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DE&I: Accelerating Change with Tope Ajala


Ogilvy's global head of DE&I on in-person connectivity, balancing an environment where culture is fostered organically and creating policies to push for change

DE&I: Accelerating Change with Tope Ajala

Tope joined Ogilvy as global director of DE&I in June 2021. Tope joined Ogilvy from WPP where she was responsible for driving inclusion strategy, partnerships, narrative, and insights. In this role, she developed programmes that accelerated the progress and integration of diversity and inclusion across the organisation which improved employee experience while driving business results. Many of the programmes she helped create including WPPs first-ever Belonging Training, Safe Room Conversations, and Leadership Program for underrepresented groups have been implemented at Ogilvy. 

While at WPP Tope also served in a variety of project management and operations marketing roles supporting clients like T-Mobile, Google, and WPP’s new business efforts. Prior to WPP, Tope spent the early years of her career at an investment bank developing people analytics capabilities across the business.

Born in Nigeria and raised in the UK, Tope is an award-winning DE&I advocate who has lived and worked in London, Germany, Singapore, Japan, and San Francisco - experience which has deepened her appreciation and championing for multiculturalism and inclusion. In 2018 she co founded Levelset—a global nonprofit connecting high potential individuals in Tech & STEM from underserved communities with mentors from similar fields with the aim to advance and empower the Black community with resources.  

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

Tope> Two things drew me to this space. First, it was the frustration that I felt when I realised I was naïve in assuming that everyone cared or was invested in building a more equitable and inclusive world. And the other was knowing my ability to make things happen and drive outcomes was my superpower. It didn’t matter what I was doing or what team I sat in – creating long last change was within my capabilities.

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

Tope> I began my career in operations and project management – implementing programmes and systems around the world. I realised that the problems I thought were unique to me were in fact a problem everyone faced, in some capacity. Some groups facing them ten times more. I was always methodical in nature and wanted to know how businesses operated, but the closer I got to the workings of some organisations, I realised DEI was never at the centre of these conversations. How do you build a space where people feel like they belong without having said people at the centre? So in true fashion, I spoke up about some of the changes I wanted to see and how I would partner with various businesses to do it, and that’s how I got involved. 

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?

Tope> I think what’s getting in the way is comfort. Our natural instinct is to operate from a place of comfort instead of growing through discomfort. One way this manifests in corporate DE&I is a default to training as a means of improvement, when a better way to actually improve as a company is through programmes, opportunities and sponsorships. While also implementing KPIs for all the executive leadership team.

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?

Tope> Tech has seen some of the biggest progress, and that is largely due to a lot of tech companies skewing younger than advertising agencies. When an industry is still learning and growing into its own, we see more openness to invest in diverse partnerships and programmes because these entities more clearly remember how it feels to be the only one in a given space. The tech industry also has larger budgets to run programmes, partner with small businesses and isn’t as heavily focused on measuring whether every dollar spent has been perfectly optimised or not. With tighter budgets, the advertising industry relies a bit more on metrics which, while valuable in many ways, can also create additional barriers for potential employees and partnerships/vendors.

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? (And if your role covers more than one market/territory, how do you and your team navigate the local nuances while having a cohesive and consistent set of values?)

Tope> My role is global in nature, so I have to navigate the nuances that exist in several markets and regions. The truth is, I rely heavily on my regional partners to navigate those differences and to help us get a fairer view of what DE&I on a global scale means. The biggest focus for me this year is equality & equity, and that can be translated across the world. How are we embracing equity, challenging it and building a fairer world? It’s an uncomfortable area and space that we often gloss over. I am lucky enough to have lived in different parts of the world and speak multiple languages and everywhere I have lived, equality and equity are still prominent challenges we need to address. Have we made strides? Yes, but we can and must do more. 

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

Tope> One thing I’m focused on is creating a centralised system for all employees to gain information, resources and understand what is happening across the business. 

Building world-class programmes that tackle the challenges faced by various minority groups. I am currently in the process of building a leadership programme for Black men in the US. Our industry isn’t filled with Black men because we haven’t fostered an environment where they can thrive when they do arrive. So filling that space will be game-changing for the existing men in our business, and also for those outside of the industry who are interested in joining us. 

Another programme I’m proud we have launched is in Latin America, where we are educating some of the most disadvantaged in society and building a pathway for them to join our intern programme - breaking down the barrier to entry and creating meaningful opportunities. 

There are policies we continue to aim to change both internally and within our respective local offices and countries, and we have seen our regional teams partner closer with the government to push for these changes.

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

Tope> Since 2020, we have seen a surge in RFPs where clients are holding more accountable to building a more representative team - and rightfully so. Diverse thinking impacts the diversity of your work, and ultimately progress is only achieved by bringing various groups to the table. The uptick of clients requesting to see data around the makeup of those working on their campaigns is refreshing. It forces organisations to be more intentional and increases the likelihood of building an inclusive group. Whether it’s campaigns or adverts or prints, these are all seen by various groups of people, and you need to be able to relate to the target audience. 

It’s been both surprising and refreshing to see clients building better partnerships with their agencies through joint programming/offering support and ensuring DEI is at the centre of whatever they put out into the world. 

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?

Tope> The key is assigning every leader with KPIs regarding DEI that are strictly tied to their overall compensation or performance. If we start assigning everyone with DEI goals (which we have started to do), we start centering it in how we operationalise as an organisation.

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

Tope> Accessibility is part of DEI – when we break down inclusion, it’s as granular as our policies. We know that to be truly inclusive you must provide equal access to opportunities and resources for people who might otherwise be excluded. If we take it further, a lot of organisations are far from a truly inclusive and accessible space. Are your buildings wheelchair accessible? Are you tailoring your approach with your team based on different individual needs? At bare minimum, do you have gender neutral bathrooms or nursing rooms for mothers?

A lot of organisations are starting to embed accessibility into the way they operate, really considering the needs of employees. But it takes everyone speaking up about their needs for the organisation to make changes. We may have blind spots we are unaware of, and bringing that to light could be the difference for the next employee. 

LBB> Covid-19 changed things up across the industry. On the one hand it opened remote working opening up opportunities to those who can’t afford city living, but on the other hand it’s had a notably 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?

Tope> What I have observed is that it has created a level of flexibility we may never see again that has been beneficial to marginalised groups. It has forced businesses to think about the way the other lives, to create adjustments, and offer more empathy to different groups. Hiring has somewhat become borderless as talent can sit anywhere. We were operating in a fight or flight mode for most of the pandemic, unaware of what was next and how to connect with our local employees, and now that seems to be less of an issue – we are being more inclusive to the needs of those often left behind for various reasons, be it childcare, impairments or other.

The downside, however, is balancing an environment where culture is fostered organically and the in-person connectivity is often lost if people are 100% remote. Every time I go into the office, there’s a level of energy I get from working with those around me, those side bar chats where you check in on people. You can’t recreate that virtually, especially for our entry level and mid level talent who need collaboration to thrive.

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

Tope> A few of my favourite partners include Coqual. For those who enjoy DEI data as much as I do, Coqual do comprehensive studies on various groups around the world and share findings. It’s easy to be siloed in your regional or global role but Coqual provides vital research and makes it easier to summarise findings.

I also stay very close to conferences and events like Can Cannes Diversity collective – an organisation that sends minorities to Cannes but also offers training programmes for various groups in this space.

But as an avid reader and podcaster I tend to enjoy reading about changes happening in the industry through Harvard Business Review, and by just listening to others in my space. 

Quarterly, I meet up with leaders in the DEI space to discuss trends we are seeing and how we are addressing them in our respective organisations. At the end of the day, your community is your most effective resource.

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

Tope> Rome wasn’t built in one day; you must start with little changes for bigger changes to be seen or felt. 

Frustration without action is empty and will lead to avoidance. Speaking up is powerful, but also mapping out how you intend to make changes is more powerful. Lastly, it’s crucial to build a group of like minded folks around you both externally and internally.

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Ogilvy North America, Wed, 15 Mar 2023 11:14:00 GMT