Indie agency Boathouse creates supplier diversity program as agencies expand external DEI efforts

As matters of diversity, equity and inclusion struggle to maintain the footing they seemingly achieved earlier this decade, some agencies continue to push them forward. The latest, independent marketing/communications agency Boathouse, is adding a supplier diversity program starting next week as part of expanding its diversity initiatives more widely.

It will be a way for the agency to extend diversity practices to more areas of the business and expand the opportunities for suppliers that are not certified as a diverse company, said Christopher Boland, owner of Boathouse Group, Inc.

“A lot of the people we started working with initially were like us — and diversity was simply a way to try to bring in people who are not like us,” Boland told Digiday. “Now we’re at a point where we need to bring that to suppliers. We’ve done it throughout our business, but it was just a conscious effort to try to make it different and … make it better.”

This comes as agencies in recent years have developed their diversity, equity and inclusion efforts at the leadership, hiring and recruitment levels, while expanding their partner and supplier relationships to work with more diverse communities. At the same time, agencies are trying to do more beyond their own walls — whether that’s increasing accountability and metrics on DEI programs or creating educational resources and training for their clients and partners. All the while there’s pushback from some corners of corporate America on DEI issues, including letting go of heads of diversity or scaling back diversity efforts.

“An increasing number of general-market agencies are seeing the value in partnering with multicultural agencies in their partner work to efficiently provide diverse perspectives that are more reflective of the realities of the rapidly changing demographic landscape,” said Jaime Cardenas, CEO and co-founder of full-service marketing agency AC&M Group, which focuses on cultural insights.

At Boathouse, working with more types of large and majority-owned businesses and vendors will ideally add more diversification through the products and services in its supply chain. The company said its goal is to double spending with diverse suppliers over the next three years (but did not provide the amount), with the program guided by five strategies, one of which is supporting certified or non-certified small business, minority-owned, woman-owned, veteran-owned, disability-owned and LGBTQ+-owned, as well as offering supplier diversity education through its own departments.

“One of the goals is opportunity for those who may not be certified — who think that they don’t have the opportunity to come into a supplier diversity program,” said Karen Baker, founder and president of Boathouse.

Certification validates that a business is owned, managed, operated and controlled by a diverse supplier, but Boland also said agencies often lack data collection and tracking on what level they are using suppliers’ products and services. Part of the aim with this program is to bring data and metrics in their accounts and investments to track the progress. Currently their most outsourced area is in creative, production and media vendors.

Boland explained that Boathouse will use various metrics to measure the success of its supplier diversity program such as: Tracking the number of clients that are engaging diverse suppliers and whether that number is increasing; the specific dollar amounts being passed through to diverse suppliers and whether those amounts are increasing over time; and the impact on clients in terms of how they perceive the quality of work being elevated.

“[Is] our marketing … working on our own clients? We’re trying to market diverse suppliers, so are we getting an uptake there?” Boland said.

Others are also using their multicultural marketing practices to ensure DEI efforts maintain a place in the marketing landscape. Full-service multicultural marketing and communications shop Plan C Agency specializes in marketing for Asian Americans and recently worked with brands like Old Spice and New York Life.

Giancarlo Pacheco, CEO and founder of Plan C Agency, said partnering with diverse suppliers “goes beyond checking a box” — because it can help bring more creativity and cultural expertise to any marketing campaign. “This translates to more effective campaigns, stronger audience connections through authenticity, and the ability to tap into the ever-growing multicultural market segment, all while contributing to a more inclusive industry.”

Independent Black-owned advertising agency Creative Theory Agency similarly aims to market to underserved consumers and works with clients including Google, Meta, Ulta Beauty and Delta Airlines. Ashlee Green, vp of accounts and culture at the agency, said the baseline is trying to partner with diverse suppliers, creatives and contractors to support their creativity and thoughtfulness — 85% of their suppliers are diverse.

For example, its recent Harmony project with Google involved a partnership with Black-owned production company Draulhaus on creating a story about bringing the full self to work at the tech giant as a Black man. Its other diverse suppliers include The City Unlimited and female-founded event production company Beyond8.

Green said there needs to be a commitment to diverse voices on the supplier and creatives level to ensure more access and opportunities.

“In the wider landscape, we’ve seen a lot of big declarations being made over the last few years,” Green said, “but without tangible solutions for a truly diverse path forward.”

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