Last week was the annual meeting of the American Association of Advertising Agencies (the 4As). Once a festive celebration of great creative work, this year felt a bit, well, depressing. Speakers were vocal about their struggle to compete with the likes of Facebook and Google, as well as big data analytics. And a week before the conference, the advertising world was rocked by a scandal in which the CEO of J. Walter Thompson, Gustavo Martinez, was accused by a subordinate of continued racist and sexist behavior. I spoke with Nancy Hill, CEO and president of the 4As, about the issue of diversity in the industry.
Fortune: Rather than pretending the JWT scandal didn’t happen, you addressed it in your opening speech, saying, “Unfortunately the alleged behavior does happen, and it happens more frequently than we think.” Why did you go there?
Nancy Hill: I felt an obligation to address it and not ignore it. A lot of people have said that it was brave, but I thought it was necessary.
Is the advertising industry worse than others in this regard?
It’s probably average, but in our industry there’s been less of a sense of urgency to do anything about it. I think it’s easy to keep doing the same things over and over and over and easy to keep hiring people who think like you and look like you.
So whose responsibility is it to change?
That responsibility belongs to the CEO. I’ve always believed this, and said it again yesterday. The CEO has to be the chief diversity officer or the chief inclusion officer and it’s up to that person to see that every single hire is done while considering a diverse pool of talent.
And yet after your speech, Maurice Levy, the CEO of Publicis, one of the biggest ad conglomerates, said in an interview at the conference: “I don’t believe what happened at JWT is an example of what’s happening in our industry. It’s a one-time mistake, a huge mistake, a huge fault. But it’s not a fair representation of the industry. Maybe it is because he learned from Trump.” There were actually gasps in the audience when he said this, and you shortly afterwards said on stage that you didn’t agree at all.
I just disagree that it’s an isolated incident.
Were you surprised that he said that?
I was, yes. I couldn’t ignore it.
One new CEO, DDB Worldwide’s Wendy Clark, made diversity the main idea of her presentation—so not everyone seems to feel the same as Levy.
Wendy clearly gets it. She understands that in order to do our jobs effectively we have to reflect the consumer ecosystem that we put our messages into. She talked in terms of being restless and not just letting this happen.
Okay. So we can talk about creating a more diverse group of creative executives—but how do we really make it happen?
The CEO has to make it a mandate. From the top down there has to be a push every time you’re bringing in a candidate. And I’m not talking about entry level. We need to also be making sure we are thinking differently about how we are hiring in the mid-to-senior levels. It might mean bringing in people from non-agency backgrounds. That’s the only way we are going to crack this issue. We keep recycling the same people over and over again. We need to look for people from different backgrounds. We have become a data driven industry and have to bring in people with an economic or statistics background. Those people are going to look different.
Did the conference make you feel optimistic or pessimistic on the issue?
I do feel optimistic. The response we have had has been overwhelming and I heard from a number of male CEOs that they got it. I hope that we collectively this week got people to think hard about how the situation can be changed. [To the establishment,] we say: We are not trying to take away your piece of the pie. We’re trying to make the pie bigger.
I’m not taking my foot off the gas. I’m going to continue to use my platform to push this issue as much as I possibly can.