Agency millennials on thorny diversity issues that remain

Certain problems are known knowns in the agency world. Take, for example, sexism and a lack of racial diversity, both of which get plenty of lip service. What’s less well known is how it feels to be on the inside, down in the trenches. When the conversation does get airtime, it’s usually driven from the executive level, and often joined by people who no longer even work inside agencies.

So for our latest edition of Ask a Millennial, we asked a focus group of under-30 agency employees if they think sexism, ageism and ethnic diversity are problems at their agencies, and from their perspectives, why it happens — and how it can be fixed. We agreed to give them all anonymity since their agencies only allow senior leaders to speak to the press. Answers lightly edited for clarity.

Black male, 28, accounts
It’s difficult for me to say if my agency has a sexism problem. The majority of the staff are female, and the senior leadership on my account are female. But as anyone who’s experienced sexism can attest to, the presence of women in senior positions does not preclude an agency from having a sexist environment. Now, diversity? I was in the kitchen, randomly, with two other minorities, and let me tell you, I thought for a second that that was all of us. I joke to stop from going crazy. But that’s most places, really. I’m used to being one of a handful of black people, especially black men, at ad agencies.

White male, 25, copywriter
My agency is more closely aligned with public relations, and so we have more women in top leadership than many in the ad agency world. If anything, we need to hire more men to help balance this ratio: a thought many people wouldn’t feel comfortable saying. We need to make sure there’s an equitable split between men and women to ensure each sex’s skill sets are being used to continually drive value for clients in terms of diversity of thought.

From an age perspective: VPs are early to mid-30s. Senior leadership tends to be a bit older, maybe 40-plus. Our team has been making strides in hiring more diverse candidates in terms of ethnicity, but as we all know, our industry tends to attract people who are white and grew up in upwardly mobile environments.

But that’s internships. When you’re not paying interns a fair wage, especially in a large city, the only students that can afford to work are those who have significant financial support from their parents. This excludes entire populations of talented college students who don’t have the means to work in creative endeavors.

White female, 29, communication strategist
Diversity deserves a closer look; a lot remains to be done. There’s a big part of the issue that’s not discussed around the “unconscious bias” piece. It’s a sensitive subject. People don’t want to discuss it; it’s uncomfortable. And they definitely don’t want to be called out for it, when their mentality may be, “If I’m not actively doing something wrong, I should be exempt.” And so the very expected subjects are discussed – the conscious actions, the laws, the protection, the supplier considerations, the communities and groups. But what about the people who are not [proactively] embracing diversity? It’s a topic that needs to be met with humility and courage, and I think the industry is lacking that a bit.

White female, 30, strategy
The teacher-principal effect still seems to be in play: Even if the majority of your office is made up of women, the highest level of the office  is most often still occupied by a man. When they aren’t present, women in leadership positions are criticized more harshly than their male counterparts, but not using the same terms we’ve come to expect. There may be fewer “bitch” or “aggressive” keywords, but the sentiment is still there. It’s how they’re talking about her that is different from how they talk about male leaders. It’s really difficult for these women to earn respect from juniors and new employees when the conversations about them are so negative.

My advice for those early in their agency life: Cliques do not help you. I see a lot of this especially with account teams. I’ve never seen this work as an ally strategy, but rather it fosters exclusion of other females on the same team. My mantra for years has been, “Go where the men are. That’s where the money is.” I still think this is true. I saw it happen with digital agencies, and now it’s happening with data. One thing I will say is that there are a lot of women who are bringing other women up. 

Hispanic male, 26, copywriter
Perhaps unfortunately, I’ve grown accustomed to being the minority in most aspects of my working and social life as I’m an adopted Hispanic male who grew up in a white family. New York in contrast is refreshing in that my co-workers are the most diverse since beginning my career in advertising.

In regards to sexism, nothing is ever overt. It’s the sexism that lies institutionally within agencies. It’s easy to see that more often than not men handle the leadership of most agencies. Recently there was a list of the richest people in advertising on Business Insider, and these 16 individuals were all men. This was likely unintentional, but it most certainly isn’t surprising. Diversity initiatives are helpful, but really it should be addressed at the academic level.

White male, 24, strategy
I always wonder about how to enter this debate as a white man. I wonder how legitimate my opinion is when talking about something I have never experienced myself. But then I think that we — white men — are pretty fundamental to solving this issue.

Everywhere I’ve worked, there have been more women than men, including in senior roles – three of my first four bosses were women, and there’s been a substantial LGBT presence. They’ve been perhaps a little whiter and more middle class than they should have been, but there certainly were ethnic minorities too.

I will readily admit that I’ve caught myself a couple of times interrupting women, realized what I was doing, apologized for butting in immediately and waited until they had fully made their point before giving mine, but that’s only because I’ve made a conscious effort to recognize and understand my own behavior. My experience is that any issues with sexism and diversity occur mainly because people just aren’t aware of their behavior, or from a desire to hire someone who fits a certain mold, rather than taking a chance on someone a little different from their norm.

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