On March 14, 2019 in Philadelphia, MM+M convened its first-ever Plus One event. It was envisioned as an evening of candid conversation designed to inspire change and champion diversity in the realm of medical marketing — but it proved an anomaly in the best way.

The conversations were raw and difficult. Equally importantly, they weren’t led by the usual pharma- and agency-world suspects.

“There was such a strong group of Black and brown leaders, and I was happily surprised to see how many white people not just showed up but were willing to go into those in-depth conversations,” says Aurora Archer, founder and CEO of Bellatrix Group and one of the event’s featured speakers.

But did the discussions spark significant action? Nearly 18 months after Plus One, we spoke with a host of Black leaders and asked them to weigh in on the state of the medical marketing community’s diversity and inclusion union. Participants included Archer; Michelle Edwards, VP, human resources, Heartbeat; Tayla Mahmud, associate managing director, Havas Health Plus; and Funmi Olosunde, VP and director of project management, Razorfish Health.

At Plus One, opening speaker Bethanee Epifani Bryant asked, “How do you connect to a market you know nothing about?” Has the medical marketing community started to address this?

Archer: There’s a lot of work to do if we are truly interested in bending the arc of our humanity. We didn’t get into this overnight and we won’t get out of it overnight.

You’ve seen all these public and yet very superficial displays of solidarity with Black Lives Matter when there is very little that’s being imbued in most of those pharma organizations. I talk to the BIPOC people in those organizations and, for many of them, very little has changed. It’s not just about corporate communications putting out a statement. What are you doing? What does mutuality look like?

Olosunde: The solution is research from a place of humility. Listen and learn about markets that you’re not familiar with. Center and support the voices speaking up about the concerns in those markets and communities, and how those concerns affect their decision-making. I think the medical community overall is starting to address the blind spots it has when it comes to Black people and people of color and the medical marketing community is starting to follow suit.

Mahmud: It’s a vast industry and I hate to make any generalizations. But on the client/manufacturer side, the diversity numbers are expanding. When I interact with clients across Merck and Pfizer, I’m starting to see more diverse teams. They’re farther advanced than the agencies. What I haven’t seen is agencies outwardly acknowledge there’s an issue and actually do something about it from a pay equity, transparency or numbers perspective.

I’ve spent a lot of time watching Mad Men during quarantine and it still feels relevant right now. The agency side is still relationship- and familiarity-based. It hasn’t evolved as much as it should.

In a broad sense, is the community aware it has a diversity and inclusion problem?

Mahmud: A lot of the statements put out there are just to make sure you’re not the company that looks insensitive. They’re making sure to check the box and not look like the one that doesn’t care. But people aren’t looking for sentiments or “thoughts and prayers”; they’re looking for action.

I’d add to that that support looks different for everyone. There isn’t one answer as to how you can support a community or what part you can play. I admire the companies that now have an action-oriented approach to measurables — “here are the three things we’re going to do” — and then are transparent about the results.

Olosunde: The community is aware it has a problem, and is starting to scratch the surface. There’s still a lot of work to be done, and it’s multifaceted. 

Archer: Awareness is the first step and I’m happy there’s an awareness. But where do you go from pre-contemplation, when you were somewhat oblivious? It’s not enough to be simply anti-racist; you have to be actively anti-racist. It’s about how you’re putting change into action.

There are pockets of effort, but leadership roles are held by white people and most brand teams are predominantly white. They bear little resemblance to the consumers they’re marketing to. Companies only succeed and create amazing products and services based on the diversity and openness represented in the teams that do the work.

Have larger societal trends and support for Black Lives Matter pushed the community to embrace diversity and inclusion?

Edwards: The awareness and need for a focus here has absolutely heightened. As society has been pushed broadly (I mean, white moms are in the streets!), so too have business leaders. D&I has been in the water for several years now, but how much focused action was taken is questionable; the events of 2020 have created urgency. What’s required now is for the pressure to remain high to ensure people truly ACT and it doesn’t simply fade as headlines become less prominent.

What’s important to keep in mind here is the importance of self-reflection. It’s one thing to recognize you have a lack of diversity in your staff, it’s another to understand why. Peoples’ natural inclination is to gravitate toward people who look similar to them and have shared life experiences that create connection. This ultimately reinforces hiring the same type of people over and over again and gets us to where we are today.

Mahmud: Health is so personal – it’s far more personal than sneakers or any CPG brand. It hits at the core of a lot of the challenges we’re dealing with now, like racial disparities and access disparities.

Archer: No. What I’ve seen is pharma executives do the easy thing, which is a press release. In the last 18 weeks, I have not borne witness to a shift occurring in these organizations.

Olosunde: Yes. As with every other industry, companies can no longer afford not to have a position on diversity and inclusion in general. The death of George Floyd and the advocacy of Black Lives Matter has brought to the forefront conversations that companies should have been having years ago, conversations that their Black employees and employees of color have been having for years.

We’re seeing statements and action plans coming from both the agency and client sides, and people will be wanting to see what will actually happen once the fervor/urgency/national attention dies down. The deep work that these companies will do when no one is watching is what will determine their credibility when it comes to D&I.

What are some of the steps you’d like to see the community take in order to increase diversity and inclusion?

Mahmud: It’s hard to generalize whether the industry has widespread support for Black Lives Matter. I don’t think that’s beside the point; it’s about measurable action. Representation from top to bottom. Diverse decision-makers. Pay equity. Active programs to address health disparities and access to quality healthcare. These issues don’t seem to rise to the top when it comes to strategic business imperatives.

Archer: The ownership of this transformation is not on BIPOC people. It’s on white people. We need to unlock the human potential of every single being in every organization. People need to be seen and valued as a critical aspect of a company’s success.

Edwards: How much time you got? You can’t simply plop diverse talent into an organization and say you’ve achieved a D&I goal. With increased diversity comes increased responsibility for building an inclusive culture. Some practical steps organizations can take include: Make a commitment: Release a formal commitment of how your community’s racial diversity will shift over time. Recruit radically: Leverage Black talent platforms when sourcing candidates and hire trainable people with unique backgrounds and high potential rather than returning to the same well again and again. Build community: Create safe spaces for all employees to share/listen to individual experiences, fears and hopes to surface the harsh realities faced and the humanity in all of us.

Olosunde: Part of the event last year was a roundtable discussion, during which I mentioned that “people will hire and promote people like them, because it’s easy to coach someone like them. It’s not easy to coach somebody whom you have to stretch yourself to understand.” Those decisions often have racial underpinnings/implications, which is one of many reasons the industry — and most industries for that matter — is not as diverse as it could be, especially at the leadership level.

It will be important to tackle the D&I deficiencies in multiple ways. Here are a few: 

Evaluate where/how you recruit your general employees, and whether that pool is diverse or limiting the type of candidates you could get. Develop intentional pipeline programs for recruiting Black people and people of color. Develop intentional, recurring and required bias/anti-racist and cultural competency training for current employees and all new hires. This is by no means an exhaustive list.

Are you hopeful that the business is heading in the right direction?

Archer: I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have hope. I don’t think there’s a BIPOC person out there that doesn’t have hope. We have been dealing with this legacy for 400 years.

Edwards: Definitely hopeful. But there is a lot of work ahead.

Olosunde: I am cautiously optimistic.

Mahmud: I am cautiously optimistic. I see this as a moment where we have to connect from a human perspective first. The “cautious” part is that I don’t want this to be a moment in time where people get quarantine fatigue or solidarity fatigue and go back to their normal habits. I already see everyone’s news feeds being easily swayed — what’s the new shiny object? This can’t be a shiny object for those who have been impacted their entire lives.

I don’t want to hear a message. I want to see a plan.