Sometimes, the best way to get a feel for what's really going on in a country as big as the US is to look at it in microcosm.

Black Lives Matter

This article is part of an ongoing WARC series focused on educating brand marketers on diversity and activism, in light of the recent progressive steps made with the Black Lives Matter movement.

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This has seldom been as true as during the protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a white policeman in Minneapolis in May. Major cities, both in the US and throughout the globe, erupted in protest – during a pandemic, no less. But this most consequential moment in the Black Lives Matter movement showed its depth in how it took hold in small, predominantly white towns throughout the country. In the town of Pelham, NY – population 12,000 – where this author lives, vigils in a local park, attended mostly by the town's white residents, have gone on for weeks. During one Saturday afternoon rally, Black teenagers held court, standing on a picnic table so their stories about prejudice in Pelham could be told to hundreds of white people loud and clear. Just as important as the fact these teens finally felt empowered to tell their stories was the fact that the rest of the town was finally listening, both sides ready to accept some pain.

Research from Pew Research puts data to scenes such as this – that have played out from coast to coast. Two-thirds of American adults support the Black Lives Matter movement, including 60% of whites, approximately three-quarters of Hispanics and Asians and 86% of Blacks.

Yes, the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement has fully permeated US society, and also caused countries around the world to wrestle with how they have treated marginalized peoples. This time certainly feels different, but the challenge many are facing is making sure it is different, through messaging, surely, but mostly through actions.

The marketing industry is another microcosm, albeit a larger one, with platforms far bigger than a picnic table in a public park in a small town. So it was certainly auspicious that one of the biggest industry platforms – LIONS Live, the pandemic-induced 2020 incarnation of Cannes Lions (a sister company to WARC) – was held right after the global, public BLM outpouring.

It gave a focus to the industry’s collective pledge that it has to do better, putting a fine point on perhaps the biggest emotion expressed by marketing’s white-dominated intelligentsia in the aftermath of Floyd’s murder: angst. The Association of National Advertisers, and the Alliance for Inclusive Multicultural Marketing, for instance, issued this frank mea culpa: “As marketers and industry leaders, we commit to unflinchingly examining our own history and current practices to shine a light on systemic and institutional biases that exist within the industry. We can no longer accept the shortcomings of many of our diversity and inclusion initiatives.”

During her CMO Spotlight at Lions Live, Bozoma Saint John expressed surprise at “the depth and the breadth in which some companies are making statements, looking within themselves, and trying to donate to the right causes … This is a surprise to me, because I have never seen that kind of broad action before. And my hope is that it continues.” (Saint John, who at the time was CMO of Endeavor, just moved to the same role at Netflix.)

Assuming this momentum continues, it will be because looking back on 2020, and this year’s LIONS Live, the talk that dominated so many of the sessions will have been translated into ongoing action. And that progress will have to touch every part of the business, from approaches, to hiring, to how the Black community is portrayed in advertising, to reckoning with popular platforms that too often traffic in hate speech. So what did we learn from LIONS Live? These six lessons stand out:

1. Fighting racial injustice is everybody's responsibility. 

Perhaps this is stating the obvious, but the diversity of ethnicities and age groups that marched into the streets during the George Floyd protests are evidence as to why the marketing industry is awakening to the fact that the responsibility to fight racial injustice has to encompass everyone, not just people of color, and not just senior management. The tragic deaths of not only Floyd, but also Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Rashard Brooks have made this moment different. “For the first time in a long time, because it was laid so bare, it was inescapable. The entire world has had an awakening to it, and needs to do something about it,” said Marc Pritchard, Chief Brand Officer of Procter & Gamble during one LIONS Live session.

Saint John emphasized it’s time for business leaders to step up. “[The burden] has fallen on the shoulders of people of color for a long time... I want business leaders to react as humans and take that personal feeling, that heaviness, and that helplessness that says ‘Well, what can I do?’”

2. Social justice in the agency business has to be underpinned by economic justice.

At one time in the business, the mailroom was more or less the central nervous system of every agency – and it was mostly populated by young, college-educated white males, who spent their days not only delivering mail, but also schmoozing with the higher-ups to gain a slot in the junior executive ranks. Eventually, that model gave way to most mailroom hires being minorities, but with one telling difference: there was no longer a route from the mailroom to assistant account executive.

Mailrooms may well be obsolete, but as one executive pointed out during the private meeting of the CMO Growth Council during LIONS Live, the economic injustice in the agency world continues. As this executive pointed out, increasing Black representation in advertising rests on opportunities for advancement, ensuring that young Black executives are just as much part of the pipeline to promotions and opportunities as whites are.

Too often, he said, young Black agency talent becomes disillusioned by a lack of progression opportunities – especially to big accounts – and leaves the industry altogether.”

3. Truly working towards racial justice is all-encompassing. 

Agencies and brands have to re-evaluate every part of their own businesses, and all of the companies they do business with. Alex Bennett-Grant, the founder/CEO of Amsterdam-based independent creative agency WE ARE Pi, revealed the results of a survey at LIONS Live that he conducted among 500 contacts in the industry. They once again confirmed how widespread racism in the industry is. “So, it's time for action,” Bennett-Grant said. “Because we can't stand back and expect the advertising industry to change just because we wish it to. No. Each of us needs to take action, big or small.”

Among brands, P&G is – not surprisingly – at the forefront of this, and other companies are therefore following suit. Pritchard pointed out that there has to be equitable representation and economic investment throughout the creative supply chain, from agencies to production companies, media companies to marketing suppliers.

As part of that goal, he said the company was evaluating every aspect of its media to ensure its ads are not seen near content that is “hateful, denigrating or discriminatory .... P&G is not new to this. In fact, today, there are hundreds of programs and thousands of digital channels and sites where we do not advertise because they don’t meet our standards,” he said.

The company is also aiming for a 50/50 gender split and representation of diverse people based on the individual countries where each brand does business. “We want every company to look at the country in which they live to ensure that they reflect the population and the world in which we live,” he explained.

Saint John took the premise a step further, advocating for breaking down the barrier between personal and professional commitment.

“I wish that we wouldn't look at our personal responsibilities as separate from our corporate responsibilities,” she said. “There is no separation between who I am as a person, and what I feel as I react to these inequities, and how I behave in the corporate space.”

4. Use your platforms to amplify, innovate, and desegregate.

Based on the expected global advertising spend for 2020, the advertising business is essentially a $550 billion platform – and marketers need to leverage it for good, using it to amplify and influence. “This is an industry that knows how to influence people’s thinking and choices,” observed Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, during one LIONS Live session. Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women, and Chair of the Unstereotype Alliance, continued:  “This is the industry that specializes in getting the results. That skill is actually needed right now.”

“No one else is (more) qualified when it comes to behavior change on a large scale, sometimes in a relatively short space of time, than the media and advertising industry. You have to repurpose your skills to serve a greater good than profits.”

While brands can leverage platforms for their sheer size, they should also consider using them to break down social media bubbles that serve to segregate people and opinions.

To that end, a group including Saint John; author and podcast host Luvvie Ajayi Jones, author and founder of Together Rising; and Stacey Bendet Eisner, CEO of clothing company Alice + Olivia, created #SharetheMicNow, a one-day event in June in which Black women took over the Instagram accounts of prominent white women including Kourtney Kardashian, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Gwyneth Paltrow and Hilary Swank. “It allowed Black women to get onto the platforms of whiteness,” said Saint John. “Black women on social media were able to land their messages in audiences they probably have not been able to disrupt before.”

Moving the concept to TV, McDonald’s donated most of its media buy during the US’ BET Awards in June to 13 Black activists, allowing people such as Ibram X. Kendi, Imani Ellis, Bubba Wallace, to tell their stories in front of a huge TV audience.

5. But brands need to be mindful of platforms, too.

The Facebook brand boycott, which began to gain momentum during the course of LIONS Live, served as a powerful undercurrent to the week, a pointed reminder that some of the biggest platforms, particularly in social media, have a lot of work to do if they are to rid themselves of hate speech and disinformation. For many advertisers, this issue is of special concern right now, not only because of BLM, but because of the 2020 presidential election in the US, as fears of social platforms being used to spread falsehoods and engage in voter suppression ratchet up. At the beginning of LIONS Live week, the boycott, which includes Instagram, mainly consisted of a handful of outdoors brands – REI, Patagonia and North Face. By week’s end, it had extended to over 100 brands including Unilever, Ford and Coca-Cola. (P&G has remained mum on its Facebook plans.) Marketers diverged on how they were applying the boycotts by geography and time, but, generally speaking, they were all in alignment with the #StopHateforProfit movement, which is advocating for Facebook to focus on more accountability, decency and support. The announcement on Friday, June 26 that Facebook had made moves to mend fences had little effect on the boycott's momentum. As an advertising business, the Facebook platform is so massive that even with such major brand names pulling back, the total revenue hit is less than 1%; the boycott is mainly a blow to its reputation.

Most of the heat is on Facebook, certainly, but Unilever pulled back from spending on Twitter as well; Mars pulled spending from both Twitter and Snapchat. Other marketers, despite not being part of the official boycotts, voiced concern. “At some point, [if] the tipping point has got to the point where by being associated with something you're seen to somehow be in a negative space, then we need to make sure that we are looking after our brands,” said Tamara Rogers, CMO of healthcare giant GlaxoSmithKline at LIONS Live. “Because our brands serve all people, it’s so important to make sure that we're doing the right things.”

Where all of this ends up is unclear. Just as it's nearly impossible for Facebook to completely block hate speech and disinformation – even with 35,000 content moderators and extensive technology, it's also difficult to see how advertisers can entirely side-step one of the world's biggest advertising platforms for any length of time.

6. Now is the time to admit your brand’s shortcomings.

When it comes to BLM, everyone knows who the exemplar brands are: Nike, Ben & Jerry's, Procter & Gamble. But it’s also difficult to find a brand that gets a complete pass. Steve Stoute, founder/CEO of creative agency Translation and artist-services firm UnitedMasters, said during a LIONS Live panel that this is the time for brands to engage in brutal honesty about how they have not lived up to the challenge of racial justice; he held up Levi Strauss & Co., as an example. “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.

What does brutal honesty look like? In a blog post, Levi’s posted the racial makeup of its company: white, 37%, Hispanic or Latinx, 28%, Black or African-American, 18%, Asian, 10%. Then came its harsh self-assessment: “But a cursory examination reveals a tiered system within our company: Black people make up only 5% of our corporate staff, and Black representation plummets at each level of our corporate structure. Ten percent of our contributors — employees who aren’t managers — are Black or African-American. Less than 2% of our executive level is Black. We have no Black employees on the Global Leadership Team. And no Black board members.

“Our racial diversity is concentrated in the retail stores, distribution centers and lower levels of our corporate structure, and we get dramatically whiter as we move up.”

Levi’s is pledging to do better, reinvigorating its search for a Black member of its board, pledging to train all of its leaders on anti-racism and racial equity this year – and running and, importantly, publishing – wage equity audits every other year, among other initiatives.

The pressure is on every brand now, not just to develop stronger, more comprehensive approaches to achieving racial equity, but also to hold themselves accountable. “They must be courageous, to publish and to talk about these goals that they have so that we’re able to monitor change,” noted Mlambo-Ngcuka.

Indeed, initiatives toward accountability were everywhere during Lions Live. As one set of examples, the CMO Growth Council – a joint venture of ANA and Cannes Lions – has committed to publishing reports on how the industry is progressing with diversity, and also plans to measure how accurate portrayal in advertising are using the Gender Equality Measure (GEM) and Cultural Insights Impact Measure (CIIM) metrics.

In this strange, stressful time, it’s become commonplace to talk about 2020 as the year of the two pandemics – the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial pandemic. For marketers, the need to constantly pivot to address a cascading series of challenges has been ever present.

However, it’s important to acknowledge that while the two pandemics have a lot of overlap in how they are affecting people of color, for marketers the two pandemics are radically different. While the industry responded rapidly to COVID-19, by revamping product offerings, changing messaging, and ramping up e-commerce efforts, it could be argued that addressing racial injustice is the more difficult challenge of the two. COVID-19 required the kind of rapid response that could only happen in the context of a devastating shock to the economy; but truly creating a world in which diversity shines through every aspect of marketing can’t be solved by suddenly pulling the TV budget or re-evaluating pack sizes. It requires a steady, deliberate approach to eliminating racism that is indeed systemic, both in the broader world and in the marketing industry itself.