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.
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
Ways to Contact Michael Barber:
- Websites: https://michaeljbarber.com
- LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/michaeljamesbarber/
- Twitter: @michaeljbarber
- My Future Self Mini-Course
- Sell with Authority (buy Drew’s book)
- Facebook Group for the Build a Better Agency Podcast
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.
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.
Indeed, a year in the making or something along those lines in terms of scheduling.
I know. I know. So this has got to be big. I mean, we have to really deliver now with the buildup, right?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What are the skills you need to be a part of that work?
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
I was going to say, and that’s their perspective, you think?
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.
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 ca