; 0.9% of agency staff in Montreal are Indigenous, in line with the city’s population.

There is also a need to be specific about the problem being solved if it is going to be effective: research out of the U.S. has shown that the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action and diversity initiatives have traditionally been white women.

Stephanie Small_Headshot_ResizedAnother reason Canada needs to create its own approach instead of adapting one from the U.S. is because Canadian companies have their own operations, structures and budget, and the people working at those companies have their own networks – the latter of which can have a huge impact when the industry in question is relatively smaller. The group that spearheaded the letter grew out of a private LinkedIn group that Taxi’s Stephanie Small (pictured, right) created with the help of Richards earlier this year, specifically so people of colour working in Canadian advertising and marketing had a place to grow their network and share job opportunities, as well as have a safe space to discuss their experiences. Small expected to have 75 members, but saw membership quickly grow to over 200 in a matter of days.

“If you look at your inner circle and you don’t see diversity or inclusiveness, there’s going to be a problem,” Small says. “That’s where your referrals are going to come from. I know people that are more than capable of doing various jobs, from VP to junior art director, and if I can create this group and have everyone I know reach out to ten people to create this group, then that is our rolodex. Maybe the higher ups need to expand their own inner circle, but maybe it is as simple as looking to the people of colour in their office and asking who they know they think will fit this role.”

Franklin is currently the principal at his own consultancy, but has previously held agency- and client-side leadership roles at Geometry Global and Kraft. Having had the ability to hire, he knows there are a lot of skilled BIPOC in the talent pool.

“But the reality is they’re not in traditional advertising agencies or traditional CPG companies, because they have either found that they were not seeing support or they were going to take their talents outside of the industry,” he says. That means considering the possibility that recruitment – from the experience companies look for to the recruiters they work with to the Canadian schools they reach out to – might not be inclusive of BIPOC applicants.

Small says outreach needs to begin early, as soon as high school. Coming from a West Indian background, Small says many in her community are pushed by parents to go into more “traditional” and stable jobs, like teachers, doctors and accountants – reaching these students early is a way to show them that advertising and marketing is a viable a career path.

Barriers to moving up the ladder


The other issue comes at the other end of the career path, where BIPOC in Canadian companies don’t appear to make it into the senior and executive ranks.

“I have experienced some great opportunities and I’ve been privileged enough to move up the ranks,” says Franklin (pictured, left). “But one of the things that was starkly apparent as I maneuvered through my career is that while I did have managers of colour who were great mentors and leaders, there was not someone else who looked like me that was readily and consistently there. There’s got to be an ability for leadership at all companies to ask the questions of ‘Why are we losing talent at a certain level? Why are our executive rooms looking the way they look?’ If there is a lack of diversity, that is not a true reflection of the company or the country it operates in.”

Franklin says that fact is not something that has been consistently addressed by any industry association in Canada. There is the Multicultural Marketing Alliance of Canada (of which Barrett & Welsh is a founding member), but it is more focused on multicultural marketing as a practice. Associations like the ICA, ACA and CMA have provided resources, research and seminars to help their membership address diversity, especially in recent weeks (last week, the ICA announced Idea Advocates, a mentorship program that aims to create diversity in agency leadership, with a focus on Black talent in the first cohort). But those are extensions of their mandates to help members navigate issues in the industry and be successful organizations. It is not a core part of their mission, as it is for several groups in the U.S. that are specifically tasked with providing mentorship, support and opportunities for BIPOC in the industry.

Last week, the group that spearheaded the letter decided on a name for itself – People of Colour in Advertising in Marketing (POCAM) – and is currently working through how to formalize itself and what kind of work it is going to be doing. One thing that may be a priority is accountability when it comes to the diversity and inclusion steps. Unlike the open letter in the U.S., the Canadian version asked organizations to publicly commit to the steps, to ensure that the companies are held to the commitments they agreed to.

“A lot of brands had something to say about Colin Kaepernick, for example, but where was the action?” Small says. “It’s all well and good for these people are to be saying what they’re saying, but where are your numbers? Where are your hiring practices? We hear you, but it’s because we’ve been getting this lip service forever. It’s not cute anymore. Now I need to see it reflected when I walk into your office or in the ads you put out or in your mission statement or your hiring practices. We’re tired of the consistent talk.”