Updated: Jun 26, 2020
Photo Credit: pina messina
Businesses, when healthy, are like any organism; they respond and react to the stimuli around them and adapt themselves to their circumstances in order to survive and thrive. But an organism can also respond incorrectly; as Covid has shown us, once infected by a novel virus an organism can overwhelm itself with its own auto-immune response and actually prevent itself from healing.
We're now at risk of seeing this very thing happen in the business community in response to the protests and events around the world following the killing of George Floyd.
For decades there has been a very clear, mutually-beneficial and yet at the same time, severely sub-optimal business relationship between corporate America and the diversity industry. I'll use the Hispanic media landscape as an example, as I have significant first hand experience there. The value proposition conversation for more than 50 years between brands and the Hispanic media industry has gone something like this:
1. "The US has 60 million Hispanics." (True),
2. "They speak Spanish." (True, most Hispanics can speak some level of Spanish, but cleverly omitted in this turn of phrase is the fact that the capacity to speak a language has little to do with a preference to use it),
3. "Therefore, buy ads in Spanish."
This conversation has historically been enabled by an entire ecosystem of Hispanic media actors who benefit from the over-simplified narrative. Dedicated sellers advance the pitch to dedicated buyers who in turn reinforce it by executing special media buys - usually at a fraction of the spend dedicated to other initiatives. Agency account teams communicate US Hispanic strategies to specialized client side contacts who themselves wrestle for attention, authority and budget within their own organizations and the entire sub-optimal process repeats itself.
This dynamic doesn't only exist in Spanish language media of course. I remember a person once asked me incredulously, in response to a news article about government waste, how it was possible that a federal agency could spend $800 on a $20 hammer.
My answer was that so long as there was an $800 hammer buyer there would be an $800 hammer seller.
This is what worries me as I see the flurry of corporate and brand responses to the George Floyd killing and the resulting movements across the globe; a sub-optimal solution set seems to be developing.
Companies have rushed to respond, and rightfully so; their organisms are under attack by their own inertia, their own systemic issues, their own lack of diversity prioritization. But the response from these companies for the most part seems significantly broader and less nuanced than their illnesses require.
Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, as a discipline is important. Multicultural ad agencies are also important. But to use these as a comprehensive solution to a diversity strategy is like taking a Tylenol for tuberculosis. Or drinking a glass of water for gangrene. Neither will hurt. But neither alone will cure.
A DE&I leader, positioned at "the top" of your org, to sit in boardrooms and enact policies that reinforce diversity principles is a good thing. A multicultural agency at "the bottom" of the org that translates, trans-creates and trans-communicates product value to your constituents is a good thing. But neither the top, nor the bottom of the organization is where the magic of your business happens. It's in "the middle" of organizations where the insights, ideation, productization, development, deployment and overall value creation actually occurs: to leave that value-chain untouched by the business power of diversity is to ultimately leave you right where you started. You won't get hurt, but you won't get well either.
Furthermore, a look at the ways currently available to CEOs to attack this "middle" potential leads me to see a big opportunity for firms like my own, and others, to fill the massive gap that exists. Big consulting firms like Bain, McKinsey, Accenture and others will certainly try to solve for this business challenge, but the diversity authenticity required for this work leads me to believe that these firms won't have much to credibly offer without dramatic personnel shifts in their own ranks, or strategic acquisitions. So what's the bottom line? If you're a business leader or CEO, here's the clarion call: Don't miss this golden opportunity to harness and deploy the real power of a diversity strategy across your entire value chain through new partnerships with those who have the expertise to do so. In time, powered by these partnerships, your organization will develop the capability to sustain and flex its new strategic diversity muscle, and your business will not only survive, it will thrive. The time to act is now. Your business, your employees and your customers will thank you for it.