Historically, advertising holding companies have not always maintained the most cordial of relations with each other. They perennially battle for talent and frequently skirmish over client work, both of which have a way of fueling old rivalries and keeping executives at arm’s length. 

Yet an initiative involving three of the world’s biggest ad holding companies by revenue belies the tribalism that often characterizes this industry. WPP, Omnicom and Interpublic, along with consumer agencies Doner and Vayner, have joined forces, with the blessing of client Johnson & Johnson. They aim to share successes and failures, pitfalls and opportunities as the healthcare marketing sector strives to increase the diversity of its teams and the inclusion within its walls.

Members of J&J’s agency team who spoke with MM+M said the sector may be playing catchup when it comes to mustering a comprehensive approach to diversity, equity and inclusion. Partnering, however, represents one way brands and agencies are trying to make up ground.

“We have an incredibly long road ahead of us, but the ideas that come out of the calls with our various HR teams are already part of how we’re going to market, both on a macro basis and locally,” said Stuart Klein, VP and healthcare practice lead at IPG. The willingness to share “is about, ‘How do we inspire each other to do better?’” he added.

The intel-swapping includes what’s worked (and what hasn’t) with respect to employee resource groups, interview techniques, levels of diversity needed when staffing teams and lists of diverse suppliers. Among agencies, most of whom define themselves by their cultures and talent differences, this kind of information normally would rise to the level of a state secret.

The partners stressed that nothing strictly proprietary or even in the incubation stage has been or will be revealed. At the same time, there appears to be an unusual degree of candor in the conversations that have taken place to date.

“That openness around building cultures of inclusivity has been refreshing and valuable, and made us all better more quickly at creating environments where people that come from diverse backgrounds are going to feel more welcome, more heard, more supported and more likely to remain,” said Patrick Wisnom, WPP’s global client lead for J&J.

All three were asked to adopt “micro-charters” that support the company’s DE&I strategic approach, said Manoj Raghunandanan, president of the global self care and consumer experience organization at the pharma giant’s consumer health unit. The drugmaker also rallied its global media partners – including monoliths like Google, Facebook and Amazon – to do the same. 

“Successfully changing the marketing industry requires partnership,” Raghunandanan explained. “Now, our procurement team is collaborating closely with our agency partners and meeting regularly to make near real-time adjustments.”

For his part, Klein is impressed by the camaraderie. “We have literally become a kind of macro holding company as it relates to achieving these initiatives,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for almost 40 years. I have never seen anything even close to this in terms of holding company collaboration.”

Clockwise, from top left: Stuart Klein, VP and healthcare practice lead, IPG; Patrick Wisnom, global client lead, J&J, WPP; Lisa Berotti, VP, commercial director, WPP; Peter Zagorin, global director, Omnicom; and MM+M’s Marc Iskowitz.

Considering the current state of DE&I in the industry, efforts to improve it will take nothing less than an unprecedented level of cooperation. The C-Suites at WPP, Omnicom, IPG, Publicis and Dentsu were between 82% and 85% white, according to a 2020 report from the Association of National Advertisers. The ANA also found that only 3% of 870 chief marketing officers were Black, 5% were Asian and 4% were Hispanic.

The J&J partnership grew out of the drugmaker’s earlier DE&I commitments. After the May 2020 death of George Floyd, the company, which had been working largely behind the scenes, wanted to take a more public stance. First came a $10 million, three-year commitment to fighting racism and injustice that CEO Alex Gorsky announced in a letter to employees in June.

Then came November’s DE&I initiative, entailing a five-year, $100 million pledge to fight health inequities for Black people and other communities of color in the U.S. One industry pundit characterized it as “the most comprehensive [D&I] commitment to date that has been announced within the pharmaceutical industry.” 

Beyond vowing to up Black representation in its upper echelons, the three-pronged plan included providing equitable care for underserved communities, initiatives to increase diversity in clinical trials and forge stronger partnerships with health systems, and pledges to support Black- and Hispanic-owned businesses. The drugmaker’s consumer unit also signed onto the ANA Alliance for Inclusive and Multicultural Marketing pledge, the signatories of which promised to hold themselves accountable to a number of practices aimed at elevating multicultural marketing. 

Clients want a workforce of writers, directors and photographers that mirrors the diversity of their customer base. “What [clients] get is better work, because we will have better teams as a result of having more diversity,” Wisnom said. The unified approach is also more efficient than asking individual agencies to share diversity plans.

Another goal involves increasing the pool of diverse candidates being interviewed, according to WPP VP and commercial director Lisa Berotti.

“How do we go to market for HBCUs [historically Black colleges and universities] that we haven’t been able to reach before? How do we reach Black sororities in those HBCUs? How do we partner externally with groups like the AEF [the ANA Educational Foundation] to connect with those campuses?,” she asked. “We’ve been able to bring subjects like that forward. And instead of each agency holding company recreating the wheel, we leverage past experience to propel each other forward.”

Just as importantly, the companies are sharing information to ensure that, as more people of color join the business, they feel comfortable, see paths for growth and future success, and connect with role models and mentors.

It didn’t take much convincing for the major agencies to move from warring factions (“we’ve been in rooms together before, and there’s always walls,” Wisnom said) to DE&I teammates. In fact, it took one phone call to each of the holding company leads, and that was that.

“There was no secret to it,” Wisnom recalled. “We basically invited everyone to a discussion: ‘So, this is what we’re trying to do.’” 

In addition to the speed with which bonds were formed, Klein said he was most inspired by the potential to “cross-pollinate” learnings that arose from the group sessions among other agencies and client teams. 

J&J Consumer Health’s William Gunn, chief procurement officer, said that the drugmaker is sharing its framework with other companies to reference as they look to establish similar programs that drive change. The drugmaker also encouraged the agency holding companies to share the framework with other clients as needed.

The agency team knows that its DE&I efforts ultimately will be measured by hard metrics – the workforce diversity data which, almost across the ad industry, is woefully low at present. But even if it fails to achieve its aggressive goals, the collaborative effort can still make a difference. 

“We’re at the beginning of the journey,” said Wisnom. “And I think right now, what we’re focused on is the intent and the commitment to making a difference.”