Aaron Walton discusses equity in agent-client relationships (Ad Age Op-Ed)


A recent study by Deloitte for Facebook on barriers to representation in advertising begins with statements about the influence advertising has on a variety of positive societal outcomes including “how we see ourselves and others.” By paragraph two, it describes the industry push to diversify as a “trend” and an “awakening.”


I am instantly reminded that by “industry,” the study really means those agencies who have historically been referred to as general market or mainstream—because those who have contributed to the industry by centering work around deep cultural connections are neither feeling trendy nor are they just waking up.


Facebook’s analysis isn’t an anomaly. Studies and articles examining ad industry data on diversity and inclusive marketing tend to focus on those agencies for whom multicultural audiences never much mattered. In contrast, those who have dedicated their careers to filling that gap are often positioned as some sort of consultancy working in service to “mainstream” agency colleagues.


Removing barriers that stand in the way of a more diverse and representative industry is something to be encouraged and applauded. But it’s irresponsible to act as if the industry at large has never been here before, especially when it also means erasing those industry practitioners who have been focused on a diverse mainstream for decades.


While the word “equity” appears momentarily in the Facebook study’s introduction, it vanishes in the summary page. Maybe the belief is that equity is a byproduct of getting representation and inclusion right. Or, perhaps, equity seems too messy or even expendable when it comes to addressing the industry’s creative narrative, because equity is rarely raised outside of the internal HR scenarios of agency life.


But representation and inclusion without equity is casting—and casting, it should be noted, can apply to actors just as it can apply to hires that are made by agencies lacking a deep cultural commitment. It’s casting when the proverbial seats at the table don’t come with equal voice or the authority to make meaningful decisions that impact brand growth. It’s casting when the motive is driven by a desire for external approval, when what people see of your staffing is more important than your staff feeling seen.


Applying an equitable lens to these barriers would require the industry—clients and agencies alike—to acknowledge the historic and current uneven industry playing field as it relates to agency assignments, budget allocations, and fundamental respect.


It seems that, in 2021, clients would want to align with those agency experts who are already prepared to not only be inclusive but to strategically market to specific segments as well as cross-culturally. The mainstream of today, particularly the younger cohorts, are the multicultural segments that general agencies of record have often ignored. So why are these AORs still perceived as having an upper hand insofar as a mass target is involved? In contrast, the agencies with deep cultural expertise, which often includes a broad understanding of the so-called general market, are asked to take consultant seats so “dominant-culture” AORs learn from them, all the while holding on to the lion’s share of budgets and assignments.


When it comes to client-agency relationships in a changing America, where is the equity? What would equity look like?


Equity would suggest that clients would shift some work away from those agencies who ignored or rejected obvious cultural opportunities, a dominant industry trait from inception. This would create space, and funding, for agencies who are truly culturally connected to drive initiatives relevant to younger influencers of color and culture.


Equity would suggest that agencies that have no history with diverse communities be honest about their areas of expertise and resist the urge to claim capabilities they do not have. Trying to position oneself as a cultural, polycultural, transcultural, or ambicultural  agency without having done the work in specific cultural spaces is not only harmful to the industry but to communities that need our industry to take their needs seriously.


Equity would suggest that clients look to cultural segment partners with a wider lens and give them an opportunity to show the full breadth of their work. In some cases, those partners are indeed generalist agencies, but have not been recognized as such because of their cultural segment ownership and/or expertise.


Equity does mean hiring and retaining diverse talent across the advertising ecosystem. But it also means honoring talent and leaders who always knew that the demographics of this country were shifting and who prepared themselves for 2021 and beyond on behalf of their clients and in service to diverse communities.