Lack of Diversity Takes Center Stage at AAAA Transformation

When the crowd gasped, it was not because WPP CEO Sir Martin Sorrell acknowledged the diversity problem in advertising, it was because he took a potshot at Publicis Groupe CEO Maurice Levy.

“Maurice has a habit of ignoring the facts and not letting the facts get in the way of his analysis,” said Sorrell, teleconferencing in to his presentation at the AAAA Transformation conference in Miami.  That was the comment that generated gasps and murmurs throughout the conference, and not Sorrell’s admission that women are underrepresented in his company’s upper echelons.

To be fair, the first step toward addressing a problem is admitting you have one.  And it couldn’t have been easy for Sorrell to make that admission while embroiled in negative publicity and a lawsuit concerning the allegedly racist and sexist behavior of former JWT CEO Gustavo Martinez.  Watching this unfold, it was clear to me that Sorrell had to choose his words very carefully, but he did admit a problem.

Still, it’s telling that what made the audience react was the shot at Levy, and not the magnitude of the diversity issue in advertising.  Sorrell told the crowd that while there’s a 50/50 split between the genders when it comes to the 190,000 people who work for WPP, the percentage of female representation falls off pretty drastically when you start looking at the slice consisting of senior-level management and above.  And it’s a diversity problem across the board, because several minority groups are underrepresented when it comes to the people calling the shots.

I started my career in general advertising, working for an agency that was acquired by WPP not long after my departure to go work in the digital subsector of the business.  Indeed, at the entry level, I spent a lot of time working for and with strong women who had a terrific grasp of the business and were able to impart a tremendous amount of wisdom that sticks with me to this day.  When I got my start in the business over 20 years ago, diversity initiatives were well underway at many of the large agencies, with the understanding that there was an acknowledged problem.  Educational initiatives on sexual harassment were in place and often mandatory, as well.  So it’s not as if people weren’t being formally trained on the notion that the type of behavior allegedly displayed by Martinez was not acceptable.

The move to digital sent me to a world where the diversity issue was less visible when it came to gender.  We had more female CEOs and executive managers, more women entrepreneurs and trailblazers.  But digital and emerging tech has had its own cultural issues with people who are not white and male.  Startup culture in particular has borne its own criticisms and isn’t immune to high-profile cases of gender and racial discrimination.

What should have set us gasping at the AAAA Transformation conference was not petty holding company CEO drama, but the revelation that the problem is acknowledged but still as pronounced as it is.  Why haven’t we fixed this over the past several decades?