Diversity in Advertising: Where ‘Multicultural’ Meets Madison Avenue

by Chanel Cathey, Viacom

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As part of its celebration of Black History Month, The BEAT, Viacom’s Black employee affinity group, and the Office of Global Inclusion, hosted a powerhouse panel of industry insiders for “Multicultural vs. Cross-Cultural: A Discussion of Ad relevance.” The panel, featuring Daniel Cherry (Vice President, Consumer Planning & Research, Diageo North America), Phil Colon (Co-Founder, Project 2050), Bozoma Saint John (Director of Music and Entertainment Marketing, Pepsi-Cola North America) and Tiffany Warren (Senior VP, Chief Diversity Officer Omnicom Group) and Louis Carr (President of Media Sales, BET) as moderator, took a close look at how the advertising industry markets products and programming to diverse population.While multicultural marketing targets specific demographic groups (i.e. Hispanics, African-Americans, etc.), cross-cultural marketing takes a broader approach to appeal to similarities across all demographics.  Advertisers can continue to categorize using multicultural segmentation tactics, but with audiences becoming more diverse with varying interests and preferences, the consensus seemed to be that Madison Avenue might have to shift its thinking to stay relevant.

On the panel, Daniel Cherry from Diageo addresses how problematic the term ‘multicultural’ can be.

“When you have a term like ‘multicultural’ you can paint a very clear box and measure how many people you put in that box very easily, so it made it very easy for people who aren’t going to truly engage a culture to check a box,” Cherry said. “The cross cultural conversation is more in line with the way the world works. There are many variables around why someone buys something and it’s not always because of their race or their orientation. Cross-culture to me is recognizing the new America, the mixing of cultures, thoughts, beliefs, and it’s not always based on the way you look.”

Cherry and the other panelists agreed that the term ‘multicultural’ encompasses multiple races, but its broad application limits a marketer’s ability to deeply engage with viewers or consumers.

Of course, talking about race can be tricky. Louis Carr touched on this, posing to the panel: “Is ‘multicultural’ the new term for ‘urban’ to make people comfortable?”

The panelists all agreed that often agencies, media companies and creative shops struggle with discussing race or incorporating it into campaigns – for fear of repeating controversial and racially-sensitive bloopers from the recent past. Part of the sensitivity of discussing race in advertising is due in part to the shortage of diversity in the advertising ranks.

Many advertising agencies and media companies struggle to retain diverse talent at the top of their corporate ladders. Tiffany Warren is the founder and President of ADCOLOR, a cross-industry initiative dedicated to recognizing professionals of color in advertising, marketing, and media. “When I see mistakes in strategy – I look at that like a big talent mistake. Was there anybody in the room to say something regarding that strategy” Warren said. “Once we align what HR and Chief Diversity officers are doing with the strategy, with the media buying, with the media planning, I think you’ll have a lot less mistakes and that’s something we have to get right in our industry.”

This conversation went beyond which prefix should accompany the word cultural but the dialogue touched on the root of a deeper problem in the advertising industry and that’s the need for more diversity in advertising and in leadership positions. Through individual words of wisdom the panelists encouraged the audience to be courageous enough to voice their opinions, to keep it real even when the truth is hard to digest and always be equipped with solutions. Tiffany Warren emphasized the need to “keep the door propped open for new talent” as Louis Carr encouraged everyone in the audience to mentor at least two people this year.  As The Beat continues to celebrate Black History Month, let’s all challenge ourselves to mentor someone this year and keep the door open for the next wave of creative leaders in our industry.

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