If The Industry Wants To Embrace DEI, It Needs To Start Earlier In The Process

Media leans white, from the content studios of Hollywood to the ad agencies of Madison Avenue.

Where does the lack of diversity come from? A lot of it has to do with insufficient industry exposure to Black college students and graduates, said Steven Golus, a digital advertising trainer and consultant.

Golus founded The Boyd Initiative in 2020 to help bridge that gap by offering free educational programs for Black students and recent grads to introduce them to the industry – and to introduce the industry to them.

The program, which includes free enrollment in the same 10-hour course Golus uses to train publisher and agency executives on the inner workings of programmatic, digital marketing and connected TV, also provides opportunities for mentorship, networking and, ideally, jobs and internships. Companies from across the media and advertising ecosystem serve as sponsors.

“The program’s 100% free – all it’s going to cost you is your time and dedication,” said alumna Alice Egole during opening remarks Tuesday night at The Boyd Initiative’s second virtual town hall.

Making moves

The evening kicked off with advice from executives at Roku, AMC Networks and Discovery on what young Black professionals who might feel held back by the discrimination and lack of diversity in the industry can do to get their foot in the door.

“Trust the trust that somebody else has in you,” said Aisha Thomas-Petit, the first chief DEI Officer at AMC Networks. “If someone is presenting you with an opportunity, it’s because that somebody believes you can do it.”

But sometimes, she said, the true first step is looking inward: “Sometimes the question is just, ‘Am I ready?’”

It also “doesn’t matter if you’re the only person in the room [who] looks like you,” Thomas-Petit said, referring to the importance of networking. “We have to build the muscle to dream even bigger.”

It’s not always easy, said Sheereen Miller-Russell, SVP of ad sales and inclusion content monetization at The Oprah Winfrey Network (owned by Discovery).

“I came into the industry of media and entertainment feeling like an outsider – I look to my left, I look to my right, and there’s no one who looks like me,” Miller-Russell said.

But there is a way to break that cycle.

“Early on in my career, I [realized] I was just marginalized by my own insecurities,” Miller-Russell said. “I wanted so desperately to assimilate, rather than show up as my authentic self and trust that it was enough … When you don’t see an opportunity – create it. It’s all about preparation.”

A lot of the responsibility, however, lies with the industry. Companies first must acknowledge there’s an elephant in the room before they can start to go around it.

Acknowledging accountability

Hiring practices, for example, need to change.

There aren’t enough people of color in the industry, in “places and rooms,” because of entrenched nepotism, said Miller-Russell. “We obviously didn’t see ourselves in Hollywood or in media positions of influence,” she said. “It’s like a secret country club. We didn’t have access.”

And the issue becomes endemic when it continues to span generations. “How could our parents dream something for us they didn’t even know existed?” she asked.

The question highlights how companies need to own their responsibility to promote inclusivity.

Diversity is about making sure the representation in a workplace matches that of the workforce itself, Thomas-Petit said.

“I have to ensure my workforce is diverse throughout the [entire] creative process, not just who’s in front of the screen,” she added, referring to AMC Networks’ media strategy.

The decisions about what gets the green light can’t just be coming from one profile of individuals, Thomas-Petit said – “but we’re not there yet.”

Maxim Williams, Roku’s VP of inclusion strategy and talent development, was even more candid about the industry’s shortcomings in representation.

Current efforts at representation have largely fallen short, and the industry has been stuck in a “rinse and repeat” routine for many years, he said.

“Where’s the Black talent? Where’s the female talent? Where’s the LGBTQ talent?” he asked. “I’m not seeing that in the spaces I run with.”

Rather than treating diversity as a marketing exercise – “and it’s not,” he said – “these are the conversations I’m having before jumping to T-shirts and hashtags.”

The Boyd Initiative tries to answer more of those difficult questions, Williams said, because it’s making an effort to create connections between the advertising industry and students at historically Black colleges and universities.

“[But] I would be remiss if I said the work is complete,” Williams said. “A lot of the work is internal – it’s a [company’s] responsibility to make sure it has representation at all levels within an organization.”

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