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When Budgets Are Cut, How Can We Save DE&I From the Chop?


Diversity, equity and inclusion experts discuss why investing in DE&I is still a must when purse strings tighten, writes LBB’s Ben Conway

When Budgets Are Cut, How Can We Save DE&I From the Chop?

Recession, hyperinflation, cost of living crisis, unprecedented times - all phrases that we’ve heard ad nauseam for the last few years, and seemingly will do for the foreseeable future. Harsh economic conditions affect all walks of life and all industries across the globe, and with global growth predicted to slow to 2.7% in 2023, it appears that the international financial outlook is only getting worse. In fact, in October last year, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) declared that “this is the weakest growth profile since 2001, except for the global financial crisis and the acute phase of the covid-19 pandemic.”

Also in recent years, however, one thing has seen a rise in attention. This is the industry’s focus and efforts in improving its practices and messaging regarding these three letters: DE&I. This initialism will likely be familiar to you, but for the uninitiated, it stands for diversity, equity and inclusion. Additionally, an extra letter is sometimes added at the end: ‘B’, for ‘belonging’ - hear more about that from FCB’s Vita Harris later.

Advertising has long been criticised as a fairly monochromatic, uniform industry - especially at a C-suite level. A lack of open career pathways, diverse hiring practices and inclusive working environments have resulted in an imbalance of people from varied racial and cultural backgrounds, sexual orientations, genders and other aspects of identity throughout all levels of the industry, compared to the general population. But recently, there has been some improvement and a more widespread, concerted effort to change this. 

We’ve seen organisations like the Advertising Association, the 4A’s, the Diversity Standards Collective and the Social Mobility Foundation set guidelines and create toolkits for businesses in the industry to improve their DE&I work. And we’ve also seen creative agencies and networks appointing their own DE&I officers and leadership teams to help lead new schemes and drive more inclusive behaviour from within. But is this under threat, now that agencies and the industry at large have ever-diminishing budgets to spend?

This is the question that LBB’s Ben Conway recently posed to some of adland’s leading voices on the topic of DE&I. Sharing their thoughts on how 2023’s concerning economic predictions will affect the progress already made in this vital sector, and the progress they’d like to see in the future, the experts discuss the importance of protecting DE&I efforts during tough economic times, and how investing in diverse talent and work is an investment in the continued success of a company. 

Taz Latif
Global head of DE&I, M&C Saatchi Group

Let’s not be coy about it, DE&I often ends up at the bottom of the priority list, overtaken by projects that generate revenue faster. Both the business case and ethical case for continuing DE&I work are strong, but to continue to drive change amid an uncertain financial climate, there are a few things agencies can do to double down.


Consider tying DE&I/ES&G (environmental, social, and corporate governance) goals into leadership remuneration/reward to drive accountability. We have this in place at M&C Saatchi for exec remuneration and will continue to test and evolve it. You can read about it in our 2022 Sustainability Report.


Leverage existing passions for DE&I. Employee-led networks can foster a community for employees and support them in feeling seen and heard. If you don’t already have established ones, creating them during uncertain times can provide a space for open dialogue where you can turn employee concerns into action and retain your talent. Here’s an example of what they can produce when equipped and supported by an agency.


We all know DE&I work has a positive impact on your bottom line, but so much progress is difficult to quantify into numbers. Find a way to centralise qualitative data, e.g. testimonials from colleagues about their experience at an LGBTQIA+ panel, feedback from training sessions, the increase in confidence your team feels in talking about identity, how this translates into their work and how this positions the organisation financially.

For businesses who believe cutting the DE&I budget is a fast way to reclaim cash - your bottom line will tell a very different story, very soon.

Tahlisha Williams
Executive vice president of talent, equity and learning solutions, 4A’s

The DE&I journey will call for our industry to remain intentional about the pursuit of progress during unprecedented times. Agencies must remain vigilant with taking an inside-out approach to strengthening their DE&I commitments and investments while keeping them a priority. These moments of change often yield great opportunities for advancement, and the 4A’s wants to help agencies stay on the path to progress.


4A’s Help and Tips 

- Prioritise talent as an ‘equity investment’. Hire and promote diverse talent, train for upskilling, and leverage transferable skills.

- Shift and grow forward by unifying around continuous learning. The 4A’s Workplace Enlightenment Certification Program is purposefully designed to support agencies with shifting mindsets and behaviours towards supporting equity and inclusion.

- Are you seeing evidence of progress aligned with your DE&I commitments? The 2022 4A’s Equity and Inclusion Congress recently captured insights to consider as you evolve and advance your DE&I goals and strategy.



Maria McDowell
Founder, lollipop mentoring

Agencies should prioritise DE&I initiatives in order to create a more equitable and inclusive industry, and to benefit financially from more innovative and high-performing teams. However, there is a risk that these initiatives may be slowed down or become a tick-box exercise without a clear focus, particularly given that racism still persists. To prevent this and protect marginalised groups during budget cuts, agencies should fund and support DE&I initiatives focused on diverse hires and retention, implement policies that directly support diverse talent, and cultivate an inclusive culture. 

It is also essential for organisations to monitor diversity within their workforce and consider the potential consequences of layoffs or hiring freezes on diverse employees. By asking themselves questions about the potential impact of budget cuts on diversity and taking active measures to prevent DE&I efforts from being undermined, organisations can effectively maintain their commitment to diversity and inclusion. It is crucial to address biases and racism objectively and to put checks and balances in place to do so. 

To further support marginalised groups and ensure that they are not put in a vulnerable position during times of economic uncertainty, agencies can make sure that their DE&I initiatives are well-funded and supported at all levels of the organisation, adopt policies and practices that help to retain and advance diverse talent, and create a culture of inclusivity that values and respects all employees. By continuing to prioritise DE&I initiatives, agencies can create a more equitable and inclusive industry and position themselves for long-term success.



Vita Harris
Global chief strategy officer, FCB

DEI&B (diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging) is not a line item on the budget, it’s a business imperative and a growth strategy. It is an undisputed fact that growth, especially in our industry, is dependent on diversity. At FCB we believe that diversity fuels great creativity and is therefore critical to creating work that is an economic multiplier for our clients and for us. The recession is not an excuse to cut back on DEI&B, but to double down on it. Cutting back would be contributing to economic decline.

I’ll leave you with one very important thought about the concept of marginalisation. It’s very simple: you are either committed to eradicating marginalisation and thereby ensuring your company’s economic success, or you are perpetuating marginalisation by treating DEIB as merely a budget line item – a decision that will negatively impact your business, and one you will come to regret.



Nikki Lamba
Global chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer, DDB

While 2023 brings predictions of economic uncertainty, there are some things that remain constant in any kind of market environment. Diverse workforces and leadership teams are positively correlated with financial performance, as evidenced by countless studies by leading institutions. The business case and the fairness case for DE&I have been well established, as have the changing demographics and values of consumers.

The past few years have been a turning point for the industry in terms of redefining its values and being intentional about bringing in underrepresented talent through its doors. At DDB, we’ve done this through our ‘no duplicates’ philosophy which is focused on bringing in talent with unique attributes and lived experiences. That talent needs to be nurtured over a period and stands to gain by learning how to navigate complex business problems in the face of all market conditions. Sometimes bigger challenges mean bigger opportunities.

Even in the face of slower hiring in 2023, DE&I efforts can be advanced by doubling down on employee engagement which is driven by things like purpose, personal development, ongoing communication and empathetic managers. As the saying goes, sometimes opportunity is hiding in plain sight.



Rich Miles
CEO and co-founder, Diversity Standards Collective

As the recession starts to bite us all where it hurts, it’s really easy for agencies to panic. But when we panic, we can’t, and don’t, think properly. Instead, we flee back to what makes us feel comfortable, and in a professional environment this often means old ways of thinking and old ways of working. At the time, this feels comforting and safe, but when it comes to diversity, this can end up the exact opposite and be very detrimental to business.

Agencies should try not to lose sight of the importance diversity brings to their company. The importance at this time is that diverse teams will put you at the forefront of fresh and new ways of thinking and diverse teams will make you money! So keep on top of the hard work you‘ve already put in, be proactive, don’t panic and continue to focus on diverse productivity that will help us through this recession.



Juana L. Isaza
President, DDB Mexico and VP strategy and innovation, DDB Latina

First things first, it is important that diversity is not looked at as a trend. Diversity is a result of a reconfiguration of priorities in society. In the marketing business, we tend to be short-sighted; agencies must understand that keeping the DE&I goals during a recession has a lot to do with the survival of the business. Recessions can last a year but the diverse talent we cultivate can stay with us for many more. And do not forget that diversity is a precondition for creativity and innovation. An economic crisis is always the right time to innovate. Now is the time to offer new products or services to clients and consumers. Keeping a diverse talent pool is a guarantee that you will have the engine for that innovation. 



Sharon Lloyd Barnes
Commercial director and inclusion lead, Advertising Association

Talent and inclusion are still very much [at the] top of the leadership agenda. It was voted one of the top three themes to champion next year at the recent Mediatel Leaders Debate. The ‘All In Census’, held in March 2021, was the UK advertising industry’s first industry-wide survey, created by the Advertising Association, IPA, ISBA and Kantar. With over 16,000 responses, it provided us with invaluable data to shape the ‘All In Action Plan’, with a growing list of companies who can evidence the implementation of the actions - becoming ‘All In’ champions.

 On March 15, we will be asking everyone with a role in UK advertising and marketing toonce again take 15 minutes to complete the All In Census, a confidential survey which asks us all how we identify and feel about where we work. DE&I initiatives and the focus on people can’t take a back seat during an economic crisis – it’s more important than ever to attract and retain talent in our industry and we all have a part to play in building a workplace where everyone feels they belong.



Sarah Atkinson
CEO, Social Mobility Foundation

There is a lack of class diversity in advertising - only 23% of the advertising and marketing workforce come from a working-class background, compared with 39% of the wider UK workforce. Understanding the public attitudes is core to the job, but the industry doesn’t reflect the public.

A major issue is that the culture in advertising often rewards ‘polish’ over ‘potential’; valuing particular accents and ways of speaking, social confidence and connections more than ability. There are structural issues in the way the industry operates that make the problem worse, like an overreliance on freelancers and unpaid internships, and a concentration of opportunities in London.

In 2022, only one advertising agency entered our Social Mobility Employer Index, which supports and guides employers seeking to ensure they’re attracting and retaining talent from all backgrounds. As the cost-of-living crisis continues to bite, employers need to invest in talent today or they won’t have the skills for tomorrow. We’d urge the sector to start by entering our Index in 2023.

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LBB Editorial, Tue, 17 Jan 2023 18:32:00 GMT