A Blueprint for Belonging

Image of a Black man crossing the street in a crosswalk

The following report was prepared by the Research Studio and Inclusion Experience teams at VMLY&R.

Our industry is in the midst of a talent crisis. The highly discussed “great resignation”, combined with the “she-cession, is contributing to a vast talent gap. At the same time, agencies are finally recognizing bias recruiting strategies, and are now fighting for strong BIPOC talent. The Thomson Reuters Foundation reported last year that “U.S. companies are showing a surge of interest in hiring Black employees” — quoting the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), the National Black MBA Association (NBMBAA) and Blacks In Technology, who all said “calls from companies looking to hire their members have ‘tripled’ in recent weeks." [1]

However, over a year since the murder of George Floyd,the advertising industry still finds itself wrestling with uncomfortable truths. Many companies have finally recognized what many of us already knew — racism is systemic, and it’s hard to be BIPOC in business. But while many companies have caught on to the need for diversity, let’s not kid ourselves: Representation alone does not mean inclusion and equity. Organizational systems need examination and recalibration to begin yielding equitable opportunities at scale. It would not be an overstatement to say that where diversity is concerned, the advertising industry continues to reside in a state of crisis.

While higher titles and compensation are easy ways of explaining BIPOC job movement, we’d be naive to overlook the qualitative aspects of workday life that make departing easier — or in some cases, inevitable. It’s about the employee experience. Agencies need to earn the confidence of their people, to make infrastructure changes that make people feel safe. They need both inclusive recruitment, and inclusive retention.

The Research Studio at VMLY&R recently undertook a study to understand motivations for leaving or staying in advertising. We surveyed 971 people working in advertising and related fields, with a focus on BIPOC in advertising. Our objectives were to:

  • Understand why BIPOC employees are leaving, and staying, in advertising.
  • Determine if they change jobs at a higher rate than other related industries, and why.
  • Reveal the final straw on why people leave, and what factors help people stay.
  • Understand if reasons for staying or leaving differ between BIPOC and white people, and why.
  • Explore how the industry can do a better job retaining talent and helping employees thrive.

The research highlights key reasons why people are leaving advertising, the role the workplace plays in their lives and especially how it can vary by ethnicity. The study also uncovers systemic issues that can lead to challenges for BIPOC to thrive at work. 

In particular, the research uncovered three important findings: 

  1. Due to the relational nature of our business, our appraisal systems are potentially not set up to enable success for Black people.
  2. Asian people in advertising appear to be getting “stuck” at a certain managerial level.
  3. The main reason people are leaving advertising is for a “better work environment” — which can mean different things for different people, and needs further unpacking. 

Key findings, in more detail:

As a response to the need for change, in 2021, Black people are now being sought by headhunters more than ever. Our research showed that 6% of Black people in advertising who recently changed jobs or are considering a job change did so because they were approached by a headhunter — a rate 8.6 times higher than for white people. It’s great that companies are looking to increase racial diversity, but it’s one thing to increase diversity in a company and quite another to set up systems to empower and enable success. 

Bar chart showing how many people have searched for a job in the past year

Our research uncovered some troubling truths. In particular, Black people in advertising (and other adjacent industries) have worse relationships with their managers than do white people. It’s well documented that people gravitate to people who “look like them,” and work bonds are further tied through joint experiences. This (sometimes unconscious) bias can lead to unequitable promotion opportunities. In many industries, the appraisal system is set up with guidelines and boundaries to reward employees based on delivery and impact of work. However, in advertising, getting ahead tends to be more about good relationships and visibility. Whether it’s recognition for a job well done or access to more challenging and high-profile projects, the manager is usually the gatekeeper. And if that gatekeeper does not have a strong relationship with their Black team members, that is a serious progression issue.

This points to a problem: Our appraisal systems are not set up to enable success for many Black people. To create more equitable systems, where BIPOC have the same chance of success as white people, we need to relook at our appraisal systems and learn from other industries. Unclear goals and objectives are another reason for leaving advertising compared to other industries, so clearer goals, objectives, and measurability could remove some dependence on manager relations. Anti-racist and anti-bias manager training must be embedded into agencies – because, while some companies feel “the job is done”, we know it’s only just begun.

The second key issue we found was that, across all industries, Asian people are not progressing from the manager level; there are few at director level or above. Only 11% of Asian respondents answered that they were director level or above, as compared to over 53% for Black and white respondents.

Bar chart that shows what category people describe their job as

As early as 2014, The Atlantic referred to this phenomenon as “the bamboo ceiling.” It quoted a 2011 study by the Center for Talent Innovation that showed that while, at the time, Asian Americans made up 5% of the population, they constituted 18% of the student body at Harvard and 24% at Stanford, but only accounted for 1.4% of Fortune 500 CEOs and 1.9% of corporate officers overall. [2] This was played out in our survey, and we believe it relates to the model minority stereotype and myth that Asians work hard but aren’t natural leaders. We need to challenge these assumptions and reimagine organizational systems with a design to empower and enable anyone to flourish

Our third key finding was that people who left their jobs in advertising did so for many reasons, but “better work environment” was the No. 1 reason across ethnicities.

Bar chart showing what ultimately led

This is somewhat surprising, as anecdotally people might talk about promotions and pay rises, rather than work environment, as a reason for leaving. However, this also means we need to more fully understand what “better work environment” means because it is highly subjective. For some, it’s about free food and pool tables while for others it’s about flexibility. One interesting finding from our study is that in advertising, the Black respondents are not necessarily looking to their job to provide a sense of culture, support or even friendships outside of work. But this doesn’t mean that workplaces can just abandon their cultural developments. What we interpret from this is that Black people have grown used to microaggressions and the feeling of being “different,” and they have learned not to look to a primarily white workplace to provide them with the sense of belonging they get in their communities. What we know is that it’s critical to belong, but as Robin Diangelo explains in her book “White Fragility,” our systems are set up based on a white experience. To create environments where everyone feels part of a work community, companies must open themselves up to understanding and embracing different cultures and backgrounds.

BIPOC employees at every section of identity and difference must be empowered to stay in workplaces where they feel like they belong. This study helps us better understand what belonging means to BIPOC employees in our effort to become the most diverse, inclusive and creative agency in the world. Non-BIPOC employees at every section of identity and difference are essential to that imperative.

[1] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-race-hiring/watershed-moment-corporate-america-looks-to-hire-more-black-people-idUSKCN25F2SY

[2] https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/11/cracking-the-bamboo-ceiling/380800/