How Holding Company CEOs Are Addressing Systemic Racism Internally

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As protesters across the country continue to march against racism and police brutality, many hope that advertising agencies will have their moment of reckoning by finally addressing racist systems and power structures—and enact change after decades of stagnation.

“It is appalling that in this industry, where we pride ourselves on being the most creative people on the planet, that we can’t mobilize a creative response to addressing the disparities of race inside the companies that we operate,” a senior agency employee told Adweek. “We’re using this moment to make some real demands from leadership, and the gift of the moment is that leadership is listening.” 

Over the past few weeks, holding company CEOs have sent memos to staff addressing the May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. In these memos, they’ve largely pledged to hire more people of color at all levels and make working environments more inclusive and equitable. 

“We have to move past what we’ve done in the past. Saying that we don’t agree with discrimination is one thing. We have to focus our programs as anti-discrimination.”
John Wren, chairman and CEO, Omnicom

Of course, the argument is that talk is cheap, evidenced by many years of op-eds, conferences and initiatives that people feel have yielded little in the way of actual change. Advocates worry that if or when momentum for Black Lives Matter begins to subside, promises made by industry leaders will prove to be little more than meaningless platitudes.

Adweek understands the importance of our role in holding these companies accountable for moving forward. As a start, we invited seven of the major holding companies to talk to us—Dentsu Aegis Network, Havas, Interpublic Group, MDC Partners, Omnicom, Publicis Groupe and WPP—and requested interviews with their CEOs.

The chief executives of Interpublic Group, Omnicom, Publicis Groupe and WPP agreed to interviews. Havas CEO Yannick Bolloré answered questions via email sent through a company spokesperson. Dentsu Aegis Network and MDC Partners declined to participate, but sent statements found at the bottom of this article.

During each interview, we focused on what concrete steps the holding company CEO has taken and what decisions they’ve made to ensure real change ensues. We’ve outlined them below, but for transparency, we’ve put the full interviews with each CEO on AgencySpy

Supporting Black employees in the short term 

We asked each CEO to discuss what they’re actively doing to support Black employees right now, as many are reeling from Floyd’s death, as well as the March 13 killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky., and countless other racial injustices.

Havas: In a memo sent to employees on June 1, the Havas leadership team asked staff to use June 5 as a “day dedicated to reflection and solidarity” and were given a guide with resources to help understand unconscious bias and sympathize with the experience of racial injustice. 

Bolloré said the company’s “key priorities these past few weeks” have also involved bespoke assistance programs for Black employees, as well as inclusive leadership and action training with diversity, equity and inclusion experts for more than 550 leaders across North America.

Yannick Bolloré, chairman and CEO of Havas

(Read Yannick Bolloré’s full interview at AgencySpy.)

IPG: CEO Michael Roth dedicated June 5 as a “Day of Healing,” offering the day off to IPG’s corporate employees and encouraging its agencies to implement similar measures. Roth also said IPG is making “significant monetary contributions” to Amnesty International, Campaign Zero, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

In addition to weekly companywide messages from Roth, IPG started holding “office hours” discussions led by its equity, diversity and inclusion teams. They have hosted “neighborhood conversations” with employees of color in the U.S. and the U.K. as well as sessions with allies and CEOs. 

This week, IPG held sessions for parents that included therapists explaining how to discuss racism with children. It also had a Safe Space Conversation for Creative Leadership session co-hosted by svp-chief diversity and inclusion officer Heide Gardner and FCB global chief creative officer Susan Credle. 

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