Agencies work to create a legacy, not a moment

To create lasting change, shops are rewiring everything from their organization and culture to behaviour and thinking.


This is the second feature focusing on the steps the advertising and marketing industry has taken towards progress on diversity and inclusion, and the many more steps that are still to come. You can read the first part, focused on brand-side efforts on the long road to structural change, here.

This story originally appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of strategy.

“I’ve only been in one pitch in Canada so far. But I’ve also only been on the job for four months.”

That’s James Kinney, Ogilvy’s global chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer. He’s telling me about his new role after group CEO Arthur Fleischmann introduces us on a Microsoft Teams call in May. Curious to know why the HR executive – whose occupational forte is building organizational cultures using practices like neuroscience, emotional intelligence, and performance psychology – has a seat in global business pitches, Kinney says it’s simple: clients are demanding that agencies bring diverse POVs to conversations as early as the first meeting.

“Brands are having to take positions within society, whether that be the planet, racial justice, foreign affairs,” says Kinney. “So we can put forth the regular team that may have a homogenous POV on how to solve problems creatively – or we can have people from those communities that we’re addressing in the pitch.”

On top of being the lightning rod for Ogilvy North America’s DEI mission, Fleischmann says Kinney has also become an integral part of its business strategy. Marketers’ desire for cognitive diversity has steadily grown over the years, but Kinney says it’s now become a prerequisite. On another call with Juniper Park\TBWA, president David Toto echoes Kinney’s statements from a Canadian perspective: “Having clients on both sides of the border, diversity and inclusion used to be more of a subject for our U.S. clients. But now it’s definitely becoming a shared subject.”

Kinney describes the shift from diversity as a want to a must-have as a byproduct of the last 12 months – when the industry was awakened to issues of inequality and systemic racism following George Floyd’s murder on May 25, 2020. Those days and weeks were marked with public statements of solidarity, support and promises to address inequality and racism against Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC). Many of Canada’s ad agencies signed open letters from organizations advocating for BIPOC – including People of Colour in Advertising & Marketing (POCAM) and the BlackNorth Initiative – making a commitment to improve diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) at their organizations.

4According to the agencies interviewed for this article, all of them are attempting to implement DEI strategies that can be sustained versus creating a check-list of quick-fix tactics. FCB Canada’s president Bryan Kane explains that his agency’s goal is to create a “legacy, not a moment” – which has meant completely rethinking and remapping its processes, programs and policies, as well as its culture and behaviour, using a DEI lens.

“Every time [FCB staff] get together as an agency now, there’s a component of our DEI program integrated,” says Kane. Speakers, at least two each month, continue to educate the agency on racial and social issues, even a year later, while 50% of the time spent in weekly all-staff meetings is dedicated to DEI topics and its committee’s plans and actions. That’s on top of it having teams – like many agencies – complete unconscious bias training, and rebuilding its recruitment model.

FCB’s management team also enrolled in a 12-week course through the University of Alberta on Indigenous Studies, because racism against Indigenous communities is a “Canadian truth that is not talked enough about,” says Kane. “We have the incredible privilege of being able to influence culture through our work, and it’s important to focus on creating the change we want to see in the world… If it’s constantly in our conversations, then you can see it reflected in our thinking about the work. [That education and dialogue enables] the team to not only create, but [also] evaluate work where biases are not represented, and stereotypes are challenged.”

Many agency leaders fear the conversation will fizzle out if DEI isn’t treated as a constant, active value. That’s one of the reasons Toto says JP\TBWA and Le Parc created Trampoline, a division of the agency that’s part-incubator for BIPOC talent, part-accelerator for BIPOC-owned businesses. Starting in 2021 and rolling out every quarter, Trampoline pairs a brand with paid interns, having them work (alongside a CD mentor) on branding and/or communications on a pro bono basis.

Neales' Sweet N' NiceJP\TBWA had three BIPOC students from OCAD, Miami Ad School and Ryerson University under its wings when the idea for the two-sided initiative was born. Trampoline’s first client was Neale’s Sweet n’ Nice (an ice-cream brand with roots in the Caribbean), for which the interns created a social and digital awareness campaign. Toto says it’s currently in the process of signing another brand for this quarter, but it’s also looking to work with cultural and advocacy groups.

Trampoline solves an HR need, says Toto, as it grows a stronger pipeline of diverse emerging talent. But it also strengthens the shop’s own business strategy, with the initiative becoming central to the agency’s creative culture. He calls it “DEI by design,” which he hopes will also help to inform the shop’s thinking about its work.

“The reality is that our Canadian society is a mixed ethnic culture,” adds Toto. “And while we’ve been working on consumer insights that are more culturally relevant for years, [it’s] being requested more and more by clients who did not have this conversation before.”

Of course, brands looking for diverse representation in their marketing is not new, but Priya Chopra, founder and president of Montreal PR agency 1Milk2Sugars, says their needs are evolving to now include “equal opportunity.” Brands have been casting the same BIPOC influencers over and over, she says, which is fueling a sense of tokenism from the consumer’s perspective.

“[The industry] has been diverse in its selection of talent, but the opportunities are going to the same people. For BIPOC influencers, it’s the same pool of candidates,” says Chopra. “So that was sort of the premise of why I launched Double Shot.”

An influencer rep agency that operates under 1Milk2Sugars, Double Shot hit the market in November 2020 and Chopra says it has already paired under-represented influencers with major brands like Maple Leaf Foods, Estee Lauder, Mattel’s Barbie and Perrier – many of them having never worked with 1Milk2Sugars before, directly reaching out to Double Shot to access its roster of “emerging talents” and “everyday people, such as moms, fitness coaches, nurses,” she says. “So many different categories of brands have taken interest in Double Shot right out of the gate. It’s sort of been beyond my expectations.”

Double Shot 4Like JP\TBWA’s Trampoline, Chopra says Double Shot – and the efforts her agency is doing to support under-represented groups, like pro bono consulting for BIPOC entrepreneurs such as Toronto’s Tianna McFarlane, who recently launched a line of bandages for black and brown skin called Heal in Colour – sits at the core of 1Milk2Sugar’s business strategy and creative culture. She’s even looking to expand Double Shot from talent agency to platform, launching a podcast to foster conversations, as well as hosting a D&I marketing conference this Fall (if all goes to plan).

Chopra opened the doors of Double Shot with the mantra for it to be an “agent of change” – an approach that some of the holding co.’s, like Publicis and WPP, have similarly adopted with the appointment of global CDOs who lead DEI initiatives for thousands of employees across markets and offices. For WPP’s Ogilvy, the role of diversity chief is not a new one. In fact, Kinney succeeded one of the industry’s first CDOs, Donna Pedro, who arrived at Ogilvy in 2007.

“The CDO is the voice in the room to say that [DEI] is an imperative part of the business, through the supply chain, through talent and recruiting, all the way to how you’re perceived as a brand,” says Kinney. “You have a CFO for a reason, right? You have a chief diversity officer for a reason, too – because it matters, and because it sends a signal to the market that this is something you care about and that you’re invested in.”

As the VP of HR at Leo Burnett and Saatchi & Saatchi, as well as the head of diversity and inclusion for Publicis Groupe in Canada, Stephanie McRae wears many hats. She’s the bones and the brains of the group’s DEI strategy, and over the last nine months has created a four-pillar mandate that covers education, outreach, talent management and giving back. Everything created at the group level by McRae is then “executed, expressed and embraced across the individual brands” so that employees feel personal ownership, explains Publicis Canada CEO Andrew Bruce. “That, to me, is how it finds its way into culture. That’s how it fundamentally changes the environment.”

McRae spends her days putting structural support systems in place so that it can build a community of employees that want to stay. “[Because] we can get people in and we make the agency diverse. But if we don’t have inclusion, then that doesn’t make a difference. If they don’t have the support, people are just going to be hurt by that experience,” she says.

Those systems also send a signal that an agency is fully dedicated to its people and total wellbeing, says Kinney. When Fleishmann and the CDO first started working together in January 2021, after many months of their employees battling screen fatigue, they decided to develop a wellness program that’s not overtly DEI-focused, but was built using a DEI lens. They called it “100% You” and rolled it out as a six-month curriculum that focuses on training around “the four M’s” – muscles, minds, money, and meals. “We have four coaches that are female – on purpose. And they’re three women of colour – on purpose,” says Kinney. “So it’s diverse, but not obvious in the way that we program the content.”

5Fleischmann says Kinney’s approach is one that he’s not witnessed before. The CEO says the CDO has been going beyond offering internal communication tools for staff and that he’s tackling behavioural change outside the agency, even the industry. In May, Kinney debuted The Force, an innovation lab that brings brands together to solve real-world problems, from the philosophical to the political. During the cross-industry brainstorm with the inaugural cohort – which included nine companies from consumer brand Airbnb, to tech startup Calm, to creative agency 72andSunny – a five-year plan to address the pay gap was created.

Next, the group plans to pitch CEO Marc Benioff of Salesforce to commit to their plan to achieve pay equity. The tech company has spent the last six years attempting to recalibrate its pay structure after discrepancies were brought to Benioff’s attention, and Kinney believes that learning from major companies in other industries can help its efforts to close the pay gap.

“When you look at what brands are doing now, they’re solving real problems,” says Kinney. “That’s where the real change happens, right? We’re actually trying to change behaviour within corporations.”

Most, if not all, agree that DEI needs to infiltrate the bones of their agency in order to maintain the momentum that began 12 months ago. Publicis, among others, has baked DEI into its strategic plan and considers it a business goal, which the executive team is measured against. And Kane says progress on DEI has become a fairly significant part of the executive compensation at FCB. It’s like any other KPI, says Bruce, adding that it’s not just a necessity from a moral standpoint, but also a business perspective: “This isn’t extracurricular. This is hardwired into our system – can you imagine one day deciding to take it out? Once it’s in, you can’t take it out. What kind of a human being would ever take it out?”

It’s important to remember, though; no matter which policy an agency corrects or initiative it launches, achieving diversity will be a never-ending journey. “There is no in-line or destination,” says Kinney. “Diversity is a social, judicial, economic and creative science. So you can create one solution within science, but will science ever end? No.”

Concept on the theme of racism. Stop racism. The image of protesting people, equality. protest. Vector stock illustration. Flat style. Seamless pattern.

Sidebar: Does the industry need to open more doors? 

Zak Mroueh is still holding onto a Marketing Awards annual from the late-80s as a reminder of harder days. He tells me that it’s marked with pencil scribbles where an untold number of Canadian agencies are listed in the appendix, a sort of Yellow Pages for the ad world.

“When I was starting out I didn’t know anyone in the business, so I had to knock on hundreds of doors before I finally got my foot in one,” says the founder and CCO of Zulu Alpha Kilo. He was turned down again and again for two years until, one day, Saatchi & Saatchi opened the door. The copywriter finally got his break in the agency’s mailroom.

That lived experience – “of perseverance and endless cover letters” – is what motivated Mroueh to create the 20Doors Scholarship Fund in May. Each year, for the next five years, Mroueh has promised to cover the tuition of a year-long post-graduate program in copywriting or art direction for four candidates who are Black, Indigenous or People of Colour. On top of that, his agency will mentor them as they launch their career in advertising.

“[20Doors is] just one example of a concrete way to help fix this problem once and for all, rather than an easy short-term fix where you simply check off a box to show you’ve done your part,” says Mroueh. “We wanted to do something meaningful, and hopefully, substantial… I hope in some way this inspires other agencies to create sustainable long-term plans to address this issue.”

Substantial, meaningful, sustainable – these are words that Taxi’s creative operations manager and a POCAM founder Stephanie Small wishes she’d hear more from agencies that publicly expressed intentions to improve diversity after last year’s resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Small feels more initiatives that break down barriers to entry for young BIPOC are needed and is even willing to hand over the strategic deck she created for Black Taxi – a talent incubator and employee resource group with the goal to find, hire and retain Black talent through programs like paid internships. More than that, she’s hoping to place some of the candidates that come through its doors at other agencies, even brands.

“We had almost 130 applications the first time we posted for the internship. This year, we have over 100, and some even reapplied for the second round,” says Small. “So I’ve been sending some over to Juniper Park\TBWA because they have [Trampoline], a BIPOC initiative for businesses and talent. And because we’re under the VMLY&R umbrella, we’ve been in talks with their offices to take our framework [to the U.S].”

The team is also having conversations with its clients who may be interested in drawing from Black Taxi’s talent pool to fill their own open positions, adds HR director . “We want to make sure these applicants still get access to the industry even if we can’t hire them,” says Chomut, adding that Taxi and WPP hired four of the interns from the 2020 cohort as full-time employees.

Initiatives that help remove entry barriers, particularly financial ones, are more important now than ever. According to Mroueh, “the current recession has forced many young Canadians to think twice about investing further in their education because they worry whether there will be a job available for them at the other end.” These opportunities are a solution that will pay dividends in the long run, as they help to raise the confidence of young BIPOC to choose a career in advertising, says Mroueh.