Paying it Forward: Insights from Our Global DE&I Week

Here at Firewood, our values attract the kind of people who believe in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I).

And when we joined the S4Capital family of companies in late 2019, we found like-minded partners who not only share our values but have placed a priority on promoting DE&I in the workplace. “As a business, we aim to represent the communities we live in and encourage a diverse approach in everything we do,” says Sir Martin Sorrell, founder and executive chairman of S4Capital. This goal has translated into a number of initiatives across our family of companies, including our recently launched Fellowship program, which seeks to address the imbalance in employment for underrepresented groups in the creative and tech industry.

Cultivating a more diverse and inclusive workplace not only brings fresh voices and perspectives into all aspects of our business, it also helps us create work that better connects with our communities and the world around us. In just 18 months, our work family has grown from 450 to well over 4000 people spanning 50 offices around the globe. And as we unify our teams across disciplines, backgrounds and skill sets, it’s important that individuals and local teams feel empowered to start initiatives of their own. “Our people care deeply about diversity and inclusion,” says Imma Trillo, Senior Vice President of Global HR/Talent at S4, “and we’re seeing more and more initiatives being developed at the local level in many of our offices.” 

That’s why our Wellbeing team in London decided to launch DE&I Week, a weeklong virtual event focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion inspired by similar wellness-focused events, including Mental Health Week.

A grassroots approach

What began as a local initiative—a small group of colleagues meeting to determine what’s important to talk about in the current climate of our pandemic and increasingly polarized world—grew into a company-wide initiative in which people around the globe engaged in a series of real-time, interactive virtual events featuring experts addressing difficult workplace subjects: What are microaggressions? What biases are we inadvertently imposing on others? How do we address people of different cultures, backgrounds, and gender identities respectfully? When should you call out someone, and how? 

“What I really like is that it came from the bottom up,” says Martin Verdult, Managing Director of our London office. “People said, ‘This is something we want to talk about and take action on.’” And while these topics are anything but trivial, Verdult likens them to serendipitous conversations that have been hard to replicate without a physical office. “I really value that in this time of COVID that we take an hour of day to think about something that isn’t about the budget or deliverable—something people normally talk about over coffee,” he says. “We created this to drive topics we don’t always talk about.”

This drives home an important lesson for leaders: employees want to have these conversations, and you shouldn’t shy away from not having it all figured out. “It’s okay not to have everything solved internally,” says Liam Osbourne, Client Partner, Fashion & Luxury and DE&I lead in London. “Lean into external experts who can help.” Below, we offer a few of the insights experts shared with our team throughout the week’s programming. 

Creating a more inclusive workplace

To move toward a more diverse and inclusive workplace, employers must attract more diverse candidates—and if they’re not, it’s very likely their recruiting process is flawed, says Jane Hatton, founder and CEO of UK-based Evenbreak, a job board that connects disabled candidates with inclusive employers. “Talent doesn’t discriminate,” Jane says, “Recruiting with an eye toward diversity means removing the inadvertent biases and barriers in your process so that you’re reaching out and inviting all talent to come through.”

This point hit home for Osbourne. “One of my personal passions was changing the recruitment process,” Liam says. “How do we assess capabilities when we look at a CV based on past opportunities, not future potential? We need to find different ways of vetting candidates and support them in ways tailored to their needs.”

One way to do that is to stop relying on CVs as a means of shortlisting candidates. Instead, Hatton suggests isolating three or four key strengths a job requires and highlighting them in the job ad. Ask them to answer a handful of questions or execute work-related tasks to showcase their skills and use that information to shortlist candidates. Removing personal information from the first step in the process—gender, age, schooling, and even past experience—levels the playing field for all applicants. 

Getting comfortable with uncomfortable conversations

But hiring with an eye toward inclusiveness is just the first step in creating a more diverse and inclusive workplace. Nichole McGill-Higgins, Founder and CEO of management consultancy Changez Life posits that everyone in an organization is responsible for driving the diversity and inclusion agenda. And that means finding ways of not only changing the way we treat each other but openly talking with each other about race and racism—something that can be difficult between people from different cultures.

It’s important to understand that no matter how well-intentioned we are as individuals, it’s human nature to have biases. And when left unchecked, biases in the workplace can manifest as microaggressions—statements or actions that are indirect, subtle, or unintentional instances of discrimination against members of a marginalized group. Awareness of our own biases, defensiveness, and potential microaggressions is essential to being able to openly communicate with each other, especially about race. 

Understanding social impacts 

Just as with everything else, COVID and other disruptors of the past year—the US election, Brexit, increased awareness of racism and movements that have resulted—have accelerated the need for more diversity and inclusion. “This is a journey we need to continue all the time,” says Verdult. “These events have accelerated the need and increased the urgency for those changes.”

In times of crisis, true colors show. As an organization, your response to a crisis must come from a place of authenticity not in response to social pressure. When the murder of George Floyd put increased pressure on companies to speak up and change the way they were handling diversity, many companies made missteps because they weren’t coming from a place of authenticity. But when a brand goes beyond purpose and truly embraces its role—transforming the business from the inside out—it can make a true impact. 

Combating bias in advertising

Marketers should well understand the influence that creativity has on our audience. For this reason, it’s critical that we’re each equipped to identify and combat our own personal biases. “Having bias is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just human behavior,” says McGill-Higgins. “It’s just that we need to become more conscious about it,” and take the steps to combat them.

Rich Miles, CEO of The Diversity and Standard Collective, agrees and suggests that when approaching client work creatives focus on intentionally injecting diversity into the work. “If you’re creating an idea that doesn’t have any descriptors, you may be inadvertently inviting bias in because—given human nature—bias will always be applied,” Miles says. Instead, he recommends that at the very early stages of an idea you incorporate diverse descriptors for characters or settings, so that diversity is baked into a project from the start. “We’re all very worried about getting it wrong,” he says, “So if you’re stuck, speak to people from various communities to learn about them, or involve them in your work from the beginning.” 

Start the conversation

Whether you’re looking to communicate more openly and effectively with coworkers or create more diverse and inclusive work, starting the conversation and creating a roadmap is key. When it comes to the workplace, several potential conversation starters for talking about race can center around whether individuals have experienced discrimination, whether the organization is doing enough to build an inclusive culture, and what can be done to further Black and POC inclusion in the workplace. Through this process, teams can catch harmful biases before perpetuating them in creative work and the products they put out into the world.

That’s what our Wellbeing team in London did, and to great success. Feedback has already rolled in suggesting topics for the next DE&I Week, reaffirming that people are eager to carry on the conversation.

A special thanks to our Wellbeing team in London for organizing the event and unearthing the above insights: Nafeesa Yousuf, Charlotte Igharo, Maxine Penney, Maithili Jalihal, Brendan O’Conner, Matthew Brett, Liam Osbourne and Nimo Awil.

About Firewood Team

Firewood is a global digital marketing agency founded on the idea that good people are good business. With a model that focuses on speed, quality, and value, it partners with top tech brands, startups, and Fortune 500 companies—including Google, LinkedIn, Facebook, Salesforce, Cummins, and other key clients—providing strategy and insights, creative, performance media, events, and technology services. Firewood was named an Ad Age Best Place to Work 2020, ranking No. 13 of the Top 25 (201+ employees). Firewood also ranked No. 1 on the San Francisco Business Times’ list of largest Bay Area advertising agencies (2020), No. 1 on the list of largest advertising, marketing, and PR agencies in Silicon Valley by the Silicon Valley Business Journal (2019 and 2020), and an Adweek 100: Fastest Growing Agency (2019 and 2020) and Top 10 Fastest Growing Large Agency (2019 and 2020). Founded in 2010, Firewood is headquartered in San Francisco with seven offices in four countries and over 450+ employees. In October 2019, Firewood merged with global creative production company MediaMonks to become the digital marketing arm of S4 Capital (SFOR.L).