Dear Marketing, I Love You, but You’ve Got a Massive Diversity and Inclusion Problem.

Kyle Sutton

Editor’s Note: This article is part of Drift’s ongoing efforts to diversify the voices featured on our blog. If you are interested in sharing your story or insights with our audience, please contact Gail Axelrod at

I’m Kyle. I spent a decade in ad agencies ranging in size from startups to global holding companies. My years in the agency space were rewarding. I picked up skills and contacts that have helped advance my career.

But, there are some realities of the agency environment that everyone notices but no one dares discuss.

Inequality is a massive issue for Black staff in marketing agencies. I wish I could point to a few bad actors but the problems in the agency space are structural.

As a Black marketer, I’ve been content to trade my personal truth for a collective comfort. That stops now.

I’ve outlined a few steps below for agency leaders that are seeking to make meaningful strides towards a diverse and equitable working environment.

Dear Marketing,

I love you, but you’ve got a massive diversity and inclusion problem. It is, oddly enough, not due to a lack of diversity and inclusion programs. You’ve got those by the dozens. And, due to the nature of your trade and the skills that come with it – you brand them beautifully. You make strategic hires and form committees and create conferences with the right sponsors and the right keynote speakers. You don all the trappings of wokeness, make all the motions consistent with progress.

But here’s the problem.

Marketing agencies are often a dead end for Black marketers. Your D&I programs have born some fruit – you’ve gotten a little better at getting Black talent in at the entry level. But their upward mobility and retention are damnably limited. Hiring people without creating a substantive chance to grow isn’t progress. It’s tokenism. Your team expects more of you. Your industry expects more of you.

Here are some actionable steps you can take to do better.

Diversify your recruiting relationships.

You’ve built a pipeline of talent by aligning with business and communications programs at local universities. Are historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) represented in your recruitment programs? If the answer is “no” – reach out and forge those relationships. The career development team would love to hear from you.

Doing this correctly means doing more than setting up a booth at an HBCU’s career fair. Yes, formal recruitment relationships are great. But, meaningful engagement here means making Black candidates a part of the informal recruitment community around your agency where the real doors are opened. The next time you’re hosting an industry mixer, or inviting a college chapter of the American Marketing Association to your space, or setting up a mentorship program for aspiring marketers – be intentional in diversifying THESE environments.

Create real pathways for upward mobility.

Several D&I programs center on the false assumption that diversity is entirely a pipeline problem. While it’s true that building a diverse pipeline is an important first step, the work doesn’t stop there. The Black talent you hire needs a legitimate opportunity to grow at your agency. This means early and honest conversations about what’s required to reach the next level and pairing talent with a mentor to help them navigate the process. It means granting access to clients and projects that are challenging, rewarding and visible. And that transcend the confines of your “multicultural marketing” clients.

Diversity shouldn’t be relegated to entry level positions. You should seek to bring diversity to your agency’s leadership team as well. Sadly, even the agencies banging the D&I drum the loudest often lack leadership at the account, division and corporate levels.

The data prove this out. In 2018, the Association of National Advertisers surveyed its membership regarding diversity in marketing roles. Black marketers made up 9% of both administrative and entry level roles and only 4% of senior level roles.

Diversity in marketing roles

Diversity in recruitment is for naught if there’s no pathway to retain and promote Black marketers. Mirrors matter. Representation matters. Black talent will stop leaving your agency out of frustration that they’ll never break the glass ceiling when you prove, through your actions, that this assertion isn’t true.

Teach the hard skills.

Generalists make great executives. But when marketers are too generalized in the early phases of their career, it actually inhibits their growth. The popular point of entry into agency life for marketers is some flavor of account or project management. Both skills are useful, but for new marketers the roles are largely administrative in nature and don’t foster the type of depth required for specialization in any one discipline. This limits earning potential, slows the path to growth and makes individuals more expendable in an industry that’s subject to wild swings in revenue and profitability.

This dynamic is especially problematic for Black talent, who are on average paid 16.2% less than their white counterparts for the same job. Equitable pay is a massive problem that warrants examination followed by a lasting solution. There’s no doing this issue justice within the confines of this post.

Look for opportunities across all departments when diversifying your talent pool from analytics and digital media to social and finance. Viewing the challenge through this lens makes recruiting easier because it broadens the aperture on the talent pool.

Create opportunities for your teams to build their skillset by going deep and wide. This doesn’t mean taking design majors and forcing them onto the big data team. It does mean being intentional about giving team members room to deepen their talent in ways that align with their aptitude and that make sense for the business.

What other collective actions can marketers take to make meaningful strides towards a diverse future? Join the conversation on LinkedIn here.

Kyle Sutton is a seasoned marketer with more than 13 years of experience across technology, healthcare and management consulting. He’s led strategy for notable brands like Lenovo, Accenture, SAP, and Novo Nordisk. Kyle is the senior director of marketing for SolarWinds (NYSE: SWI), a leading provider of IT infrastructure management software. He leads the teams tasked with prospect and customer marketing. In his previous role, Kyle served as VP of digital strategy for Ketchum, the public relations arm of the Omnicom Group (NYSE: OMC).