The ad industry must go beyond recognising systemic inequality and a lack of diversity by committing to, and publishing, measures that encourage public accountability, according to Steve Stoute, founder/CEO of creative agency Translation and artist-services firm UnitedMasters.

Speaking on a panel during Lions Live, an online event held by Cannes Lions (a sister company of WARC), Stoute offered a frank assessment of how corporations are responding to the current wave of protests against racial injustice.

There are “companies who act surprised at what you’re seeing right now, the topic of race coming up … They act surprised as if they’d never seen it or didn’t hear about it,” he said.

“I think that’s the part of it that upsets me the most. Because I can’t allow being in this industry for 20 years and seeing what I’ve seen.

“For the industry to have this shoot-first-ask-questions-later mentality, and then, when somebody writes a story about it, everybody acts surprised, as if you never heard it before” is a damning indictment, Stoute said.

Some brands are getting their responses right, he continued, with apparel manufacturer Levi Strauss & Co. among the examples of good practice.

The company has openly admitted to its shortcomings, provided a detailed breakdown of representation within its four walls, and outlined a detailed framework to make very necessary changes throughout its business.

“I really was proud of what Levi’s just came out with. I think Levi’s said, ‘Look, you got us; we were wrong. We need to do this better, we need to do that better,’” Stoute said.

“It’s super clear: ‘We’re not hiring well enough: call us on it, and you can publish it, and we’re going to publish our response to that.’”

In line with that type of approach, “I think every brand and every agency needs an African American strategy based on society’s new expectations,” he continued.

A key element of any such plan: “It has to be measurable and it has to be published. I think that’s, first and foremost, one of the things that’s going to be expected coming out of this,” Stoute said.

Stoute, who founded Translation in 2004, was speaking on a panel that also featured Mark Read, CEO of agency holding company WPP Group, Lorraine Twohill, CMO of tech giant Google, David Droga, founder of agency Droga5, and Jean Lin, global chief executive for Dentsu Aegis Network Creative.

“Look, I think we’ve been well-intentioned, But I think if we've made a mistake, it will be not to give the topic enough focus. And it’s clear,” said Read. “Mea culpa.”

Read also noted the $30 million that WPP had pledged to “fight racial injustice” along with other measures towards more inclusive hiring.

Meanwhile, Twohill conceded that “one of my biggest mistakes is I've been very focused on hiring and my team, but not on retention.”

A vocal critic of the advertising sector’s failure to turn its past talk on making the business more representative into hard action, Stoute added that the industry has, in fact, betrayed its entire reason for being by not addressing racial injustice.

“Our job is to change perception. It is our responsibility. Our job is to be on the front foot with things. How can we be so far behind on this topic?” he asked.

That description applies not only in terms of understanding the broader pulse of culture, Stoute asserted, but in terms of finding representative talent.

Ultimately, he continued, naming a chief diversity officer – or equivalent senior executive – means the system has failed. “No one who’s talented wants a side door,” he said.

A better example comes from movements like 600 & Rising, a grassroots group of Black advertising professionals that is working with the 4A’s (American Association of Advertising Agencies), the agency trade body, to push for change in a more holistic way.

While such endeavours have been undertaken before, the struggle to end injustice looks qualitatively different in 2020, according to Stoute.

“It looks like one world nation, fighting for the same cause. And that's the part that's inspiring and why I know that this is the right time, because this is the only time where it's not just 13% of the population in the corner upset,” he said.

“You have a global audience upset, because they didn't want anybody to get the short end of the stick.”

Sourced from WARC