DE&I exodus: Burnt-out leaders launch consultancies as advertising industry commitments falter

When God-is Rivera left her post as global director of culture and community at Twitter (now X) back in 2022, she felt hopeful. She’d spent four years forging real-world relationships between creators from underrepresented communities on Twitter and those in media and advertising, and was ready to pass the effort to her successors. At the time, business mogul Elon Musk’s takeover of the platform was locked up in the courts, and the acquisition seemed unlikely.

But then the deal went through and Musk’s reign began.

“And 10 days after I left, he chose to buy it and I didn’t expect that. That was when the hammer came down,” Rivera said. “It just felt like the ground was pulled from under us.”

Twitter’s staff saw massive layoffs, employee resource groups, like Blackbirds and Twitter Women, were dissolved, and hate speech on the app reportedly rose under Musk’s leadership. For Rivera, it was like watching the house she built go up in flames, taking the proverbial seats at the table created for historically marginalized communities with it. 

“To me, it was the greatest heartbreak. But also, I would say, it was a moment of rage for me,” said the former X/Twitter executive.

It could be said that these events following Musk’s takeover point to a bigger shift in the ad industry and society at large, where the powers that be have divested from the diversity, equity and inclusion commitments made in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder.

Since then, Rivera has moved on from corporate DE&I, instead launching her own consultancy. She’s still dedicated to supporting suppressed communities, bridging the gap between them and the ad industry, but without the bureaucracy and red tape that comes with working at a corporation.

We’re back to the status quo of making money

She’s not alone. Back in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter movement, agencies picked up the hiring of DE&I executives in 2021 to follow through on their diversity commitments and, ultimately, keep them accountable. Since then, a number of those executives have departed from those roles on their own terms, with many citing bureaucratic red tape and burnout. Others, however, have been pushed out of their roles, with higher-ups blaming economic headwinds and financial pressure. In 2022, 22% of marketing leaders said their top priority was diversity, equity and inclusion. Since then, that number has decreased to 18%, according to MediaLink’s 2024 Marketer’s Forecast report.

For former DE&I executives, it’s almost like the summer of 2020 never happened.

“The challenge is now we’re back to the status quo of making money, ROI, KPIs,” said Kai Deveraux Lawson, an independent culture and operations leader. In 2021, Lawson was hired as Dentsu Creative’s first DE&I lead, touted as one of the industry’s diversity thought leaders and a “powerhouse voice for change in advertising’s DE&I efforts,” according to AdAge. Last September, Lawson lost her job as part of the agency’s restructuring. At the same time, Lawson was navigating personal challenges, including a death in her family. It’s been a stark reminder of her mortality, especially as a woman of color navigating the ad industry, and gave her a new perspective on what inclusivity and emotional safety look like in the workplace. 

It was a similar story for UM’s former chief diversity officer, Jeff Marshall, who served as svp and head of diversity, equity and belonging in 2018 before being elevated to chief diversity officer in 2021. Last month, that position was eliminated, according to a LinkedIn post from Marshall. Ironically, Marshall was simultaneously being recognized for marketing excellence in DE&I through the American Marketing Association New York’s Marketing Hall of Fame.

To Lawson, the loss of these roles points to the industry’s waning interest in its former commitments to DE&I, made apparent through black squares on Instagram and formal statements on agency websites. Like Rivera, Lawson has left the agency world for now, and she expects to launch her own consultancy soon as an independent culture and operations leader, she said.

“All of the teams across the industry that have downsized DE&I are restructuring,” she said. “But what that says more loudly than it’s expressed externally is DE&I is not part of that structure, especially not in the way that it was positioned in 2020.”

DE&I efforts doomed from the start

The truth is that DE&I efforts may have been doomed from the start. Lawson had long since been sounding the alarm on the industry’s approach to accountability, noting that diversity stats alone weren’t enough to track true progress. The efforts had become more of a performance, where happy hours, workshops and panel discussions became the solution for diversity, equity and inclusion, she added.

Agencies and companies tracked hiring numbers to show diversity efforts, releasing self-reported stats that have since trickled off. But, DE&I leaders say, trying to relegate DE&I efforts to data sets is where the problem lies.

“Many organizations never had a long term plan,” said a former consulting partner and agency strategy leader, who spoke to Digiday on the condition of anonymity. “Leaders have had a model for how to turn an opportunity like DE&I and treat it like social media or treat it like a new channel and diffuse it.”

Given today’s fast-paced digital marketing environment, marketers expect immediate results. When DE&I efforts didn’t immediately prove effective, and, in some cases, received public backlash, many in the industry backed off, worried that those efforts would negatively impact the bottom line, the former strategist said. It doesn’t help that economic headwinds and political polarization have complicated the landscape, which could cause DE&I to suffer the same fate as climate change, where companies focus more on moral ideas than actionable plans and there’s no standard for accountability, the former strategist added.

“There was nothing there to commit to. That’s why it’s easy to walk away. It was all a mirage to start with. There was no infrastructure. The organizations never really wanted it,” they added.

Emotional labor causes misalignment

Also to blame was misalignment between DE&I practitioners and the companies they worked for, per Cathy Butler, evp of talent, equity and learning solutions at the 4As.

“There continues to be, from an employee perspective, a desire to work in inclusive environments. The lack of clear pathways is, as I said, quite confusing,” she said, adding that the lack of clear pathways leads to burnout. And burned out the DE&I practitioners are.

There’s a lot of emotional labor involved in these jobs, which can cause frustration, exhaustion and, ultimately, burnout, specifically for DE&I leaders. “Certainly, in my conversations, the burnout and new concept of emotional labor has been consistent around being and identified as a change agent, potentially at times without enough support from a team, peer standpoint, leadership standpoint,” Butler said.

It’s one of the reasons why former DE&I execs like Tahlisha Williams chose to start their own consultancies. Williams is currently founder and principal at Good Fruit Consulting, where she believes she’s better positioned to aid marketers in their diversity commitments. This venture comes after nearly four years at Wunderman Thompson North America, two of which were spent as the agency’s chief inclusion, equity and diversity officer. Williams said she left the agency on her own terms.

Per Williams, she and other DE&I practitioners who joined these companies in leadership roles saw themselves as pioneers, coming in to contribute to an industry that was finally ready for real change.  But that wasn’t necessarily the case industry-wide, and the conversation that reached a fever pitch three years ago has all but gone out with a whimper.

“You are going to hit up against that organizational point of view around DE&I and I believe a lot of practitioners hit up against those walls,” she said. “When you have misalignment, at the end of the day, if your organization is not buying into how you lead this initiative, they’re likely not going to buy into the sustainability of keeping DE&I.”

The work must go on

It’s unclear what the future of DE&I looks like in marketing, especially in today’s highly polarized political climate, where brands are increasingly second guessing advertising that could be considered “woke.” But that doesn’t mean all hope is lost.

In moving into consultancy roles, Williams, Lawson and Rivera all believe the work can still be done without the administrative bottlenecks and bureaucratic hurdles that can come with working inside of an agency or company. There’s a freedom to speak more candidly and work on independent timelines this way, the DE&I leaders said.

“I’m going to be honest, as a Black woman executive, the last two years have been really hard,” said Rivera, adding that she’s still open to working in corporate spaces, just not right now. “I’m fortunate that I could take a moment to protect myself and focus on the work that I want to do and the work that shifts industries and shifts culture and allows for really sharp audience strategy that uplifts everybody and not just the status quo, which is what I love.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to correctly reflect Jeff Marshall’s timeline in his roles at UM.

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