‘It’s sad it’s come to this’ read headlines last week as an agency CMO confessed his reality post new diversity quotas that are starting to impact their bottom line. Companies like HP and General Mills have now made gender and racial equity a requirement for the advertising and marketing agencies they do businesses with, and they’re just the beginning. These aren’t companies that make business decisions lightly and it’s clear that this mandate reflects a significant strategic shift, one likely to be emulated by other big brands.

As HP’s Chief Marketing Officer Antonio Lucio put it, “We are about reinventing marketing and to do this we actually have to have a better representation of our customer base,” which Lucio points out is more than half female. Given that women drive 70-80% of all consumer purchasing, this seems like a pretty sound strategy for almost any type of company, though. General Mills executives also cited a desire for the people who create their advertising to be more reflective of the people who consume their products. A quick look at the company’s more than 100 brands distributed in as many countries gives a sense of how high that bar is being set.

Moves like this send a clear signal to the marketing and advertising sector that, if they want to play in the big leagues, they need to staff in a way that better reflects the audiences their clients are targeting. It’s no surprise that customer-facing areas like this are on the forefront of change yet it stands to reason that the real responsibility falls on recruiting and HR.

Perhaps no example is more glaring (or galling) than that of the tech sector. It’s probably no surprise to you to hear Silicon Valley’s name mentioned in this conversation. You’ve read the headlines about Facebook’s failing diversity efforts and coding diversity into the Valley. If they can’t pull it off at some of the biggest names in the industry, how are the rest of us supposed to make it happen?

There Comes A Time: Disruption Stalled

While there are many factors that are causing disruption to industries of all kinds, changes in staffing are one area in which organizations can make leaps forward to proactively address their market from the inside out. As any organization considers its workforce, it must—as in all things—consider its customer first. We have to start hiring people that look more like our customers.

While there will be products and segments that may appeal predominantly to a single gender, it will be exceedingly rare to say the same thing of all other aspects of diversity. Are your customers all a single race? Sexual orientation? Skin tone? Age? Socio-economic group? Religion? Right.

Now look around the office at the people who create, market, and sell your products. These are the people who interact with your customers and who need to understand their needs to do so effectively. The better they reflect the full spectrum of the market you seek to address, the more likely they are to help you succeed in doing so.

The Impact

The impact of diversity on an organization’s success runs much deeper – and that’s not just a cliche, there’s data behind it. In fact, decades of research clearly demonstrates that socially diverse groups are more innovative than homogeneous groups. Diversity enhances creativity as well as decision making and problem solving. So even if you think that your workforce pretty accurately reflects your consumer base, you need to mix it up to keep those innovations coming.

For many organizations, however, the diversity challenge isn’t only a matter of increasing the diversity of the rank and file. Rather, the upper ranks are what advertising and media industry consultant Cindy Gallop describes as “a closed loop of white guys talking to white guys about other white guys.” And as HP’s Lucio put it, “to transform your … organization, it needs to start at the top level.”

While diversity should certainly be part of any company’s hiring guidelines and practices, it must be part of its overall corporate vision in order to drive significant strategic change. When the impact of diversity is clearly linked with success metrics—such as sales, marketing and the ability to attract investment—it becomes wedded to an organization’s way of doing business, which will ultimately drive long-term success.


Michelle ManafyAbout the Author: Michelle Manafy is the editorial director of Digital Content Next (DCN), the only trade organization dedicated to serving the unique and diverse needs of high-quality digital content companies. In her role as Editorial Director, Michelle is responsible for DCN’s content-related initiatives, including its InContext site, social media presence and annual member summit – as well as for evangelizing industry best-practices in a wide range of venues. She is a regular contributor to Inc.com and has two decades of publishing experience, more than half of which has been focused on the business of digital content. Her career has included leadership roles at the Media Industry Newsletter (min), UK-based digital publisher FreePint Limited, and Information Today, Inc.