Illustration by Rebecca Ustrell
From the narrative-changing storytelling initiative, “Driving Change From the Inside“, a look at the DE+I movement in organizations across the country.
Madison Avenue has long been one of the most coveted industries to work for in America. Today advertising stands among the masses anxiously awaiting the end of the pandemic while striving to adapt workplace culture to address the “great reshuffle” happening in the U.S. job market.
Every major industry has been faced with a reckoning around equitable opportunity and a need to attract and retain diverse talent. For advertising, this has been keenly felt as it becomes increasingly evident that messaging that reflects the audiences it serves is best created by diverse talent. To put this industry’s situation into context: In 2020, major Advertising holding companies responded to the fallout following the rise of the Black and AAPI advocacy movements with grand pledges to correct the inequities being denounced on a National and International level. A full year later, despite what appears to have been a genuine effort across the industry, the incremental advancements have been underwhelming.
Like many of the holding companies, Havas Group released its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Stats in Q3 of 2021. It showed improvement—and room for improvement. Havas Group North America increased the number of diverse employees across all career levels within its U.S. offices by 3% between July 2020 and June 2021. A closer look at the data shows Hispanics/Latinos were up 1.6%, followed by Asians at 1%, multiracial people at .2%, and American Indians/Pacific Islanders and Black people at .014% each.
But these numbers only paint part of the picture. So, I sat down with Juliana Akoumouh, Chief Culture Officer and Head of Diversity Equity and Inclusion at Havas North America to get a holistic view inside this agency group. Julianna’s job as the NA DE&I lead is to work closely with Havas’s global talent leader, as well as agency CEOs, to help them bring their DEI efforts to life and make them successful.
As Julianana describes it:
“We’re in the middle of the most dramatic talent management situation I’ve ever seen. People are reflecting on the world around them, on their careers, on their lives, what’s valuable to them, what makes them happy. We’re in a major talent shift.”
“We’re in a moment where, and it’s not just us, retention is a challenge. There’s a moment happening right now from a talent perspective where, certainly for under-represented talent, that they’re being sought out. So it is challenging to keep talent.”
Our conversation was a deeply personal interview for myself, an admitted Media and Advertising refugee who went out on my own because of a lack of feeling safe and inspired within workplace culture. A strategic and thoughtful HR leader, Julianna has felt this first hand. Speaking candidly with me, this outspoken change agent reveals that she has seen her fair share of conscious and unconscious biases on her way to excellence in her chosen path.
“You don’t hear it in the words. You may not hear it as discrimination. But I understood that they were talking about me as other.”
To address the ongoing and emerging issues in HR, Julianna describes the all-hands approach she’s part of. It spans a network of hand raisers, executive leaders, and employee resource groups. This community of people within Havas Group have come together to weather these uncertain times, while laying the foundation for a more inclusive workplace.
“I’m really optimistic that our numbers will be better. They could not have gone in the opposite direction with the level of attention and focus that we’ve had in every agency, with every leader, with every open role. So I’m optimistic. We’ll be reviewing our data and sharing [more] in the coming months. I’m really excited to see the progress that we’ve made. I know that it will be in the right direction.”
Below are a few highlights from our conversation (full transcript), curated to help any individual or organization seeking to create a safe space for employees of all backgrounds, orientations, races, and beliefs.
To read the full interview and to follow the developments of “Driving Change” follow us at Curiosity Lab.
1. Have the difficult but necessary conversations
Listen and learn
“I think there’s a lot of value in just saying how you feel plainly so that we can actually deal with what the matters are at hand, for better problem-solving.”
“It’s difficult for people. And I understand why. But we can still work towards it.”
“I definitely want every individual to be personally accountable and understand their role in change. At the same time, I am very aware of each individual’s challenges in trying to prioritize all of these things that really matter. Our business matters. Inclusion matters in order for us to have a successful business. That’s my belief.”
“When someone identifies a situation as difficult, no matter what it is, I try to break that thing down in a way that’s digestible and give specific steps or a new way of looking at the situation that will help them still move through it.”
“That’s how we’re gonna make that progress consistently: Consistently pushing.”
The tragic events of 2020 and early 2021 made our entire nation stop and pay attention to issues of inequity across our society. However, achieving measurable and sustainable progress will require leaders across all levels to continue difficult but necessary conversations about workplace inequity, safety, and culture change. In an increasingly competitive job market for top diverse talent, this is no longer an altruistic goal. It has become a business imperative to commit to sustaining the conversations that lead to inclusive workplaces and cultures.
2. Invest in this talent-driven market
Listen and learn
“We’re in the middle of the most dramatic talent management situation I’ve ever seen. People are reflecting on the world around them, on their careers, on their lives, what’s valuable to them, what makes them happy, and we’re in a major talent shift.”
“We’re in a moment where, and it’s not just us, retention is a challenge… There’s a moment happening right now from a talent perspective where, certainly for under-represented talent, that they’re being sought out. So it is challenging to keep talent. “
“I hope that all of the angles by which we’re trying to tackle this will signal to any current employees or people joining the organization that we take inclusion, belonging, and safety seriously.”
“I think our recruiters in the past have done a really good job of bringing diverse talent to the table. But we’ve seen in the past, how they don’t make it through. That diverse talent doesn’t make it through to the internship or beyond. So now, as an organization, we’ve been talking about how much this moment of access matters.”
Having difficulty hiring diverse talent? You are not alone. We are in the midst of a hiring crisis, only exacerbated by a reckoning around employee burnout and renewed calls for more supportive work environments. Unfortunately, long standing issues with attracting and retaining under-represented talent creates a further issue in the lack of representation in mid- and upper-level management. This, in turn, makes it a challenge to recruit at all levels. Breaking this cycle will require a significant investment. Hiring top talent will require top dollars and filling the pipeline with good young talent will require proactive investment in training and PR to raise awareness, interest, and access in underrepresented communities.
3. Reshape corporate norms
Listen and learn
“The working environment or what it means to work together in an office space and the experience of collaborating will be changed for the better, for the future.”
“The talent is demanding it. In order for us or any organization in this industry to stay competitive from a talent retention standpoint, you’re going to have to do things differently to keep people and keep them happy. There’s going to be a shift in terms of what we think about the future of work, that people will have to adjust to. Be different and think differently.“
“I think that as we start to see demographics shift, we’ll also see corporate culture shift. Corporate culture meaning, when we think about what’s “professional” or what’s corporate. A lot of those standards have been very white-centered and very eurocentric.”
“From appearance, to tone of voice, to the language that’s used in corporate culture. Even how we interact with people will be different. Because we will have more backgrounds of people that communicate in ways that we hope are based more on empathy. Based more on honesty. Based more in vulnerability and safety. And that will definitely challenge corporate culture.”
Leadership teams that are more male and more white than the populations they support are finding themselves out of touch with the desires of their staff. An inclusive workplace is not one in which everyone is invited to conform to a “corporate norm.” The very notion limits who will raise their hand to participate.
Once we’re able to acknowledge the likely existence of unconscious biases in ourselves and our organizations, the process of deep listening can begin. In order to remake corporate culture to meet the needs of the future workforce we need to involve them in the process. From investing in eye opening programming, to adapting past customs and expectations to address issues of burnout and mental health, staying competitive will require shifts that ask leaders to check their egos and acknowledge their blind spots.
4. Practice gratitude for the wins
Listen and learn
“I’m very grateful that the work that I’ve done over the last year in terms of sharing an approach for employee resource groups and in sharing a framework for DEI initiatives and audits has been received. I’ve been received with very open arms. It means that other people can share their ideas too.”
“I am really grateful for the women of color being added to senior leadership positions within the organization. They are dynamic and wonderful, and thoughtful, and I’m so happy to not be the only at such a senior level. “
“I am grateful for all of our employee resource groups and their leadership. We have staff across the entire network who are so passionate, who have real-life experience and pain that they work through and share with the entire network. And every moment of those shares, I have extreme gratitude for, because people are baring their souls, and everyone has the opportunity to be better for it.”
For DE+I leaders like Julianna Akuamoah, the pursuit of a more safe, equitable, and inclusive workplace is the result of a life of facing and overcoming the very challenges our culture is confronting today. Understanding her experience teaches that driving change is a marathon-like endeavor that requires patience, strategy, and grace — empathetic qualities that all leaders should have. Taking a moment to reflect on and celebrate your wins helps to cultivate the consistency, poise, and resilience required to face these challenges over the long haul.
Watch or listen to highlights of Michael and Julianna’s conversation:
About the author
Michael Tennant is a founder, writer, and movement-builder dedicated to spreading tools of empathy and helping people find their purpose. Before founding Curiosity Lab, Tennant spent 15-years becoming a media, advertising, and nonprofit executive, and delivering award-winning marketing strategies for companies like MTV, VICE, P&G, Coca-Cola, sweetgreen, and Oatly.
Tennant founded Curiosity Lab in 2017 and created the conversation card game Actually Curious. Actually Curious became a viral sensation in 2020 during Covid-19 and the rise of the racial justice movement for helping people build meaningful connections and to tackle the important topics facing our world.
He has channeled his business success and momentum into a sustained movement supporting BIPOC and other underrepresented communities through speaking, writing, leadership, mentorship, consulting, partnerships, and talent-pipeline programs.