Editor’s note: Veteran entrepreneur and investor Donald Thompson writes a weekly column about management and leadership as well as diversity and other important issues for WRAL TechWire. His columns are published on Wednesdays.

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RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – The C-suite leaders and executives I talk to from the marketing and communications industry often begin our conversations with a difficult question: How do I get diverse fast enough to meet the business needs of my clients, while at the same time addressing the internal recruitment challenges we face? 

What I tell my friends in marketing, advertising, public relations and strategic communications is not always easy for them to hear. Yet, the answer is critical, given these leaders are being held accountable by clients and prospects. The straightforward answer has two components: Be authentic in your diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts, and find partners to work with until your team and portfolio reflects the culture you are operating within. 


Let’s be even more specific: How do you talk about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) when your team (and 99% of your industry) is white? I have written about this topic in the past, but in brief, the solution is to  expand your idea of what it means to be diverse, while engaging in the difficult internal work to expand the perspectives of your teams. 

Let’s be realistic. You can’t expect your clients (or prospective clients) to trust you with their brand – arguably their most important asset – if your agency or internal team in no way reflects the customers they hope to target. However, if you have a real plan and are making progress toward its objectives, you are going to be on the right track. Then, you must be willing to talk about how that process will get you to a better outcome. This is the kind of authenticity that business leaders understand. 

You may be predominantly white and male-dominated, but that doesn’t mean you can’t move your best women or LGBTQ+ employees into leadership positions. Perhaps your diversity challenges can be mitigated by focusing on long-term success by specific recruitment at organizations and universities where you don’t typically search. Creating a plan and testing it may not provide a fast solution, but having a plan will be a step toward proving you are serious about the effort. 

Guest opinion: Why DEI? ‘Good for culture – good for business’


Race was an important theme in the hit television show Mad Men, which used race in the turbulent 1960s as a mirror for contemporary viewers to reflect on how relatively little we had progressed since those days. Rather than focus specifically on race, though, Mad Men employed the topic as a backdrop (almost like an additional character), providing context for contemporary viewers as they engaged with their own understanding of race.  

In one episode, Pete Campbell could not convince a client (Admiral Television) to place ads in Black newspapers and magazines, even though he had data that proved strong sales in predominantly Black neighborhoods, while sales outside those markets tanked. The Admiral executive team didn’t want to be perceived as a company that primarily sold to African Americans rather than whites. It took an outsider – British expat Lane Pryce – to convince the white, older male agency partners that they could make money by selling to Black consumers. In this fictional ad agency world, it took someone who was not an insider to help leadership understand a business opportunity right at the doorstep. 

Today, if an agency or internal marketing team can’t change its diversity with tempo, it can certainly move toward that objective by partnering with consultants, vendors and specialists who can provide a specific viewpoint or perspective to broaden the organization’s overall diversity of thought. In many cases, I tell my C-suite colleagues that they can’t get diverse enough in a vacuum or by themselves. However, they can immediately bring in outsiders to change the way their teams think about projects and campaigns. 

Recently, I spoke to a marketing leader at a large agency in the Northeast who told me how challenging it was to make his firm more diverse. Rather than urge him to just focus on recruiting and their talent pipeline, I asked him if he would like to be introduced to several consultants who happened to be women of color. A potential partnership could quickly expand his agency’s diversity of thought, while also demonstrating to potential recruits and prospective clients that the agency was putting its stated values about DEI into action. 

Would he like to meet these leaders?  

His answer was direct: “I’d love to.” 

This past week, he let me know he had spoken with my contacts, and their powerful and meaningful conversations explored partnering on several campaigns. These relatively simple steps led to an expanded DEI footprint for an agency that is trying to become more diverse, inclusive and equitable. His firm now has an additional set of voices they can rely on. Their clients are also going to benefit from diversity of thought as they reach out to customers with greater authenticity. 

This is a major win that didn’t cost the executive much relative to the payoff – a great fix that will generate both revenue and goodwill. 

Guest opinion: Don’t use DEI as a scapegoat for bad business decisions  


Whether at an agency or in-house, marketers and communicators face increasing demands from clients regarding DEI initiatives. Greater numbers of requests for proposals (RFPs) now require authentic input on how an agency lives and breathes DEI internally and in its portfolio. From the client side, the internal marketers face pressure to go with agencies that represent demographics similar to the customers they are chasing. On both sides, you can’t just check a diversity box and hope for the best.

Agency leaders across the communications industry are hearing the same whispers: If you can’t prove your DEI strategy and story are real, you’re headed toward extinction. For the last several years, these murmurs have been largely anecdotal, but we are starting to get evidence, especially when corporations are being asked to justify hiring decisions worth millions of dollars. 

Marketers at agencies and in-house spend significant time on storytelling as a business advantage. As culture continues to shift toward DEI as a primary lever in creating workplace excellence, leaders are being forced to tell their specific DEI story as part of their brand DNA. The culture-centric executive realizes that they must tell that specific story, so it is in their best interests to create a plan for addressing how they plan to get more diverse, equitable and inclusive, while simultaneously partnering to fill in those gaps until meaningful change has occurred. 

One of the most powerful payoffs is when you can transform employees into authentic ambassadors by infusing DEI into your marketing story. These are the people out in the community talking about your products, the quality of your organization, and its successes. Your team is watching closely. They are keenly aware of what is happening, and they want to be proud of where they work and to equate what they do to positive outcomes for themselves and the broader community. When the internal and external messaging aligns, you’re essentially creating a team of people who are walking billboards for the power of your organization. 

The key takeaway is that you have to take the steps necessary to demonstrate to your clients, employees and other stakeholders that the way you talk about DEI is representative of the professional life you live and espouse. That is the definition of authentic storytelling. 

About the Author 

Donald Thompson is CEO and co-founder of The Diversity Movement. His leadership memoir, Underestimated: A CEO’s Unlikely Path to Success, is available now. He has extensive experience as an executive leader and board member, including digital marketing agency WalkWest. Donald is a thought leader on goal achievement, culture change and driving exponential growth. An entrepreneur, keynote speaker, author, Certified Diversity Executive (CDE) and executive coach, he also serves as a board member for organizations in marketing, healthcare, banking, technology and sports. Donald is the host of the “High Octane Leadership” podcast. The Diversity Movement (TDM) enables organizations to build and strengthen culture by tying real-world business outcomes to diversity, equity, and inclusion via a scalable subscription-based employee experience platform. The microlearning platform, “Microvideos by The Diversity Movement,” was recently named one of Fast Company’s2022 World Changing Ideas.” DEI Navigator is a “chief diversity officer in a box” subscription service that provides small- and mid-sized businesses with the tools, advising and content that leads to action and results. Connect or follow him on Linkedin to learn more.