Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Special Feature: Agencies Continue DE&I Journey
For healthcare communications agencies, the killing of George Floyd gave even greater impetus to their already existing diversity, equity and inclusion programs, as managers reached inward to assess themselves and outward to meet the needs of employees of color and the overall organization.
Diversity, equity and inclusion have been on the minds of healthcare advertising agency managers over the past few years, but the death of George Floyd at police hands and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement has galvanized many agencies to take further action. Agencies have expanded their HR teams and appointed leaders to craft new ways of encouraging diversity, equity and inclusion, taking a hard look at hiring practices, racial and gender bias, and offering safe spaces to employees of color.
In talking with these managers, one thing is apparent: expect agencies over the next few years to become more active in recruiting and retaining talented people of color, and making their offices and meetings – whether in real life or virtually – places where everyone feels like they belong and can contribute.
Making progress at Intouch
Intouch came to attention as a champion of diversity, equity and inclusion when the agency was recognized as the Med Ad News Heart Award winner at the 2017 Manny Awards event. The agency had started a social media program, Forever Welcome, after Srinivas Kuchibhotla, the husband of Intouch employee Sunayana Dumala, was killed at an Olathe, Kansas bar by a man who questioned whether he was in the United States legally.
As an agency founded by an immigrant who became a U.S. citizen, Faruk Capan (originally from Turkey), Intouch leapt into action to assist Dumala to stay in the United States and support her in telling other immigrants that the United States is still a safe and welcoming place for them.
The agency then began taking a hard look at its own diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. Intouch would become Med Ad News’ first Diversity and Inclusion Champion at the 2019 Manny Awards. Among the many actions the agency has taken, before and after Floyd’s murder:
• The creation of an internal group, IDA, in 2019, dedicated to inclusion and diversity that has garnered about 15 percent of agency participation.
• Increased underrepresented minority employees in terms of race/ethnicity by 16 percent from June 2019 to June 2020.
• Increased the number of employees who disclosed a disability by 40 percent, from January to February 2019.
• Increased engagement and inclusiveness amongst underrepresented staff by 4 percent from January to July 2020.
• Held dynamic intra-office safe space panels discussing personal identity in the workplace (e.g. women, LGBTQIA, disability, Black, Hispanic/Latinx).
• Launched a weekly meeting, Black Intouchers Connect, a safe space for the ever-growing community of Black employees to champion each other and connect.
• Held events honoring diverse cultures such as Lengua Brava for Hispanic Heritage Month and a lunch celebrating India’s Diwali and Dessehra festivals.
• Laid the groundwork for all employees to add optional pronouns to their email signatures, which is available now.
• Designed unique I&D learning journeys and integrated on-demand educational content into the Learning & Development resource library.
• Implemented a company-wide, mandatory training for managers of people that includes “Safe Space Certification” online curriculum and social identity virtual workshops.
• Held virtual workshops and interactive on-demand content curated by partners Nova Collective, a Black-owned and woman-owned DEI consultancy.
• Launched “Intouch For Justice,” which Antonio Rivera, director of inclusion & diversity for the agency, says is “our collective next step in our long-term commitment to promoting equity. This employee matching program lives in our new web portal, The Give Back, where employees can find future opportunities to give, volunteer and organize fundraisers.”
Rivera says the agency has “supercharged” its diversity recruiting strategy with the promotion of Cecelia Aragones to senior talent acquisition manager, Diversity Strategist, as well as partnerships with RippleMatch and BrandLab KC.
And since the agency started #FreeTheBid (a commitment to request women be presented in ALL production bids), Intouch has had at least one woman director bid on all qualifying production projects and has awarded work to one female director as well as one female photographer, and continued to provide education, frameworks, and newly developed strategic services to help clients integrate inclusive practices into their marketing.
In 2021, some of Intouch’s focus areas will be:
• Empowering inclusive leaders
• Continuing to support managers, both managers of people and hiring managers
• Continue to supply on-demand and live courses, virtual high-touch workshops; and timely and topical guidelines and checklists
• Launch and sustain a Diversity Recruiting Task Force and I&D Safe Spaces
• Continue to activate cultural events using Inclusion+Diversity Alliance task teams
• Continue employee panels and to explore intersectionality within the social groups at Intouch
To measure the impact of the Intouch programs, the agency plans to expand its focus on people analytics; partner with HR to audit sources of employee sentiment and identity trends; explore use of AI to process internally public conversations, 90-day check-in responses, exit interviews etc.; and launch a reporting dashboard and align on cadence for share out to senior leadership as well as ensure that agency acts on what it learns by using the “What, So What, Now What” format.
Additionally, the agency plans to expand community outreach efforts; support and expand Intouch For Justice and promote awareness of The Give Back movement, ensuring that it reflects workforce passion areas; launch and support the “By Chicago. For Chicago” agency plan; and begin to consolidate and promote inclusive marketing offerings. Additionally, to promote supplier diversity, Intouch plans to establish a formal standard operating procedure dedicated to promoting equity in video production and office services.
“The last six months, have been for a lot of people individually and companies, a time for self-reflection, an iteration to adapt, to really confront whether or not you wanted to equip yourself to make it through the long haul,” Rivera says. “There’s an existential kind of feeling.”
The death of Floyd “galvanized everyone to start to dig deeper, and try harder,” he says.
Although every employee was working from home since March, the instantaneous nature of virtual communication allowed faster interpersonal connections. The virtual environment also allowed employees into each other’s homes, letting everyone see “who were our children, who we were caregiving for” Rivera says. “So I feel that the last six months it made it so people who were already really good leaders, and inclusive leaders, shined, and people who were not either spoke up and sought help, which we saw a lot of, or are not doing so well.”
Rivera, who calls Intouch “a special place,” has been with the agency three years, starting off as social media strategist.
“And in my time here I saw there was a space, an opportunity for me, as a Puerto Rican from the Bronx – obvious New York accent, fast-talking, passionate,” he says.
His own personal experiences as a caretaker for his mother informed his thoughts on social media strategy for patients. “I felt she was being ignored,” Rivera says. “Things weren’t in Spanish, and when it came to the screen size, things weren’t as large as they should be for accessibility. So I remember coming to this agency in my social media strategy role, and always talking about us needing to connect with people who feel left out. And then they said, ‘Hey, Antonio, we want to become more intentional. We’ve always thought that we were inclusive but let’s be intentional about it.’”
Intouch has always held four things as important: the people, the culture, the work that it does, and the communities that it affects. In the last two years, the agency has focused on its people and culture. “The culture, we’ve done a lot to make sure it was inclusive,” Rivera told Med Ad News.
“Diversity is great, but diversity will inevitably result in conflict,” he adds. “It’s a human thing, when there are differences, there are tensions that form when those differences meet, at that fringe, those two meeting spots.”
By focusing on inclusion, Intouch can make sure “that we have a space that is resilient to deal with the inevitable tension that arises as diversity deepens,” he says.
The agency’s efforts were not just about attracting new talent, particularly Black talent; Intouch also took a look at its existing employees.
“We knew obviously where the Black employees were, because they were telling us when they signed up, the EEO data that we get,” Rivera explains. “What we didn’t know were how many people were living with disabilities … So our inclusion became more focused because we knew if we created a place where we can be resilient, in the long term we would be really fortified to get diversity right.”
Diversity is not just a destination for the agency, it’s a guide for everything that Intouch does. “We play in so many different spaces in terms of the life cycle of a brand or a product, it was important for us to focus on the culture to make it inclusive so that it felt inevitable that the work that comes out of it is inclusive,” Rivera says. “The inclusive culture begets inclusive marketing.”
Intouch is still not the most diverse company, Rivera admits, with 85 percent of employees being white. But agency managers “are motivated to do better and unleash inclusive leadership.”
Rivera says, “More and more we were hearing, ‘Hey can you help me understand how I navigate this incident?’ And we quickly understood and started to respond faster, because we already had a plan to integrate more educational resources into our learning and development. We needed to empower our leaders to better manage the growing, diverse community.”
All of this means the emotions and anxieties from Floyd’s death did not leave the agency flatfooted. “We were already kind of prepared because of the growing levels of inclusion, and the intentional culture we were cultivating,” Rivera says.
One of the programs, Black Intouchers Connect, a weekly meeting, launched immediately after Floyd’s death to give Black employees a safe space to communicate and vent, and for new employees to see there are other Black employees. “Honestly that was in the works before George Floyd but frankly we never really acted on it, we kept waiting for it to be organically created,” Rivera says. “I didn’t want to create it. I felt someone who was a Black employee would say, ‘I will lead this.’ But that didn’t happen so I said, ‘OK, I will galvanize this.’”
The agency also sends out a monthly list of educational topics to management. The first one was how to discuss racial inequity, the second was how to create a space during this particular climate, and the third one was how can managers better support employees as they disclose their disability.
Dudnyk taking diversity efforts across offices, and outside agency walls
According to Afshan Hussain, senior VP, client services, at Fishawack Health Group/Dudnyk, and the head of the diversity team, inclusion has long been a part of the way the agency operates. “There’s always been this inclusive culture and all of the core values of Dudnyk speak very much to inclusion,” she told Med Ad News
But after Floyd’s murder, Hussain says there was “a spotlight on the need for expedited and more focused attention to certain areas.”
Dudnyk “immediately engaged,” Hussain says, with the agency’s already-existing D&I task force activated. “The very first step was aligning on what do we want to do about this, what’s our objective, what is our plan of action,” she says. “It wasn’t just about making public statements, it was about creating a safe space for our teams. I think that was probably the number one priority, making sure that everyone who works at Dudnyk feels safe, feels heard and cared for, because it was a really tumultuous time.”
And it was important that the agency be engaged, because “for all of us on team and on the task force and even for everyone else beyond the task force, it’s the right thing to do,” Hussain says. “It’s part of who we are, the fabric of who we are as an organization.”
As a healthcare agency that specializes in creating communications about rare diseases, Dudnyk “represent[s] those who are potentially underserved, so it was a natural progression for us to focus on underrepresented communities,” Hussain says.
The first thing Dudnyk looked at was establishing a baseline to evaluate its diversity and inclusion efforts. “We wanted to take action but we wanted to be thoughtful about the action and make sure that it was long term, and something that benefits everybody,” Hussain says. To do this, Dudnyk enlisted a third party to do an audit of the full organization, “to figure out what are the areas we really need to invest time and energy in.”
At the same time, the agency is working on general education and exposure, and establishing a “safe space” for conversations.
“There are some folks who might feel uncomfortable talking about D&I as a topic,” Hussain says. “Creating a safe space, we’re giving them the exposure they need so that they can have empathy and compassion for those who have different experiences from them.”
Among other initiatives, the agency is piloting a mentorship program, “to cultivate talent in an industry that might not have as much access for some of these underrepresented communities,” Hussain says. “We also have an ambassador program where some of these folks from Dudnyk go out and communicate to minority groups about potential careers in pharmaceutical advertising. It’s something that wasn’t done much in the past, but if we’re saying we want to increase diversity in the industry, that’s one way we can do it. There’s the whole HR angle about recruitment, but then it’s also about cultivating the next generation of advertisers.”
Hussain states that there are four stages of diversity and inclusion at an agency: equal opportunity, valuing diversity, true inclusion, and belonging.
The assumption is that all agencies are going to have equal opportunity, but Dudnyk is striving for true inclusion and belonging. “When you come to work and you feel comfortable with who you are, you don’t feel this need to assimilate to those around you,” Hussain told Med Ad News. “You feel you are safe coming in and having a different perspective, having a different experience, and bringing that experience to the table. Again, at Dudnyk that has always been the fabric of the culture.”
Hussain is a first-generation American (born and raised in Brooklyn) of South Asian descent who is a Muslim (her parents were in Pakistan but her family heritage also represents Iran, Iraq, and India). She says Dudnyk has made her feel like she belongs. “This is one of the places where I don’t have to think about that as often, because having a different perspective is important.”
Another of the agency’s efforts to nurture diversity and inclusion is a series of presentations called “Dud Talks,” after the “TED Talks” concept.
“We’ve been doing a series on the ABCs of D&I, where we’re bringing folks to the forefront to share their personal experience,” Hussain says. “For me, as an account person who has a different background, to be able to share with my colleagues what it’s like to be different, and what my exposure and my experience of when I walk into a room and I am the only person of color – what does that feel like? And other folks who don’t know what that feels like, they’re interested in hearing about it, they want to be allies. But if I don’t give them that exposure, then I’m not giving them the opportunity and education that they need to be able to create that sense of belonging that I am really seeking.”
Despite the progress of individual agencies such as Dudnyk, incidents of racism in the advertising world are not experiences of the past, Hussain says.
“People are still questioning whether I was hired to fill a quota, or was I hired because the client happens to be a person of color,” she says. “Those questions still come up, they’re never going to go away, I don’t think. That’s the aspiration but I don’t think anybody across the industry would say that is our reality.”
With everyone working at home in the pandemic, technology has actually helped Dudnyk and Fishawack Health’s other offices around the world stay connected. “We’ve got groups in so many different locations,” Hussain says. “We’ve got teams in San Diego and San Francisco and St. Louis, and two different locations in Pennsylvania and New York and across the pond in the UK.”
As the same time, being a global organization can present a challenge for D&I issues. “One of the biggest challenges in diversity and inclusion is normalizing or globalizing the approach because every geography has a slightly different take on it,” Hussain says. “An issue that might be a little more polarizing in one location might be something that another location doesn’t really have top of mind.”
But technology has made it easier to share perspectives in a much more immediate way, which is important, Hussain says, because diversity is not just about race.
“I say this all the time: diversity does not equal race, it’s about different perspectives, different experiences, all coming to the table to help you make quality decisions and give people quality experiences,” she says. “Being able to talk to someone in St. Louis, they might have been affected very differently than someone in New York. That’s really helpful for us, as a broad organization, when we want to talk about what are we doing to make everyone feel like they belong.”
Hussain explains, “We have to be considering literally everybody. It’s not just about how do we make the people in New York feel like they belong. That’s not going to work. So I think being remote and leveraging all of these tools has made it easier to connect people. There are challenges of course with time zones and technology and things like that, but this team has been really good about always keeping your camera on and being able to talk to each other. We use chats for instant communication and I think it’s brought everyone closer in that way.”
Even though Hussain has a background in cultural diversity efforts, having served as a volunteer in diversity organizations in her town and at her school, Columbia, she says one of her biggest personal learnings has been that diversity does not equal race.
“Race is an incredibly important paramount part of it, but there are so many considerations, things like neurodiversity, and some of the overlooked categories – with the understanding that there are events that took place that put a rightful spotlight on somewhat specific underrepresented communities,” Hussain says. “But there are lots of underrepresented communities. So the biggest learning for me has been I’ve been focusing my attention on, historically, racial and ethnic diversity, and I want to be more careful about not overlooking other underrepresented groups.”
As for the mentorship program, which Hussain calls her “passion project,” the agency plans to expand it during 2021.
“It’s very personal for me because as a woman of color in a leadership position – which isn’t very common in this industry – I would not be where I am if I didn’t have some outstanding mentors,” Hussain says. “The mentorship pilot that we’re running right now was inspired by my own mentors. One of the reasons why I came to Dudnyk was that I found such an upstanding mentor in Annemarie Armstrong [executive VP, US head of client services]. That program for me is incredibly personal and we’re running a pilot, because whatever we do, we want to do it right, we want to do it well, and we want to have a long-term impact.”
The mentorship program is not an internal one, but directed externally. “We’re supporting teenagers and giving them exposure to the industry so that we can cultivate the next generation,” Hussain says.
And Fishawack will continue to put resources and energy into inclusivity. “We’ve got the team in place to roll it out.”
While Fishawack and Dudnyk are carefully taking time to take stock of diversity needs, Hussain would like to immediately implement internal mentorship programs.
“There are affinity groups in lots of different organizations, and I do think that they’re helpful in establishing some sense of belonging, but when a senior-level representative reaches down and sees something in somebody, that organic mentorship, there’s nothing that can replace that, as far as helping you carve out your career path and really identifying what your growth opportunities are,” she says. “Someone who sees you as a whole person and wants you to be the best version of yourself, to help you advance your career, there’s nothing else like it. It’s incredibly rewarding for both the mentor and the mentee.”
As far as the lessons she has learned in her life, Hussain says, “If I had known when I was younger that being different isn’t necessarily bad, that it isn’t necessarily going to hold me back, and all it takes is one person to believe in me, and that one person could be me. I don’t have to rely on other people to help me advance.”
Nevertheless, “I took the help when I got it.”
“There was someone who believed in me as a mentor and thought, ‘She’s got something,’ and they reached down to me. And I reached my hand right back up and I held on for dear life and I said, ‘Yes, please! Teach me! I want to learn from you!’ But one of the biggest things I learned in my youth was every person that’s put into your path is there for you to give something to and take something from. Learn from everyone you meet, because that’s how you expose yourself to different perspectives and different opinions.”
At TBWA\WorldHealth, tech boosts diversity efforts
As Robin Shapiro, CEO of TBWA\WorldHealth states, diversity at the agency is not just lip service in reaction to current events. “It’s been a journey that we’ve been on for many years.”
In February 2020, for Black History Month and beyond, the agency launched #BlackHealthNow. Created by Wallye Holloway, associate managing partner; Bryan Gaffin, executive creative director; and Walter T. Geer III (now executive creative director of experience design for VMLY&R), the program, a storytelling platform, revealed the unconscious bias that leads doctors and nurses to approach and treat Black patients differently, with sometimes fatal results.
More than two years before #BlackHealthNow, the agency had started an internal program, the DiversiTeam. Shapiro credits the program to two rank-and-file employees who stepped forward and asked to start it.
“It’s a group that literally was started at the grass-roots level and now has grown to more than 100 participants across all of our offices and across the globe,” she says. “And that group is now a force to be reckoned with. And they really are constantly bringing forth ideas, championing change, but also helping to drive the change themselves. So it’s not just the top-down approach [to D&I], it’s a bottom-up approach.”
Also begun in 2020 was another group, The Change Ambassadors, “I charged this group of people, which includes Wallye, to come up with a five-year plan, because while it’s always been an effort we’ve had our heart in, we want to be very, very specific about what we want to own and make sure happens over the next five year in order to ensure continued change ahead of the curve on this topic,” Shapiro told Med Ad News.
Shapiro, Holloway, and Chief Creative Officer Jonathan Isaacs say one of the reasons why diversity, equity, and inclusion at TBWA\WorldHealth is so important is because the agency needs to act as a leader for its clients.
“From our perspective, DE&I isn’t just a moral imperative, it really is a business imperative,” Isaacs says. “It is inherent to business success. When you think about that the United States is going to be a minority majority in less than 30 years, it starts to bring up the question of how could you possibly represent your customers if you don’t deeply understand them, if you don’t have empathy, and literally if your company does not reflect them.
“Some of that is incumbent upon us to make sure that we are hiring the best, most talented people from the broadest experience possible. And to not do that, we would be cutting ourselves off from an incredible talent pool, and that seems flat-out stupid. But at the same time, our clients, they need it, they absolutely are desperate to understand the world they are living in. They want us to partner and guide their brands towards these things. So what we are seeing now is the culmination of, the confluence of all these different things that are happening. While we are clearly living in a moment right now, it’s really been more of a journey.”
Holloway says PhRMA’s open letter about equity and diversity “heartened” the agency, as the industry organization demonstrated that it was being very mindful of the groups it partnered with and was taking note of what potential partners were doing with DE&I. “And for us that’s really exciting because we have been doing it for awhile now, internally focusing on the organization and helping our clients figure that out as well is a big part of what we’ve been doing this year,” she says.
While the pandemic has kept everyone separate in their own homes, the use of meeting technology platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom has managed to connect everyone together at TBWA\WorldHealth in more ways than ever before, and continues to provide “safe spaces” for employees to express concerns and communicate about diversity issues.
“I would say COVID hasn’t stopped it at all,” Holloway told Med Ad News. “The fact that we all are on Teams meetings all day created a lot of space for people to connect as they need to, with the various groups that we have. One of the things that comes to mind to me that we did earlier on in the year when there was a lot of discussion around the social justice movement and what was going on in the world, the virtual environment really enabled us to create these safe spaces for our employees. People after those first moments after George Floyd, for example, really needed the space to talk and feel, and that was really important to our organization. We leaned in pretty heavily on that. And I have to say, that I think the virtual environment facilitated more ease with that. We had a couple of different groups and people said, ‘Yes, this is a forum where we can share’ – whether their camera was on, or their camera was off. They could come to this place and share what they were feeling.”
Shapiro says the electronic connections actually allow employees to express themselves more. “One of the things that’s really interesting, is when you think about being in a group meeting, in the world before COVID, I could stand in front of a few hundred people and I could not tell what was on their minds,” Shapiro says. “But now, by virtue of [Microsoft] Teams, and Webex, and other platforms, there’s a chat function. And you are literally getting a stream of consciousness from that chat function about how people are responding to the information. So we’ve actually seen n increase in the ability to have people speak to each other, even in a group of hundreds of people, and be able to respond in the moment.”
It is still up to leaders to make themselves present in an authentic way and create an invitation for others to talk about diversity. Shapiro says this approach seems to be working. “We did an engagement survey about midway through the year, and one of the metrics that they assess is authenticity, as a measure of how people are able to bring their full self to work every day. We scored at 86 percent, I think it was strongly agreed that we are an agency that allows you to being your full self to work every day.”
Shapiro adds, “Now don’t get me wrong, we won’t be happy until it’s 100 percent of people who feel comfortable to bring their full self to work every day. But we are proud of what we’ve been able to do in a COVID world or not, around this topic. And it really does start with leadership and how we show up for people and invite others to bring their full self to work.”
Isaacs says TBWA\WorldHealth has always referred to itself as a collective, “so the idea of collaboration and belonging and trying to embrace groups of people, that has always been part of the DNA of the company.”
But he believes that chat technology and video communication are taking that feeling to deeper, richer levels, and employees are responding favorably.
“When you’re an organization that is clearly talking about sometimes uncomfortable topics, certainly provocative topics, openly, and creating forums for people to discuss things, with no worry about retribution or punishment – in fact, quite the opposite – when you show your vulnerability, when you talk about what you’re feeling, when you’re able to be suddenly embraced by everyone around you, for nothing else that you were brave enough to talk about what’s really on your mind, whether they agree or not – I think that has an incredibly solidifying and connective and powerful effect,” Isaacs says.
While every company has figured out how to use remote technology to be productive without actually being together, many are still trying to understand how to retain their integrity and culture. “That’s the part where it gets much trickier,” Isaacs told Med Ad News. “Yes, you’ve got the work part down, but that used to be only part of the reason why you went to work. The other part is figuring out how people can feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves, that they are really appreciated, that they feel they’re getting something out of it that they cannot find anywhere else.”
Otherwise, “it’s just a free-for-all,” Isaacs says. “If that’s the case, you could just go to sleep, open your computer the next day and work for someone else who will pay you more. Everything is slowly becoming commoditized in this new environment, we better damn well be reminding people every day that ‘You will not feel the same if you work at another company.’ You may be doing some of the same things and you may be making some more money, but you will not feel the same way. You will not feel the same way about who you’re working with, you will not feel the same way about the organization. Because that’s what I think people care about right now, more than anything else, assuming we’re at a relatively good level with everything else.”
Shapiro says for 2021, TBWA\WorldHealth will continue to focus on increasing diversity and leadership at the VP-and-above level as well as empathy training. “This will be done holistically but especially at the management level to make sure that the way that our managers are leading, it begins with empathy, because it’s not just something we believe in at the executive level. We have to make sure that every single leader in the company is literally embodying that every day.”
According to Isaacs, while many organizations focus on diversity, they forget about the necessity for inclusion. “They say, ‘We’re going to have people who represent a variety of different ethnicities, races, genders, but they don’t focus on the inclusion and empathy part. And that can create a very uncomfortable, certainly unstable situation because it’s not just about hiring people to work at your organization, it’s about creating circumstances where people feel welcome. … Otherwise, they’re afraid, and they’re like, ‘This place doesn’t understand,’ and they’re definitely going to leave.”
Other plans for 2021 include the creation of a Review Council, which will review all of the work the agency does for clients to make sure it is authentic toward the audiences that it is aimed at. “It’s a great way of keeping the agency honest,” Isaacs says. “Organizations have a way of becoming echo chambers. You hire people like you, everybody sort of thinks the same, buy into the same belief systems, and when you look at things, everybody has the same opinion. All of these initiatives we have, it gives us an incredible resource and sounding board for us to share work with a truly diverse group of people who are coming at it from completely different angles, and see what happens.”