Blog post

Diversity and Gender Equality in the Agency-Client Relationship

By Jay Wilson | April 04, 2018 | 11 Comments

marketingDigital Marketing Strategy and Execution

Clients who’ve read our recent Magic Quadrant for Global Digital Marketing Agencies have noted that we cited the need for marketers whose organizations make issues of diversity and gender equality a priority to ensure their agencies reflect those values.

Despite efforts from the outside, like the Madison Avenue Initiative nearly 20 years ago, and from within, like the 3% Movement, the advertising world is still embarrassingly behind.  Just 11% of creative directors are women, and only 54% of creatives feel diversity has improved over the past five years, with 7% saying it’s actually gotten worse.

As marketers, we turn to agencies because they have the talents and skills that we struggle to hire and retain in house.  But if an agency’s ultimate product is its people, then that product is only strong if it’s as diverse and inclusive as our brands and the audiences to whom we are marketing.  As we evaluated agencies for this years’ Magic Quadrant, we consistently asked about diversity and inclusion initiatives, and specifically cited two agencies – VML and 72 and Sunny, who’ve been certified by the 3% Movement for their inclusive cultures.

As marketers, we need to do more when vetting potential partners.  Agencies told us that they’re increasingly being asked by prospective clients about diversity and gender equality during the pitch process.  However, these questions often appear as little more than line items to check off in an RFP document – they need to become part of the face to face conversation.  We advise clients during the agency selection process to meet one on one with junior and mid-level staff – the folks who will actually be working on your business.  This is critical to understanding the front line and bench strength of the agency you’re evaluating, and it’s an opportune time to get a sense of whether an agency’s diversity and equality efforts simply look good on paper, or actually permeate the culture.

Marketers need to turn a critical lens on themselves, as well.  Client/agency relationships inherently create a power dynamic that can make agency staff vulnerable, as witnessed by a recent lawsuit by a former agency employee, who alleges her complaints about being sexually harassed by an important client were ignored by agency management.  In addition to taking immediate action when these situations arise, marketers and agencies should make the maintenance of safe work environments a criteria during quarterly and annual agency/client performance reviews.

Fortunately, the #MeToo movement, the ongoing work of organizations like the 3% Movement, and grassroots efforts like the Diet Madison Avenue Instagram account are shedding light and bringing action to the ad industry.

As marketers and as clients, it’s our responsibility to do the same.


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