For Diversity Officers, No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Diversity officers struggling to increase minority headcounts come in for criticism. As the executives themselves note, having a thick skin and a healthy dose of perspective can be essential to the role.

February 10, 2009
It’s not easy being a chief diversity officer.

Some of the insults hurled at those taking the job have included "pimp," "Uncle Tom" and "window dressing." In fact, as the executives themselves note, having a thick skin and a healthy dose of perspective can be essential to the role.

"I don’t see those individuals who say those things standing with me on the front lines," says Tiffany R. Warren, who recently left her position as a diversity executive at Havas-owned Arnold to take on the newly created role of chief diversity officer at Omnicom Group.

"I’m literally on the front lines, and sometimes it’s a lonely place. If there were more of me, maybe we could make more of a difference," she says.

The ad agencies who have hired diversity officers are likely praying that they do figure out a way to make a difference—and quick. Civil rights attorney Cyrus Mehri is knocking on the door, after all. Last month, he released research in partnership with the NAACP that is believed to be the groundwork for a race discrimination suit against the ad industry.

Nancy Hill, president and CEO of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, said after reading the report: "The numbers speak for themselves."

Ask the advertising companies that have hired diversity officers—only Interpublic and Omnicom have done so at the holding-company level—and they say the fact that they have appointed chief diversity officers shows their commitment to improving diversity, a massive task that requires sweeping organizational and cultural changes.

What’s more, they say, these individuals are responsible for some measurable strides—from rising awareness to rising numbers of minorities in agency ranks.

Making strides
Interpublic Group of Cos., for example, reported to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that from 2004 to 2007, it increased minority headcount across various ethnic groups by 25 percent overall and by 50 percent in terms of total "officials and managers."

Interpublic’s U.S. headcount during this period was essentially flat (up 1.5 percent, or fewer than 300 people), but it changed the composition of the workforce to increase minority professionals and managers by more than 1,000 people.

Beyond headcount, it points to initiatives such as a two-year multicultural fellowship program, relationships with historically black colleges, minority job fairs and linking executives’ incentive compensation to how well it is meeting its diversity objectives.

"When I got here, all there was a desk and a chair and a telephone," says Heide Gardner, Interpublic’s chief diversity officer.

Gardner was plucked for the role by David Bell back in 2003, and these days reports to Interpublic’s chief human resources officer, with a dotted line to Interpublic head Michael Roth.

But the self-reported improvements and the hiring of diversity officers don’t convince critics. Industry observers have pegged such positions as a convenient way for agencies to run interference for criticism. Activist Sanford Moore has gone so far as to publicly label chief diversity officers at agencies and holding companies as "pimps" who amount to nothing more than "window dressing."

"That type of position is certainly admirable, but it has to be in direct line with the rest of the corporate structure," says Jason Chambers, associate professor in the department of advertising at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and author of Madison Avenue and the Color Line: African-Americans in the Advertising Industry.

"Where are you in the organizational chart? Are you even on it? Who was your appointment made by? If your only role and responsibility is to be the company’s face in the diversity issue of black enterprise ... what really are you accomplishing?"

A ‘Band-aid’
In the business world at large, the percentage of folks in the role of chief diversity officer is growing. More than 20 percent of the top 50 chief diversity officers report directly to the CEOs or are one direct report removed, according to Diversity Inc. magazine.

In the case of the advertising industry, chief diversity officer roles are "are a Band-aid over a gaping wound," says Luke Visconti, the magazine’s co-founder.

"There is no question in my mind about why Cyrus Mehri is coming after the ad agencies," Visconti says, noting that ad shops have been absent from Diversity Inc.’s annual ranking of the top 50 most diverse companies, many of which, ironically, coincide with the top 50 advertisers in the country.

Talk to agencies and holding companies, and they will concede that there’s much work ahead to boost minorities in the ad business. Still, they are quick to defend themselves, saying there has been measurable progress in the last few years.

"I feel good about what we have accomplished over the past five years," Gardner says. "I don’t think anyone expects that we’re going to go from having the gaps that we do today to closing them overnight. No other industry has done that."

"We’ve still got a ways to go, but we’re on the right path," says Sallie Mars, senior vice president, director of creative services and director of diversity at Interpublic’s biggest agency network, McCann Erickson.

Mars also chairs the American Association of Advertising Agencies’ diversity committee. In her diversity role, she reports to Marcio Moriera, vice chairman and chief human resources office of McCann Worldgroup.

"Where we have made huge inroads are in the areas of awareness and commitment," Mars says.

To that end, Mars has set up an "affinity group," dubbed Mc2, that’s made up of about 75 McCann New York employees who enjoy and want to promote a multicultural workplace. Among other things, the group does community outreach, which largely entails hosting groups of New York City public school students for a day of exposure to working in an agency.

"Individuals of color today have so many more choices ... if there’s not an affinity group or internal networking group that might cause that person to go and look for opportunities elsewhere," says Warren, who adds that attracting the talent is a challenge, but the bigger obstacle is keeping them in the ad business.

Another area she plans to work on is engaging mid- to senior-level executives in the diversity effort. While Omnicom is still working out the details of her newly created role, Warren reports to counsel. She adds, however, that she didn’t have a direct report to the CEO at Arnold. Of the agencies targeted by the New York City Commission on Human Rights, Arnold was among those that met its hiring goals.

Warren acknowledges that there are entrenched problems in advertising, but says the entire industry doesn’t deserve a black eye. If nothing else, she is convinced that as a black woman, she is proof that it is possible for minority talent to thrive in this business.

"I will never say this industry is racist, because I have succeeded and been in this industry for 12 years," she says. "I came in making $22,000, and what got me through every sort of professional test is that I was so passionate about this business."

And the criticism?

"I’ve seen a direct impact from the work I can do," Warren says, "and hopefully five years and 10 years from now I can look to those individuals I’ve mentored quietly ... and see that they have risen in this industry."

Marissa Miley of Advertising Age also contributed to this report.