Episode 324:

Diversity and inclusion have never been more front and center and the workplace is being called upon to better reflect the world around us, especially by our younger employees and potential employees. Agencies are trying to do their part, but many are feeling lost because they simply don’t know what they don’t know. If we want to continue to attract young talent, we have to crack this code.

Over a year ago, brand consultant and marketing specialist Michael Barber published a post about spending time in a high school class talking about careers in our industry and diversity in the workplace. I’ve known Michael for years and knew that conversation was one I’d have loved to eavesdrop on if I could. I decided to bring him on the show so we could all listen in!

In this episode of Build a Better Agency, Michael and I have a wide-ranging conversation about what he learned from his discussion with these students. We talk about what they are looking for in potential employers, what Michael believes is a missing piece in modern education, and the tactics for building and creating a more diverse and welcoming environment. It’s hard work but important work and I hope you find the discussion as inspiring as I did.

A big thank you to our podcast’s presenting sponsor, White Label IQ. They’re an amazing resource for agencies who want to outsource their design, dev, or PPC work at wholesale prices. Check out their special offer (10 free hours!) for podcast listeners here.

The Young Adult Perspective

What You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • What young people are looking for in a workplace
  • The missing piece in modern education
  • The vast choices available to professional young people
  • Young people’s thoughts on the responsibilities of diversity and inclusion
  • The changes coming to our audiences
  • Tactics for creating a workplace that attracts diversity
“A challenge for students today is that they want to go work someplace where they see themselves and don’t feel like an ‘other.’” @michaeljbarber Click To Tweet “The single biggest thing that I think school is missing is ‘how do I apply what I’m learning here to what I’m going to be doing there in the outside world.’” @michaeljbarber Click To Tweet “We’re going to have to consciously make choices as business owners to get out into the educational arena and help professors guide them on what we need from a skillset perspective.” @michaeljbarber Click To Tweet “We have abilities as business owners and agency leaders to make decisions that make our teams more diverse.” @michaeljbarber Click To Tweet “It requires informed perspective to understand the cultural nuances of a society that is changing.” @michaeljbarber Click To Tweet “We have to create opportunities for people that don’t look like us.” @michaeljbarber Click To Tweet “We have to be okay with being really uncomfortable.” @michaeljbarber Click To Tweet

Ways to Contact Michael Barber:

Additional Resources:

Speaker 1:

Welcome to the Agency Management Institute Community, where you’ll learn how to grow and scale your business, attract and retain the best talent, make more money, and keep more of what you make. The Build A Better Agency Podcast, presented by White Label IQ, is packed with insights on how small to mid-size agencies survive and thrive in today’s market. Bringing his 25 plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey, everybody Drew McLellan here from Agency Management Institute. I know it’s not going to be a surprise to you, but I am back with another episode of Build A Better Agency. Super glad you’re here. Thank you for joining us. I will tell you this episode was not easy to record. Michael and I, my guest, have been playing calendar tag for over a year. I think we’ve had to cancel and reschedule about four or five times, but I knew that I wanted to have this conversation and it was worth chasing him down and him being gracious when I had to change things. So I’m super excited to be with him today and to bring him to you because I think this is an important conversation.

I will tell you all about it in a minute, but, of course, first, I want to remind you that we have all kinds of resources on the website. There are webinars. There are eBooks. If you have not been to the website lately, maybe going there and checking out the resource tab would be a good plan. The new 2021 salary and benefit survey is there. The new executive summary for the Agency Edge Research Project is there, and then there’s just a plethora of other things there for you.

So we try really hard to give you lots of free resources like the podcast, but also a lot of resources on the website. So please take full advantage of those and dive in and consume the ones that are going to serve you best. So that would make me very happy.

So anyway, let me tell you a little bit about my guest and why I wanted to have this conversation. So I’ve known Michael Barber for, gosh, I don’t know, 15 years or so. So Michael has played a leadership role in several agencies that I’ve been connected to one way or the other, and he has developed quite a reputation in the industry for being just a really out of the box bigger thinker. So I always enjoy my conversations with him.

So Michael and I are connected socially as well. About a year ago or so, he posted something on Instagram about spending some time in a high school class talking to the kids about careers in our industry and also the whole issue of diversity and inclusion, and talked a little bit about how interesting that conversation was in the kid’s perspective, which I thought that would be a great podcast episode. So I’ve literally been chasing him down across the globe trying to get him on the show to have that conversation. Finally today, we are both in studio at the same time ready to dive into that.

So here’s my goal with this conversation is I want to think about and talk about how are young people viewing our profession, what do they a need from us as professionals to even consider it, and what are we doing with that population, those kids that age to really think about the diversity and inclusion issues that face our agency today because I believe we’re going to have to dip down into future generations of employees to really have significant impact on that issue long term.

So I have no doubt this is going to be a wild ride of a conversation. I’m sure we’re going to get into some uncomfortable things, but I know it’s going to be informative. I know it’s going to be interesting, and most important, I know that it is going to be important for us to have this conversation. So hang with me, jump into the conversation with us, and hopefully it gets you thinking. All right?

Michael, welcome to the podcast. This was a Herculean effort on yours and my part to make this happen. I think we had to reschedule 17 times.

Michael Barber:

Indeed, a year in the making or something along those lines in terms of scheduling.

Drew McLellan:

I know. I know. So this has got to be big. I mean, we have to really deliver now with the buildup, right?

Michael Barber:

Correct. We’re setting the bar high when we’ve been preparing for a year. I think people are going to expect greatness. So we’re going to have to live up to that expectation.

Drew McLellan:

All right. So we’re going to have to step it up. So this conversation really started or my desire to have this conversation really started with an Instagram post that you put out where you were talking about being at a high school talking to students about diversity. So tell us that story because that really is the genesis of us even having this conversation.

Michael Barber:

For sure. Yeah. So I’m one of those people that does his best to stay in contact with teachers that were formative in my early years. One of those teachers was an English teacher that I had in high school, Mrs. Montgomery, Colleen Montgomery at Rancho Bernardo High School, and she has just been so welcoming to me throughout the years of welcoming her into her classrooms to talk about my experience at work. I think when you’re in high school you don’t have any idea that there is this creative community around agencies and the roles and the opportunities that the agency and brand side world give you. She has been teaching students in English and other creative endeavors around English, creative writing and whatnot, and wanted to give a little perspective on what it’s like working in that environment.

So she’s had me come in and chat with her students the last few years and it just so happened, of course, over the last two years, we have, as an American society at least, confronted a lot of challenges from a diversity racial perspective. My talk was right around that post June 2020 BLM movement that we have continued through. We talked a lot about just diversity in the workplace and within agencies and representations. So a post came out of that that I think you saw, and that was where we got this conversation started. It’s, again, a year in the making and here we are.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So tell us a little bit about the conversation. I mean, what kind of questions did the kids have? What are their concerns? What are they thinking about as they’re what, 16, 17, 18? They’re thinking in the broadest Vegas terms of what they want to do for a living, but how are they approaching? Because when you think about it, these are our future employees. These are our future business partners. These are our future clients. So really understanding their perspective I think from a lot of different angles is fascinating for us and important for us.

Michael Barber:

Two things really bubbled up in that particular conversation that I thought were really interesting for me personally. It’s one, because our perspective as agency owners and marketing leaders, we are in our world day to day. I think we sometimes forget that not a lot of people understand the soup and nuts that goes into that billboard or that digital ad or this experience that you created for customers, right? They just think it just happens, especially with the students I have the chance to talk to. The first thing was not understanding how the secret stuff happens like how does an ad come together, how is copy written, how is creative produced.

Drew McLellan:

What are the skills you need to be a part of that work?

Michael Barber:

Exactly. I think that was the biggest thing is we’re not teaching these trade skills inside of most US high schools or schools for that matter. I think the second big thing that was really interesting for me is many of their questions were coming from a place of belonging, of wanting to look for places to work where they see themselves in. I mean, this is a high school that’s in Southern California. So fairly racially diverse, much more racially diverse than what it was when I went to school.

I think a challenge for students today is they want to go work somewhere where they see themselves so they do not feel like an other, if you’ll, when they enter a workforce. So a lot of the questions were around that of just understanding from a different perspective, “Is someone going to be in the organization that I feel like I can relate to whether that is relate to as a person of color or relate to as someone that is different than the average normal American, if you will, white dominated male American?” Right?

So I think those were the two insights for me. It’s one, giving them exposure to that this career, this experience, these opportunities to define what people see in their daily lives and the experience they have with brands, those opportunities are out there, but two, also this sense of they’re looking for places where they would feel comfortable, where they would belong.

So for me, those were the two things that bubbled up from their questions. It’s definitely a keen sense of understanding, “Hey, am I going to find somewhere that I’m comfortable in?” Two, “I didn’t even know that these types of opportunities existed.”

Drew McLellan:

Right. Well, and I think to your point, there are skills, hard skills that kids aren’t exposed to in high school. So if they’re not thinking about marketing or advertising as a career, then they also may not get them when they start to create their college experience, which eliminates the possibility for them to even pursue a career if they don’t have the skillsets.

Michael Barber:

For sure. I think the biggest single thing, and I’m going to make a very broad, probably uneducated, but a lot of perspective with this statement, the single biggest thing that I think school is missing, traditional public school is missing is, “How do I apply what I’m doing here to what I’m going to be doing there or in the outside world?”

So I take this for example. We as agency owners and marketing leaders, we have certain skills that we need out of our teams, but they’re learning the things, the ingredients that allow them to have those skills, but they’re not learning the recipe to utilize those ingredients if there’s a way to create an analogy there is that from a traditional public education perspective, they’re getting the nuts and they’re not getting the bolts of how do they put it together.

I think that a thing that we as agency owners and leaders can realize is we need to help education professionals, teachers understand where are the things that they’re teaching, where are they practical so they can provide a perspective inside of the classroom of like, “Okay. Hey, if you’re going to learn X plus Y equals Z, how does that fit into the grand scheme of things of different careers that are out there?” Because, listen, I don’t, as someone who has been in leadership positions inside of agencies and has been really fortunate in career to work with just so many different brands, I think the challenge for us is that we need different perspectives inside of our agencies. We need vastly different types of people inside of organizations, whether they are people who love math or people that love English or people that love theater. We need those perspectives inside of our organizations.

The challenge for us is, though, is that how do they take those things that they’ve learned and utilize those skills in a day-to-day basis. That’s where the challenge of just teaching the practicality of the things that they’re learning is missing is we’re not saying like, “Okay. Here’s how you take math and you apply it to data science or analytics inside of whatever organization you’re going to go work for.” It’s that practicality that’s missing.

So I think that’s a big challenge that we’re going to have to confront is how do we provide that, along with the theory that people that are getting inside of education, that they’re getting the practicality of how to apply this in the real world as well.

Drew McLellan:

Two things. One, I think we have to take some responsibility in that, right? I mean, if we want a workforce that is ready to serve our clients and to be great inside our organizations, we can’t sit around and just expect the teacher, the high school teachers and the college professors who don’t do what we do to know what we need. So if we don’t engage with them, and I want to get into that like what that looks like in a minute, but if we don’t accept our responsibility in it, then we get what we get, right? I mean, I hear so many agency owners complaining about the applicants they get for jobs that, “They can’t construct a sentence,” and it’s like, “Well, how are we changing that? How are we helping make that better?” number one.

Number two, I’m curious. Every study I read, the Edelman Trust Barometer and all of those, it seems like the world is looking to business to solve the diversity problem like, “I don’t trust the government. I don’t trust these people. I don’t trust these people. You people, you business owners need to get out there and fix this thing.”

Was that your perspective from the kids? Do they think it’s our job to fix the diversity problem? How are they approaching the fact that they would like to work in a place, to your point, where they belong, they see themselves, they see other people like them, they see inclusion?

One of the things that I think is true very much about the youth today is that they look at each other very differently and they’re not quite as quick to label or whatever. They’re just like, “Oh, you’re African-American,” or “You’re trans,” or “You’re whatever.” It’s just like, “Fine.”

Michael Barber:

Yeah. So yes, I think the biggest challenge that we’re getting at is if we do not create a workforce that allows people to see that they themselves can thrive in those spaces, that they have a vast different, that the workforce today has choice, right? They have more choice than even my generation has had, even more than what your generation has had, I think. The challenge for us is we have to create the spaces that allow them to thrive it, and if they don’t see that, they have the ability these days to pivot and do elsewhere, right? They can go freelance. They can find organizations that they can work for all over the world because we have seen this hybridization of the workforce in terms of a virtual experience over the last years that has accelerated tenfold because of the pandemic. They have choice.

If they don’t see what they need to feel like they can thrive inside of an organization, there’s hundred other places that they can look. That challenge has just gotten exponentially harder because they can see transparency inside of organizations because we’re all talking about our experiences as employees on LinkedIn, on Glassdoor, on these review sites that they can get a really informed perspective of.

So the challenge for us is so deeply complicated, even more complicated given the last two years of the pandemic that we’ve been through because of the fact that they have massive amounts of choice. So we’re going to have to consciously make choices as agency owners to get out into the educational arena and either help professors guide them on here’s what we need from a skillset perspective, but also we’ve got to do the work inside of our organizations to create an experience that allows them to see that they can thrive inside our organizations, and then talk about it through social media and through our employees’ voices and help amplify those invoice so that people can see this is a place that they want to work because kids these days have got choice. If they don’t see somewhere where they feel like they can thrive and they’re going to feel belonging, a sense of belonging, and that’s going to nurture the things that they need to grow, they’ve got a hundred choices out there that would be a better option for them.

Drew McLellan:

One of them is just starting their own thing. I mean, I think the barrier to entry to just starting your own company and being a freelancer and selling your services, I don’t think kids today are afraid of that the way kids … I can remember being in college and my dad had a job, my mom had a job. Didn’t occur to me to own a company until I was much older and then I was like, “Well, screw it. If my boss can do this, I can do this,” but it took me a long time to have that sensibility that I could own my own business. It just was not on my radar screen.

Today, I think, kids are like, “Well, I’ll just do it myself. I’ll just …” So I think it’s not only just they have a lot of choice in terms of where they could work, but they don’t have to work for anyone if they don’t want to.

Michael Barber:

Yeah. They truly don’t. I mean, the marketplaces are out there if they’ve got solid hard skills, right? They can find those opportunities, whether it’s through a project marketplace like a Fiverr or an Upwork or something along those lines. The other thing that they’re seeing is the places where they’re consuming media, TikTok, Snapchat, to some extent Instagram, although that’s on a heavy decline when we look at the younger demographics, is they’re seeing successful young people do very, very well. Those young people are showing them how to do this. “Here’s how you go upscale. Here’s where you go to promote yourself. Here’s how you build your business.” They’re sharing their recipes of their success, whether it is true success or not, but it gives kids a choice. It gives them the ability to see that perspective of a person who looks like them, is the same age as them or relatively the same age carving out their own space.

If they feel like that is a viable path and they can make enough money to be happy, that’s a choice that they can make. It’s one of the abundant other choices that they’re going to have at their disposal is to create their own little niche and their own little business in something that they care about. So they’ve not only got choice from full-time roles and looking for organizations where they feel like they have a sense of belonging, but two, they’ve got just the barriers to entry, as you said, are just so low for them to carve out their own little niche and serve brands and agencies for that matter with the skills that they’ve got.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Yes. It’s a completely different world. All right. So back to part two of my question. Did you get a sense from these kids? I know we’re talking a microcosm of a group, but what responsibility did they think we have to tackle the diversity and inclusion issues of today?

Michael Barber:

I think we have all the responsibility. I mean, we are, as leaders, we are in a position of power to make change. They view … Go ahead.

Drew McLellan:

I was going to say, and that’s their perspective, you think?

Michael Barber:

Yes. 100% it is. They view it as our responsibility. If we aren’t doing a good enough job, they’re going to force us to do that job, right? They can amplify their voices louder and larger and more broadly than they ever have done before, and they’re going to demand the spaces that they need to thrive. So either we have to change or they are going to go elsewhere. They’re going to make choices that force us to change and/or die, and cease to exist. If we don’t make the change soon enough and carve out spaces and open doors for people that look like them that provide a perspective to our agencies and the brands that we work with that is different but informed and necessary right now, then they’re going to be able to make a different choice. So they believe it is up to us

To be fair, I think that is the right perspective. We have abilities as business owners and agency leaders to make decisions that make our teams more diverse. I’m not just talking about racial diversity. I’m talking about age diversity. I’m talking about sexual orientation diversity. I’m talking about diversity of all forms. We have the ability to make change in all of those perspectives. It requires effort. It requires leadership, and it requires us to not just throw up our hands and say, “Well, I just don’t have the applicant pool that I need.”

We live in a society today that the barriers of having people work for us are not geographic. They are not necessary. They do not need to live around the corner to work for us these days and to provide big impact for us. So I think from the kids, if you will, in air quotes perspective, the onus is on us to make this change. Otherwise, they’re going to start their own shops and they’re going to make the change by themselves, and that’s already happening, I might add.

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely.

Michael Barber:

I mean, you look at some classic award nods from the ad ages of the world, small agencies of the year, and a lot of them are agencies that are built on a cultural perspective on providing brands, a different experience and a different perspective on some part of the world, part of society that is different than the average human, White-centric human being, if you will. So they’re going to carve their own spaces. They’re going to create their own agencies. They’re going to create their own places where they can do the things that they want to do if we don’t make the steps to create those spaces for them.

Drew McLellan:

Well, and I think it’s a mix of, “I want to see and work with people that look and feel like me, but I also don’t want to work in a place where everybody looks and feels like me.”

Michael Barber:

Sure.

Drew McLellan:

I think it’s a much more, “I want to work in a place where there is the variety of human beings that are represented out in the world.” You and I talked before we hit the record button it’s also about, I mean, it’s not only the right thing to do, but it’s also about getting our agencies ready to talk to a completely different kind of audience that is here, but is going to be here in a mass way very soon. If we have bunch of White folk putting together everything without some other voices, perspectives, whatever, we’re going to miss the mark.

Michael Barber:

100%. The thing that we have to realize is there’s two or three … I know we have global listeners and the data that I’m going to share as largely US-centric, but we think about where the population in the US is going, particularly, we’re talking about a much older society, the group of individuals that is over the age of 65 is going to essentially double over the next 10 years from 15% of the population of 25 or 26 as I remember the data from the census.

Then the other thing were happening is by I think it’s mid 2040s-2050s, something like that, we are largely going to be a non-White-centric society. That means we have a changing audience that we are going to have to be able to bring experiences and messaging and tone and voice and all the things that we help brands do to a different set of eyeballs and eyeballs that look at the world through a lens that’s very different than what we may look at it. That requires us to have people inside our organizations who have lived that experience because if we have not … This isn’t a problem that can be solved by put yourself in another person’s shoes because-

Drew McLellan:

Right, or a focus group.

Michael Barber:

… or a focus group. It requires informed perspective to understand the cultural nuances of a society that is changing. To do that, we’ve got to, again, create the space and open doors for people that don’t look like us because we’re not going to be able to meet the needs of brands of tomorrow if we can’t bring them the strategy and the tactical execution that is from that informed perspective. So it’s really up to us to create those spaces because brands are going to be demanding it. If they don’t see it, they’re going to go elsewhere. They’re going to look for these smaller, it doesn’t even need to be smaller, but niche agencies that are carving out places to build experiences for people that are not the norm, if you will. People that not normal is the wrong word to use here, people that are not a White-centric usual layer of society that we have catered to within America over the last 100 years.

Drew McLellan:

Okay. So I want to take a quick break, but when we come back I want to talk about … So what do we do? I mean, people are listening. They’re like, “Okay. I’m buying in that I have a role here. I have a responsibility,” but from a practical point of view, what do we do? So let’s take a quick break and then we’ll come back and talk about that.

Hey there. I am really sorry to interrupt, but I want to tell you about a brand new workshop that we’re offering on February 17th and 18th. It is going to be taught by Carla Johnson, international speaker, bestselling author, and it’s all built around her new book, Rethink Innovation. The whole idea is how do you build your agency’s idea machine.

Let’s face it. The one thing that we have got to be good at is generating big, bold ideas for clients. Carla is going to teach us why we struggle with that today, how to reignite it not only in us because in many agencies, you, the leader, are the one who has all the big ideas, but not everybody else can do it. That can be changed. She’s going to teach us a scalable framework that we can take back to our agencies and teach everyone how to generate more reliable, effective, big, big ideas, and it’s going to be a great workshop. It’s going to be very hands-on. I’m super excited about it, and you are going to love Carla.

So on the website, head over to How We Help. Under Workshops, you can see Rethink Innovation and by all means sign up quick because I think it’s going to sell out. All right? Let’s get back to the show.

All right. We are back. Michael Barber and I are talking about diversity and inclusion inside agency life and how our future employees are looking at us and saying, “Okay, people. Create a workplace where I want to be and I will show up, and help me understand the skills I need to bring, but I’m not bringing my skills and my toys to come play with you if things don’t change.”

So if we look at our agency and, again, so I teach a bootcamp and there’s probably maybe 250 AEs of all variety of ages and all of that that come through my door figuratively every year. I got to tell you, it’s mostly young White women. I mean, yes, it’s women, but that’s as diverse as it gets. When I see somebody of color or a different ethnic background, it’s noticeable because it is a sea of whiteness for the most part.

So we have work to do to attract, to create a workplace that attracts more diversity, for sure. So from a practical point of view, what do you think we need to be doing? Solve this problem, Michael. You have 15 minutes. Go.

Michael Barber:

Oh, gosh! So for me, this has come down to two things. I think for one, we have to step into the places where we are building the next generation of our teams. So if that is stepping into a high school experience, if that is offering up our time and energy to local colleges to say, “Hey, I’d love to be able to either come in and tell you what we do and explore the opportunities that our types of organizations create for people,” or two, inside of those educational institutions is say, “Hey, I want to work with your marketing, your comm, your business leaders, the various, the creative, your art teachers, professors on ensuring that the skills that they’re teaching, that there is some practical nature of those applications when they come out of those programs.”

So that could be, “Hey, let’s build a competition for a marketing plan or build a competition for a creative campaign or build a small scholarship opportunity that we can drive interest around.” It’s putting the time in in the places where we need people to come out of and be ready to join our workforces, and that is in some form or fashion of primary and secondary education opportunities within high school, as well as within our colleges, whether those are community colleges or four-year institutions. So I think that’s part of the challenge.

Drew McLellan:

I have to think that that offer, that opportunity would be pretty welcomed.

Michael Barber:

Welcomed, hungry for it. They are begging for it, begging for it. They want to see working professionals come into their spaces because, again, it opens up kids’ eyes to like, “Oh, this is what I could do. This is an opportunity, for sure.” They also need to know like, “What are the practical implications of what I’m teaching when people step out of here so that I can think about my curriculum, I can think about how I’m going to structure my class? What are the tools that I think I need to expose our students to as they’re going through the learning process so that they understand what they’re going to be expected to do and the tools they’re going to be expected to utilize when they do get into a professional environment?”

So I think that’s part one is creating time and energy amongst the limited time and energy that we have that is very purposeful in allowing educators and/or the students that are being educated by those educators to say, “This is what we do and two, this is what I need when you step out of this educational experience.” I think that’s part one.

I think part two is much more challenging and certainly is much more challenging from just a practicality perspective is we have to create opportunities for people that don’t look like us, right? We have to either create positions or we have to open doors and do everything in our power to recruit into those opportunities people that provide different perspectives than the vast majority of what we have inside of organizations and that is hard. That is very, very hard.

It is much easier to go to your local college or go into a high school and be like, “I’m going to carve out an hour a week and help you do X, Y, and Z.” It is much more challenging because it challenges not only just the ways that we have hired and recruited in the past, it is challenging because we may not have people that are within a certain geographical radius that we need a perspective from that live around us. So it’s much more challenging than just the part one of this question is we physically have to open the positions and keep the doors open and say, “This is the type of individual we’re trying to hire here.”

Drew McLellan:

… and not settle when it’s hard to find them because I think a lot of people are like, like you said earlier, they go, “I would like a more diverse workforce,” but nobody applies so we hire who applies.

Michael Barber:

Yeah, and I think the no one applies, I think you have to do a top to bottom audit to understand why people aren’t applying. Where are you advertising these opportunities? Who are the voices that are promoting these opportunities, right? If everyone looks like you that’s resharing your post, then you’ve got to find people that don’t look like you to help you guide you into those audiences and guide you into networks that you didn’t have access to before. That’s a massive challenge, but one, especially now I think what’s interesting as we think about the context that we find ourselves in in late 2021, the ability to bring a different perspective, given the barriers of work today, are the idea of needing physical walls I think has been vastly reduced over the last two or so years is it allows us to recruit from places we may not have been able to recruit from before.

It doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to have someone that’s inside the office every single day. It can be someone that can be potentially hundreds of miles away or in a different country for that matter that can do the work that’s necessary for us. So I think, again, it’s extremely challenging, but I think we have to get a better understanding of where we’re recruiting, where we’re posting, who is representing us in the recruiting process, do they look like the per people that we’re looking for because if they don’t, then we are setting ourselves up for unfortunately leaning back on this excuse of “I’m just not getting the right applicant pool.” Well, you’re not getting the right applicant pool because you’re not looking in the right places. That’s the reason why you’re not getting that applicant pool.

Drew McLellan:

As I’m thinking about this and as I’m listening to you, I’m thinking that part of this is also about forging new relationships and creating community where there hasn’t been community for this common goal, right? So I think it is about, to your point, if everybody that would normally share our job posting looks a lot like me, then I’ve got to go forge new relationships, and I have to earn the trust of those people that the job that I’m posting is going to be a good experience for their community, someone in their community, as well as someone in my community.

So I have to lay some groundwork first. I have to make sure, and I think this is a question we should all be asking ourselves, too, is, “Is my workplace actually welcoming to people who are different than the vast majority of my employees or me?” I think that’s a challenging question to ask when you have the bias that you have or the lens you have, “Seems like a great work environment for me and to me,” but it’s hard to have the perspective of other people to welcome other people before you have the other people. So how do you answer that question when you still have a vacuum?

Michael Barber:

You have to be totally uncomfortable with being uncomfortable. I say this with a little bit of a … and I’ll tell you a story. I was really fortunate to work for a number of years for an agency called Godfrey. Godfrey is located in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which is, if you’re not familiar with central PA, we often referred to it as Pennsyltucky, which is an homage to that. It is a very red, very white part of the country, and take that for what it’s worth. I don’t mean that in a bad way. I mean, that’s how we describe it there.

In working there, I worked with a gentleman named Mark Stoner, who has worked at Godfrey for I think 30, almost 30 years. Mark is an older gentleman in his 60s, gay. One of the stories that he shared with me was a very refreshing conversation he had with the last round of partners at Godfrey about 15 years ago. He was sitting in a conversation with one of the partners about health insurance and benefits.

One of the partners turned to him and said, “Mark, how does this look to you? Do you feel like this sort of culture and this experience and these health benefits and this package is helpful for you?”

Mark goes, “I mean, yeah. Yeah, it’s fine.”

The owner at the time, Charles, said, “But is it good for a person like you?”

Mark goes, “What do you mean by that?”

He goes, “Well, for gay people. Does this work for you?”

Mark goes, “Yeah. I think it does.”

Mark was so taken aback by that conversation, and it was an incredibly uncomfortable conversation because he didn’t understand the perspective that he was being asked about, right? I tell you that story is we have to be able to be okay with being really uncomfortable, being like, “I don’t have all the answers and I’m going into this conversation to build this relationship with a person who may help me open doors in places with just being okay with being uncomfortable.” As a society, we really don’t like to be uncomfortable.

Drew McLellan:

Right. Well, not only uncomfortable, but acknowledging ignorance, right?

Michael Barber:

Yes. Yes.

Drew McLellan:

… which also makes you more uncomfortable.

Michael Barber:

Yes, 100%. So we’ve got to be okay with building these relationships and saying to the person we’re trying to build this relationship being like, “I don’t know if I’m going to say the right thing. So I’m sorry already, but you can tell me when I’m not saying the right thing.”

Drew McLellan:

Right, “I apologize in advance that I’m going to bumble through this.”

Michael Barber:

110,000% and, “I’m okay with acknowledging that there are going to be moments where you’re going to need to educate me on when I make a mistake,” and being okay with that. It requires us to be uncomfortable. It requires us to seek relationships that allow us to figure out why our culture or the experience that we have may not be the right place for someone that is different, for someone that is not like us. That requires getting okay with being uncomfortable to build those relationships, to ask the questions, to build the experience that we need to have so that we can recruit a workforce that looks diverse and it represents where society is going over the long term.

We’ve just got to be okay with that because just like everyone else we’ve had our own experience growing up and we have ingrained behaviors and ways of doing things. We’ve just got to be okay with maybe it’s not that it’s not the wrong way, it’s just that there might be a different, better way that gets us to the path that we need to make happen. We just got to be okay with that being an honest, uncomfortable conversation to create, the change that we need and open the relationships to build that type of experience where then someone that is not exactly like us feels like they have a place where they can thrive, and that takes time and energy, and it’s much harder than the educational part of the conversation in my opinion because it requires us to challenge our perceptions, to challenge our learned experience, to be uncomfortable and to make mistakes and being okay with it.

That’s a much deeper challenge, I think, for leaders and owners and people who feel like often they know what they’re doing. The more that we can at least be okay with that we may not have all the answers, I think the better off we’ll be getting through how do we build a place that represents where society is going and that we can hire for roles and people that are going to help us create experiences and messaging and opportunities for people that don’t look like us.

Drew McLellan:

Well, and even acknowledging that we don’t know what we don’t know. So your example is a great one. So I’m sure there was a time. I think today most employers when they’re looking at health plans, for example, are thinking about straight and gay couples and making sure that the insurance covers everybody, but I know there was a time in our industry and in the world where employers didn’t. It wasn’t that they were anti-gay people or gay couples. It just didn’t occur to them that they should look at their health plan from that perspective.

So part of what I wonder is what’s not even occurring to us right now, right? So we’ve come a distance in some ways, but there’s still so much that we don’t understand and we don’t know, and that is just not on our radar screen.

So if we don’t talking about it amongst ourselves, if we don’t ask our employees or our peers … One of the things I love about AMI is we bring agency owners together in places where they can safely have conversations about, “Hey, have you even thought about this?” and then you see the light bulb going and go, “No. I had not,” right?

So we have to surround ourselves with people who are in different places with some of these issues that maybe are a little more thoughtful about it or have had an experience we haven’t had because sometimes I think it’s because people are assholes and they’re biased or whatever, but I think in many cases, in most cases, it’s that sometimes people just don’t know better and they don’t know what to ask, and they don’t know what to wonder about even to ask the uncomfortable question.

Michael Barber:

I think the only way that they can find that perspective or seek that perspective is look around at different parts of our industry that are talking about these challenges. You will find people who are not only talking about it from an informed perspective, but also, they’re willing to have a conversation with you, whether it is Black and Brown leaders that are in our industry or whether it is trans, gay, bi leaders that are in our industry. There are people who are talking about the challenges that those types of individuals have inside of advertising and marketing and are fully willing, if you reach out to them, LinkedIn, DM on Twitter, to give you five, 10, 15, 20 minutes, an hour of, “Hey, tell me what I’m not thinking about. Tell me the needs of this type of slice of society. What am I not thinking about in terms of benefits? What am I not thinking in terms of healthcare?”

Drew McLellan:

Language, right?

Michael Barber:

Yes. “What am I not thinking in terms of how do we show up from our own website, our own social media, our own employee handbook?” Because if we don’t take that perspective, if we don’t offer that moment of reflection, all different ways of how we connect with our team members, employee handbook, mentoring, the opportunities for education inside of our organizations or external opportunities like AMI, if we don’t understand how those opportunities are impacting our workforce, we’re doing ourselves a disservice. The thing is, is there’s people out there that are talking about the challenges that different parts of society face inside of the shared experience of being in marketing and advertising and are willing to carve out time and energy for people because they want to help solve the challenges that they see are happening. So we just can’t be afraid to ask for help from these people who have a different and informed perspective that we very much need.

Drew McLellan:

So again, it gets back to being willing to be uncomfortable, right?

Michael Barber:

Again, 110,000%, having the courage to be uncomfortable. Being uncomfortable, it summons every demon, physically, mentally, emotionally, and it’s being okay with being in that uncomfortable place, having the courage to really be uncomfortable. The thing is, is that I think we don’t understand it can pay off in such dividends, this idea of different perspectives inside of our organizations that we don’t fully appreciate, and that helps create nuances in messaging and nuances in creative and nuances in all different things that we do on a daily basis that we don’t necessarily understand, and we’re going to need as we see a changing society occur over the next five, 10, 20, 30, 50-ish years.

Drew McLellan:

Maybe this is the Pollyanna, but we also can change things. I mean, we can actually, in our little slice of the world, we can create a more diverse world. We can create a more welcoming, inclusive space. We can set an example for future generations of professionals in our world that … One of the things I’ve always loved about our industry is I think in some ways we have been accepting of other people quicker and in a deeper way than other industries. I’ve always loved that about the work and the people that are attracted to the work. So we have the opportunity to be a leader in this, and why wouldn’t we embrace that idea?

Michael Barber:

Yeah. I think one of the things that is interesting about our industry is that unlike other parts of the workforce, we have welcomed I think certain parts of our society more often and faster than other parts. Let’s take some examples. I think women dominate roles inside of agencies. As much as it is a White male-centric leadership structure, especially at some of the larger agencies, and that is definitely changing, listen, women kick ass in our business, and there’s a reason why they do because they’re moms, they have an informed perspective that we understand, they work harder than everyone else as far as I’m concerned to prove their worth and their value because they’re trying to-

Drew McLellan:

High emotional intelligence.

Michael Barber:

High emotional intelligence. They’re always trying to crack the theoretical glass ceiling that has existed for a hundred years in our industry. I think LGBTQIA plus individuals we have welcomed inside of our organizations faster than other places for any number of reasons. It’s a group of individuals that’s dominated the creative class for millennia, right? That isn’t something that’s happened, but we need those individuals inside of our organizations to thrive.

Listen, I’m going to say this and it may not come out as correctly as I want it to, but when “othered parts”, othered parts of society, we work harder to prove to the vast public that we are better than them because we have constantly feeled othered and ashamed at moments of our life, right? So women, LGBTQI plus individuals, we are constantly thriving to prove the rest of the world wrong.

So for that matter, we are often harder working individuals than the average employee. Listen, I’m not being exclusionary on that statement. I’m just saying that that’s been my experience as a leader inside of agencies when I’ve looked at certain individuals on the effort level that’s put in. So that’s why we’ve leaned into recruiting into those circles, and done so well and carved out places for those types, for those types of individuals.

So we need to do that in other places because if we don’t, the work’s going to go elsewhere to places that have carved out those opportunities because procurement’s not only going to get involved in how much things cost. Procurement’s going to get involved in what do you look like as a group of people so that when we have to-

Drew McLellan:

It’s happening right now. Absolutely. Yup.

Michael Barber:

Yes. We have to be able to report out to say, “This is what our diversity looks like inside our organizations.” Some agencies are talking about that in public and some aren’t, but procurement is getting involved way beyond the margin and the bottom dollar at this point they’re wanting, “What does your team look like?” because they’ve got to report on those things as well. They believe that it’s important to report on those things. So we’re going to have to confront this challenge one way or the other. It’s going to be forced upon us by current clients if we aren’t doing it already, and it’s going to be something that we’re going to be necessary to be able to thrive in the future.

Drew McLellan:

Plus, it’s the right thing to do.

Michael Barber:

It is.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. This has been fascinating. I am glad we just kept trying to get on each other’s calendar to do this because I knew we would have a great conversation. So I’m grateful for you that we finally made it happen. So thank you for being willing to have the conversation and muddle around in it with me because you and I were both like, “Well, these are the kind of thing we want to talk about, but I don’t have the answers, but let’s have the conversation.” So I’m grateful that you were willing to do that.

Michael Barber:

Well, big gratitude your way. I think the more often we as White men can have these conversations and be okay with these conversations, be willing to muddle our way through it and say the wrong words, the more often that we’re going to be okay with having these conversations inside our agencies and not feeling like it’s a weird experience, just knowing that it’s okay to grow this way. I do appreciate the time with you. I’m glad we made it happen.

Drew McLellan:

Me, too. Thank you. Hey, if folks want to track you down, if they want to connect with you, if they want to have more conversation around this or other things, what’s the best way for them to find you.

Michael Barber:

I’m Michael J. Barber pretty much everywhere online, including michaeljbarber.com, but Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, all Michael J. Barber. So if you’d like to connect, you can find me across the socials or on the website, too.

Drew McLellan:

Awesome. All right, guys. This wraps up another episode of Build A Better Agency. I’m hoping that this really got you thinking about in a different way. I mean, a lot of times here at the show, we talk about practical things. We talk about operational things. We talk about biz dev things, and don’t get me wrong. I know those are all super important. This is just a different twist on the conversation, but it feels like this one’s going to be one you have to chew on for a little bit before you figure out how you’re going to move forward, but what I’m hoping is just like with every episode, I want you to do something with what you heard today. I want you to take action or have a conversation or read a new book or do something that allows you to think about this topic more deeply and what you might be doing about it in the future on behalf of your shop and on behalf of our professional community.

So I’m anxious to hear from you where you land, and if I can do be helpful. You know that I want to do that. It just feels like this is a conversation we’re going to be having for a while. So I guess settle in and let’s just continue to be comfortable being uncomfortable together. So I think it’s important.

So thanks for sticking with us. Thanks for listening. I’ll be back next week with another guest, of course, to get you thinking a little differently about your business. Before I let you go, I want to say thanks to our friends at White Label IQ. As you know, they’re the presenting sponsor for the podcast. They do white label dev design and PPC for lots of podcast listeners and AMI agencies, and folks love them. So head over to whitelabeliq.com/ami because they will give you some free hours for our first project. So many thanks to them for their support.

As always much thanks to you for listening every week. I am grateful you’re here. A monologue is not what I’m interested in. I love the conversations that we have. So I can’t do that if you don’t come back. So thanks for listening. All right. I’ll see you next week.

That’s a wrap for this week’s episode of Build A Better Agency. Visit agencymanagementinstitute.com to check out our workshops, coaching packages, and all the other ways we serve agencies just like yours. Thanks for listening.