We need diverse legends

Forsman & Bodenfors' Glen D'Souza explains the message he gets about Canadian marketing when he looks at a mostly white Marketing Hall of Legends.

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I was taking a look at the recent announcement of the Toronto Chapter of the American Marketing Association’s new inductees into Canada’s Marketing Hall of Legends and it got me thinking about my own career.

I’m a creative and have been working in this business for 18 years. I love my job and I’m very lucky to be doing this for a living. It’s fun.

One of the things I learned early on is that when you want to advertise to a particular demographic, in order to be persuasive, you need to somehow show the target experiencing the product. How does a consumer know that particular brand of soda is thirst quenching? We need to show them drinking it and enjoying it. The customer will buy into that ideal because they see themselves, and that means we need to be reflective of the target market.

I used to bristle at with this way of thinking, but then would ultimately see in research that this notion holds up. The “bite and smile” works.

“Has this ever happened to you?” Absolutely, tell me more about what you’re selling!

Getting back to this year’s Canada’s Marketing Hall of Legends inductees, it is undeniably quite the list. These individuals have accomplished a lot. They’ve shaped culture. They’ve built up brands and businesses. They’ve employed lots of people and helped them move up in their careers. Their contributions are wonderful. I congratulate all of them.

The list of past inductees is also quite grand. I’ve worked for a couple of them, and I owe them a lot for getting me to where I am today (I’m looking at you, Mr. Bensimon and Mr. Roche). Let me be clear, I don’t want to take anything away from these individuals.

But something really bothers me. For as long as AMA Toronto has been inducting people, only one has been a person of colour ­– marketing professor and consultant Ken Wong, in 2005.

In fairness, when the Hall of Legends started in 2004, the pool of people with long and distinguished careers (the selection criteria’s minimum length is 25 years) was probably very white and very male because that was the industry 25 years earlier.

But 16 years later, not only is there only one person of colour in the Hall, there was only one single person of colour on the Hall’s selection committee this year – and it is the same person. Who gets recognized is important, of course, but so is who decides who gets recognized. It’s entirely possible that a more racially diverse committee might have returned a more diverse list of inductees (the committee is already much more diverse in terms of gender, region and branch of marketing).

This concerns me. And I think it should concern you too.

If this were an ad for the Canadian marketing industry, AMA Toronto’s message to me is that Black and Indigenous people and People of Colour are not worthy of the title “legend.” That none have “dedicated [their] lives to the pursuit of excellence in the field of marketing.” That’s what I’m seeing, according to what the research has shown us year after year. It’s all bite and no smile.

The sad truth is this is just one symptom of something bigger, which we can all help address. We need more Black and Indigenous people and People of Colour at the executive levels the AMA tends to recognize as “legends.” There aren’t enough. From CMOs to CCOs and CSOs and any other “C” you can think of.

When we experience “uncomfortable” conversations with our clients around something like casting, we have to speak up. It still happens.

And while we’re at it, let’s focus on getting more Black and Indigenous people and People of Colour into this industry at a student level. Let’s make our industry more attractive to more people. One of the reasons for the lack of diversity in the Hall of Legends was the lack of diversity in the industry, and we’re still nowhere close to being diverse enough.

To AMA Toronto: if we can make it happen, let’s take another look and bring in more “legends” that are Black, Indigenous and People of Colour. Period. I’ve worked with and admired many. This was a misstep, but there’s an opportunity for change.

People like to say this is a complicated topic, but it shouldn’t be. Our business is persuasion. If we want to have a more diverse industry, we’ve got to be more persuasive that diversity is welcomed and valued.

glendsouzaGlen D’Souza is ECD at Forsman & Bodenfors Canada.