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DE&I: Accelerating Change with Matt Foster


Ogilvy UK’s director of DE&I speaks about his experience working in HIV health advocacy, the grassroots activism he’s been part of for many years and why amassing cultural experiences can build empathy

DE&I: Accelerating Change with Matt Foster

Matt Foster is Ogilvy UK’s first-ever dedicated director of diversity, equity and inclusion. He joined in November 2022 from sister WPP agency BCW, where he served as the head of inclusion and a senior director in the health team in a hybrid role for four years. 

Matt is also a DE&I thought leader, frequent public speaker, LGBTQ+ campaigner and multicultural specialist who has spent the last 19 years as a communications expert working in the marketing industry, where he spent over a decade working in HIV health advocacy. 

As a British Diversity Award-winning and founding member of WPP’s LGBTQ+ network UNITE, he has frontline experience of launching successful employee networks that drive organisational change. Known as ‘an activist in adland’, Matt currently sits on the Brixton Finishing School Board, the European Association of Communications Agencies’ (EACA) DEI Task Force and the Brand and Marketing judging panel of the British LGBT Awards. As a proud, queer, multi-racial British Filipino, Matt is a patron of Pinxy Creatives UK, an organisation that supports British Filipinos in the media, arts and creative industries. 

LBB’s Alex Reeves spoke to Matt about how his lived experience shapes his outlook, where representation should sit as part of a DE&I strategy and why chances to show allyship present themselves every single day.

LBB> What drew you to the field of DE&I? 

Matt> There was a confluence of multiple factors that drew me to DE&I. These span (to name a few) my diverse cultural background, my lived experience as a queer and multiracial person, my keen interest in social anthropology and core values that uphold equity and social justice. At the same time I have good commercial acumen and a track record of delivering for fast-paced client-centred creative businesses, so a DE&I role at Ogilvy enables me to put all of this to good use. 

LBB> Before it became your job role, what was your specialism? And how did you get involved?

Matt> My previous specialism was healthcare communications, with a focus on virology, specifically HIV and hepatitis. Working in those areas for many years exposed me to challenging environments where health inequalities impact disproportionately on often stigmatised communities, so even in my previous role a DE&I lens was central to my work. 

In terms of how I got more involved in DE&I within agencies, I have been working in the advertising and marketing industry for 19 years and for most of that time it was in a client-servicing role. However eight years ago I began supporting internal DE&I initiatives as they aligned more fully with my purpose and values. It started at a grassroots level by organising employee networks and setting up an inclusion committee, but it grew to be an operational role that was given a formal title, mandate and KPIs until I was leading a central part of the people and business transformation strategy for the company. 

LBB> There’s a lot of frustration around the industry’s glacial pace when it comes to improving DE&I across all sorts of axes. What’s getting in the way?

Matt> The fundamental challenges that the industry faces are those that wider society faces and they are deep and entrenched. They cover structural racism, institutionalised sexism and homophobia to name just a few examples. None of these have overnight fixes. Though it is not our role as a company to engage on the political side of these issues, it is our responsibility to create more inclusive and equitable conditions for our colleagues through delivering DE&I programmes that will make a real impact, but that impact takes time because of how deeply entrenched the source of these challenges are. It is not impossible though if the focus is right. 

Sure, we could go on a massive hiring spree and focus purely on representation, but representation should be an outcome of the DE&I work we need to do and I’d advise against leading with it. Otherwise no real changes will actually have been made and the underrepresented talent that have been quickly hired into an organisation for optics would leave as the conditions have not been built for them to grow and thrive. 

It’s all about understanding equity and building it. Equity is the means, equality (and we are not yet there) is the outcome. 

LBB> Outside of the advertising industry, where do you see examples of large-scale meaningful progress (if at all), and what should our industry learn from it?

Matt> Perhaps because my background is in healthcare and HIV, that is where I see significant awareness and action around health inequalities and how the sector is trying to address barriers that can get in the way of diagnoses and treatment for those who need it most. There has been a massive rethink in terms of recruiting more diversely for clinical trials. The sector has also learned to gather valuable insights from community-based programmes so they can better understand healthcare barriers within specific cultural settings and overcome them. It helps that HIV has always had strong activists pushing for change, especially among the LGBTQ+ community. All of this is having a real-world impact on driving down rates of HIV infection and better management of the condition. 

We can learn a lot from the healthcare sector and how it is pushing for health equality. At Ogilvy, with our WPP partners, we are currently exploring the barriers to consumer equality. At the end of last year we launched the Consumer Equality Equation, based on studies in which over 8,000 people were polled. Among several findings, 82% of respondents said that brands play an important role in shaping Britain’s culture. The modelling also showed that UK minority ethnic communities represent over £3 trillion in cumulative disposable income from 2021 to 2031, which is a massive opportunity for brands. This for me demonstrates how consumer equality is not only the right thing to strive towards, but it is also good for our industry and for business too. 

LBB> The dimensions of DE&I can differ somewhat according to geographic/cultural context - I’m curious, where you’re based, what are the big issues or most urgent elements of DE&I that you need to address? 

Matt> The DE&I strategy that I am accountable for developing and implementing with support from all areas of the business is not only specific to the geography and cultural context we work in at Ogilvy UK but also the very specific needs of the business and the vision of our UK CEO Fiona Gordon, of which DE&I plays a critical role. Our DE&I priorities reflect the specific make up of our organisation, the goals we are trying to achieve to transform our business in key areas and the ambition we have to be an inclusive leader and to do this with excellence. 

To the question about navigating local nuances while having a cohesive and consistent set of values, well, that is the principle that lies at the heart of DE&I, which celebrates that people will come with different experiences and perspectives. This is something to be embraced as an opportunity that ultimately supports our mission to deliver borderless creativity. In a nutshell, we don’t look for culture fit, we look for culture add. 

LBB> In your role, what have been some of the most meaningful projects or policies you’ve been involved in regarding DE&I?

Matt> I am still new in this role, so time will tell, but what I can say is that the most rewarding projects have our people at the heart of them, so working closely with our employee network groups and helping them develop is very meaningful. At Ogilvy UK, we currently have five that focus on a range of identities including cultural background, LGBTQ+, neurodiversity, parents and carers and gender equality. 

This year the business wants to further empower these groups, ensure members are consistently rewarded and recognised for their work and have the support, time and resources to grow their communities in the direction their membership wants. I am leading on a project that will hopefully unblock the current challenges and unlock the networks’ full potential. 

LBB> What role are clients playing in holding agencies accountable and driving better DE&I? Is this something you are seeing or would like to see more of?

Matt> Clients in our industry and specifically the clients we are choosing to go after at Ogilvy UK are all asking us to share our DE&I information and understand what strategies we have in place from an inclusion perspective both on a people and work perspective. Not a week goes by when I am not supporting with an (existing or potential) client RFI [request for information] or filling in an industry body survey that is asking for our DE&I data. 

Clients are posing many far-ranging questions, from wanting to understand the gender or ethnic makeup of specific account teams to what suppliers we work with and whether they are minority-owned businesses. It’s become part of how we are assessed by clients and their procurement teams, which is how it should be. It is now a business imperative. 

At Ogilvy we are even taking it a step further and finding ways we can partner with clients on delivering equity programmes for our underrepresented talent. This is where DE&I and innovation come together for outcomes of mutual client-agency benefit. 

LBB> We often see DE&I siloed or pigeonholed as an HR issue - what’s the key to ensure that it’s embraced as an agency-wide or industry-wide responsibility?

Matt> Personally, I don’t have an HR background and though I report to our chief people officer, Elaine Grell, I was hired with the mandate to deliver an integrated strategy that spans all areas of the business, so I work in a complex matrix. Ogilvy gets this 100% as the ultimate goal is true DE&I integration. Yes, it is an important part of it but it is also about the work we do, how it supports our creativity, how we show up for clients and the potential impact we can make on the world around us. 

There is a significant opportunity in marketing and advertising not only to push a people change agenda, but to achieve business transformation and to be industry leading in a way that actually makes a difference not just within our organisation but outside of it. Key to this is leadership recognising that DE&I needs to be operationalised at every level of the business, from all points along the employee journey to how we do research and the creative we put out there and everything in between. 

LBB> What are your thoughts about where accessibility fits in the DE&I agenda?

Matt> I think what we’ve seen over the last decade in our industry is a growing awareness of many aspects of diversity across a range of dimensions and accessibility is one of the many important ones that needs a focus. 

In terms of where it fits in the DE&I agenda, I can only speak for our perspective at Ogilvy and it is high on our priority list. We are still early in our accessibility journey but we have a working group dedicated to accessibility and are working with an external consultant appointed by the government to support us not only with ensuring we reach certain standards, but that we also provide innovations that are going to help those living with accessibility issues in new and helpful ways. 

A positive outcome of that would be for us to sustain equitable conditions that would make Ogilvy UK an employer of choice for those living with disabilities as there’s lots of great talent we’re not yet tapping into from people who have so much to offer. 

LBB> Covid-19 changed things up across the industry. On the one hand it opened up remote working, opening up opportunities to those who can’t afford city living, but on the other hand it’s had an especially negative impact on other groups, notably mothers. Now that some time has passed since the extremes of lockdowns in most territories, what’s your assessment of the positives and negatives to come out of that time of disruption?

Matt> That’s a very big question and one that probably deserves a long and well-researched white paper! I think we have to be careful when we talk about positives coming out of what continues to be a hugely tragic experience for many and one that has crippled healthcare systems and economies as well as caused personal loss and poor mental health for many.

What I think we can say is that covid-19 brought into high relief unequitable conditions that have always existed but were often ignored, be they around health or social issues including the role of women in the home or socio-economic conditions that key workers face – all of which are further complicated when seen at the intersection of their race and ethnicity. So much to say that if covid-19 has taught us anything, it’s that the need to create more equity in an unfair system is critical and the journey towards true equality is further than we thought it was. 

This should only encourage DE&I investment from businesses but unfortunately this varies widely per industry. I am however pleased to see the latest IPA Census results for 2022 show that our industry is showing encouraging indications of moving in the right direction, especially when it comes to representation, and Ogilvy UK continues to increase its investment in DE&I, even at a time of economic uncertainty (in fact, this is when it is needed most!). But there is still a long way to go and as I mentioned previously, real transformation takes time. 

LBB> What resources/platforms/programmes have you found useful on your DE&I journey and would recommend to our readers?

Matt> My most useful resource I have to say has not been a single platform or programme. I am bombarded every day with emails and messages from potential external suppliers spanning DE&I resources that cover learning and development to helping employee networks work better together. None of them have a special secret sauce – though they may help with efficiencies – and ultimately many essentially do the same things. 

So, I’m going out on a limb here and saying that the most useful resource I have found on my DE&I journey is my own curiosity. I ask multiple questions, read lots of books, articles and content, watch lots of films, go to galleries and museums and have a passion and hunger to amass more experiences that help inform my cultural viewpoint that don’t originate in my own culture. 

Curiosity is the gateway to growth and without it my DE&I journey would not have gotten out the gate. For a recommendation of one of the many books in my collection, I love ‘We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation’ by Jeff Chang. Though the essays are set within a US-centric context, Chang’s own experience as an Asian American was something I could identify closely with as a British Filipino.  

LBB> The scale of the change needed is so massive that individuals can often feel powerless without the levers to move huge structures. What's a more personal act of positivity that you've seen recently that others could look to as inspiration for change on a the human scale

Matt> For me the clear answer is every-day acts of allyship, like seeing Alex Scott wear the One Love armband while reporting from the World Cup in Qatar. I am sure there is not one reader of this interview who can say that a day has not gone by in which an opportunity did not present itself to demonstrate allyship, whether at work or in one’s personal life, particularly for those who hold more power and privilege in specific contexts and who are more able to take the risks involved with intervening, calling something out or enabling someone to express their true selves. 

A great example from an Ogilvy perspective is the work we are doing in partnership with the Mayor of London’s office on the Have a Word campaign, in which we are showing men how they can intervene to prevent the escalation of male violence against women and girls. Small and early interventions all add up to achieving something bigger. 

As Martin Luther King, Jr, once said: “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” That’s the inspiration humanity needs for change. 

LBB> If you’d like our readers to take one thing away from this interview what would it be?

Matt> That DE&I is for everyone, not just those from underrepresented communities, and that those who do live with more privilege and power are actually key to creating equity and driving real transformation. To the white, male, able-bodied heterosexual leader I say “you are critical to this journey and we cannot reach our ambitions for true workplace equality without you”. 

It’s then up to folks like me to provide the support and resources to make that happen and bring everyone on the journey together. And what a privileged position that is in its own right, don’t you think?

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Ogilvy UK, Fri, 10 Mar 2023 16:19:11 GMT