Med Ad News spoke with James Talerico and Nadine Leonard, co-presidents of Heartbeat, and Michelle Edwards, the agency’s VP of human resources, about why the agency wrote its letter about improving diversity and inclusivity, where Heartbeat will be in the next few years in its D&I goals, and how Edwards has worked to make an already-welcoming workplace even better.

James Talerico

Med Ad News: When did you start working on the letter, because it sounds like this was a long time in the making?

James Talerico: We have been talking about looking more and more like New York City for years. And our whole orientation towards an increase in diversity started not long after we all met each other. And I will say, its mostly selfish! We are a Challenger Agency, we bring in clients who need to think differently about their business opportunities, so a diversity of experience, a diversity of opinion, and a diversity of background is so important, just so you can come in with a new POV or solutions that were not tried and true.

This industry for many years was super pasteurized. That’s where it started. But the benefits of a thriving community, more activity, more energy in the culture really helped us double down. And as Michelle grew into a stronger leader, not just in the culture but in our leadership crew, she seeded this idea that we are all New Yorkers, our population [in the agency] should be like the population we see when we walk outside. It’s certainly been 3, 4 or 5 years ago with the talk about New York, but the idea of diversity has certainly been a staple within the agency for a decade.

Med Ad News: Michelle, when you first walked into Heartbeat, what did you think?

Michelle Edwards: I definitely felt that when I walked into Heartbeat, I thought it was going to be a different place. I had 10 or 15 years of experience in the corporate world, and I kind of had gotten used to being the only [POC] or being put in a place where I could not be seen. So when I got to Heartbeat I was so pleasantly surprised to be in a place where there were so many different people and different ideas and acceptance. The president came to me during day one or two to tell me about how happy he was that I was there. And I was like, “Wow, I’ve found a different place!” Definitely something special. It shakes you. You’ll get that from any diverse colleague, walking into Heartbeat, it will shake you, because you are not used to it.

Nadine Leonard: The notion of embracing diversity is something that is truly authentic to who we are. Make no mistake, the actual composition of the agency changed dramatically with Michelle’s leadership. She felt welcome, but the actual diversity, the true picture, she really did help flourish.

Michelle Edwards

James Talerico: Michelle, what is it that you say?

Michelle Edwards: Diversity breeds diversity.

James Talerico: And I think that is the biggest truism – putting a stake in the ground, making a commitment, and taking action to build the population further builds the population. Michelle may have felt welcomed, but her entire crew set up technologies and operational pieces to welcome folks across the board. Regardless of whether they are diverse or “someone who golfs,” not matter who comes through the door, our crew throws our arms around them. And that allow for people to feel really welcome. And again, to show their whole selves, and that’s really been due to Michelle and her team.

Nadine Leonard: And again, the diversity breeds diversity point, we’re in an industry where so much is based on recommendations. And you’ve got these people who have a diverse background and come in and have an experience that they feel really good about, they really want to tell their friends, their past colleagues, “Hey, I’ve found a place that I think you’d really like.”

Michelle Edwards: We recently had a woman start, she told us at the company meeting, “When I saw your social media platforms and I saw what was happening there, I knew I had to work there. I didn’t care what position, I was going to apply for everything!” It was just lovely to hear that.

Nadine Leonard

Med Ad News: Michelle, you say you felt welcomed from the very first. Did you feel like there were things that needed to change to make other people feel more welcome?

Michelle Edwards: I feel that the environment in itself was welcoming and I felt like, “You were accepted.” We weren’t the “Challenger Brand” agency back then, but I felt like we embraced challengers. We embraced differences, and we embraced people coming to the table with different ideas and different perspectives. And so the thing that happened since I got there is that we grew! And with that growth and the hires that we made, we took that opportunity to bring in diverse talent. And I feel that our diversity has grown because our population has doubled since I started, almost tripled.

Nadine Leonard: Michelle also sets some important example I think. Michelle is a big personality…the thought of bringing your whole self, your authentic self to work, Michelle led the way with that. I might bring my whole self to work, but I don’t have a big enough personality where that makes any sort of difference. But Michelle has a big personality, and I think she made people think that you really can be come out that be that. Nobody looks at her like, “she’s weird,” or anything, it’s “That’s Michelle! She’s fantastic!” She led the way. She also identified a lot of other things, such as places where we can recruit people from, that maybe have their hooks into more diverse candidates. She looks for opportunities to people of color to celebrate their race, like special conferences, special awards. Things like that, that help us put an exclamation point on the fact that the beautiful thing is that they are diverse. She’s done so much, and she is being a little bit humble. But she should not be.

Med Ad News: Where do you think Heartbeat will be in a year from now or two years from now or five years from now? You have your goals of what ratios you’d like to see at the agency, do you think you’ll be able to meet them?

James Talerico: We do, we absolutely do. In the near term, our goal is to have the highest index of diversity hires we possibly can, that we continue to have more eclectic staff, that we continue to have staff with unique personal backgrounds, and invest in individuals that don’t have a prototypical, pharma marketing background. And that is a big push for us. Michelle and the team have put together educational models, 101s so we can bring people into the pharmaceutical marketing protocols, those foundational things that you pick up during those first couple of years. As creatives and strategic leaders, we lean into the strengths of those individuals. And then over the course of the next two, three, four, five years, we’ll narrow the gap on specific diversity segments we need to grow in.

I think we do very, very well when you look at diversity as a whole, but we’ll continue to grow our Black population, we’ll continue to grow our Hispanic population, and we’re in it for the long haul from here forward. But we’ve been in it for awhile! Nadine and myself, Michelle has pushed us, but we’re always reticent to talk about it, because it just feels weird to be proclaiming this, particularly because our backgrounds are more prototypical. But we have the bona fides. Michelle and her team and the rest of our diversity population, they didn’t show up last week, they have been with us for years. Cam Walker, she just won a recent award, she just became a VP for us and she’s a future leader in the industry – she’s been with us for four or five years. We can list a number of individuals, particularly women of color, who are strong and intelligent and they come and they drive our community forward. Five years down the road? I hope we look just like the population on the street.

Nadine Leonard; Although we’ve been doing a lot of things right, because we have aggressive goals, there are going to be a few things that we have to change, and one of those is going to be making sure that from a hiring perspective, we are really coaching people to look at potential, and not experience. There is a whole group of people who may have not had the same opportunities for promotions. Maybe they’re not at the same level as what you need somebody for. But you have to train people to look at potential, so that they can see people who maybe should be two levels ahead of where they should be and just maybe haven’t had the opportunity yet.  And that’s one of the big enhancements that we have in order to be truly aggressive about meeting our goals.

Michelle Edwards: And I think the important piece is also retention. You’ll find a lot of times that agencies want to focus on diversity but they forget about the inclusion piece. You can’t have diversity without inclusion – well, you can have it, but it won’t be successful without inclusivity. And I feel that’s important, and the piece that James mentioned, how many people have been here for so many years. It’s the retention piece, it’s the inclusivity piece, it’s reinvesting in the talent that we already have, helping them to grow. James mentioned that Cam got her VP promotion, it’s just investing in people and helping them to grow.

I have another story about a woman who came in, and she had no corporate background. She had spent 10 years in the healthcare industry, she worked in a hospital, and she never even opened Excel before. We needed Excel for the role that she was taking but we took a chance with her. She’s a Black woman, and now she’s leading a team. It’s just about giving people that opportunity and invest in backing them. It’s not something for someone who’s just looking for the lazy way out, that’s not going to help, you have to be really intentional about the investment that you put into people.

Med Ad News: When you talk about inclusivity at Heartbeat, what do you mean by that? What does it look like?

Michelle Edwards: From a talent perspective, in terms of what I do and what my team does, we are so involved in everyone’s life and in their career and in what they want to do. We’ve had people move from media to UX or from copy to production—we’ve had people move around based on what they want to do with their careers. We’re paying attention to what you want to do, we’re paying attention to how long it takes for you to get to one level from the next. So that’s what I mean by exclusivity, we are cultivating the environment for the career that you want.

Nadine Leonard: One, Michelle makes sure that everyone is trained on inclusion. I think bringing your authentic self to work is where a lot of inclusion comes from. But Michelle keeps a wonderful handle on people’s experiences, how much recognition they’ve had, what their compensation trajectory has looked at, and is looking for those places where we might have inadvertently gotten out of sync. Maybe we haven’t had enough diversity on a pitch team, she makes us more conscious about having more people involved during the pitch process so that they can get that experience. That kind of thing is what Michelle keeps us honest on.

James Talerico: You know when you meet someone and you have all of these same interests? We try and lean into the opposite. When someone has an experience that I’ve never had, Michelle, Nadine, and myself, we model good behavior in that way, we want to know about it. I don’t know all of the B-sides Beyonce has put out, and I haven’t listened to the mixtapes, but when Michelle starts going off about it? I love it, it’s fantastic!

Nadine Leonard: It’s also operationalized in the questions we ask new employees, how new employees are profiled, and those things start to bring out the differences between them. And when we introduce new employees at the company meeting it’s one of the questions that we ask. We have a thing that we have cleverly called “Drinks With Nadine and James” – we haven’t gotten around to actually naming the thing – the whole point of that is to get to know people at work. We are very intentional about finding out those things about people’s personality, what makes them “them.”

Michelle Edwards: And not to get too political here, but as a Black woman, in all my previous companies, I wore my hair straight, I tried to fit in. I thought that having my natural hair would just stand out too much or make people uncomfortable or whatever the case may be. Here’s that’s another thing about bringing your true self to work. But this is me, this is who I am.

James Talerico: During Black History Month, Michelle put together a week of 60 or 90-minute seminars, and one of the seminars was about Black hair. Michelle was one of the presenters, and it was fascinating. I had no idea, the history, the artful communication of it, how it gets interpreted in the culture…everyone who walked out of it—first of all, we had a blast—but we walked out of it smarter, more empathetic toward one another, and with the appreciation of a cultural nuance and perspective that I would never have had.