Want Authenticity? Design Homophobia Out of the Organization

by cv harquail on July 31, 2008

The System isn’t working at Omnicom.

omnicom_logo

Omnicom says “we are committed to ensuring that we use our position to promote socially responsible policies and practices. Yet, Omnicom’s agency, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO (AMV/BBDO) , creates advertising that is anti-gay. Because Omnicom is not addressing the contradiction between who it says it is as an organization and how it acts, Omnicom is not being authentic.

Last week, in an effort to challenge a homophobic advertisement for Snickers candy bars , Bob Garfield’s column in Advertising Age admonished John Wren, the CEO of the Omnicom Group, by asking him to “tell his agencies how to behave.

Most of the ensuing commentary about the offensive ad and about Garfield’s column discussed whether or not the ad was homophobic and whether or not Bob Garfield was overly sensitive, and this diverted attention from discussing how to eliminate anti-gay advertising altogether. Meanwhile, some advocacy organizations, particularly the Human Rights Campaign applied direct pressure on the client (Mars) and got the advertisement taken off the air .

Problem solved– at least this time.

But what about the next time, and the time after that? And what about action that could stop anti-gay ads from being created in the first place? A week later, and after another 230 plus comments on the issue “ this time, facilitated by Chris Martin writing at The Consumerist – there is still no reflection about how to banish homophobia from the organization’s products.

The big-picture problem that created the biased ad is that the organization is acting inauthentically .

There is a gap between the organization’s claimed commitment to acting in a socially responsible way and the behavior that was socially irresponsible. By focusing on this gap between claims and actual behavior, a push for organizational authenticity could pressure the organization to change its behavior. If advocates were able to get the organization to act more authentically re: its claims, advocates could influence not only the organization’s homophobic actions, but also other actions that contradict the organization’s claim to be socially responsible.

So, let’s try a different tack on the question of eliminating homophobia. Let’s talk about designing an organization that acts authentically. …

blueprint

Want Bias? Design Homophobia in .

Among the handful of absolute truths about organizations and leadership that I wanted my MBA executive students to learn, is this simple statement about an organization’s results:

Organizations are designed to get the results they get.

I have never been able to find a pithier way to state this truth. Nonetheless, I’ve always found this truth to be a useful starting place for diagnosing any kind of problem in an organization. So, let’s take this approach to considering the CEO’s role in aligning the orgnization’s products & external actions with the organization’s statement of commitments. Keep in mind that this approach works only for organizations that already claim to be against bias, because this is all about making the organization accountable for those claims .

Want to Banish Bias? Design Homophobia Out .

If an organization claims to be committed to ensuring that we use our position to promote socially responsible policies and practices and that we make positive contributions to society across all of our operations”, then it should not be creating and selling advertising that denigrates the GLBT community. But where do we go to create change, so that the organization’s ignoble actions come closer to its lofty claims?

Let’s start with a diagnosis. Many would say that the offensive ad got through the Ad Agency because:

  • – Some employees at AMV/BBDO are homophobic
  • – Some employees at AMV/BBDO are unable to recognize an anti-gay sentiment
  • – Some employees at AMV/BBDO are unable (or unwilling) to speak out against an anti-gay creative idea
  • – Some employees at AMV/BBDO lack the power and influence to convince their peers that the ad is problematic

Any and all of these explanations could be true, and any of these issues could be addressed as a part of a program to prevent anti-gay advertising concepts. But, if you take to heart the idea that “Organizations are designed to get the results they get ,” could there be something about the way the Omnicom agencies are designed that permits anti-gay advertising to be created?

If AMV/BBDO is producing some ads that are anti-gay, then something in the design of the agency is making homophobic ads possible.

Want to change the organization’s outcome? Change the organization’s systems .

The way to prevent the agency from creating anti-gay advertising to recognize that there is something about the way that the agency is organized that is creating and/or letting pass ideas that are anti-gay. The job of top management is to analyze the organization’s systems ( its routine, procedures, policies, rewards, etc.), to identify places where bias could be created and/or filtered out, and to make changes in the system.

The CEO is responsible for changing the organization’s designfarah ramzan golant CEO AMV/BBDO

But let’s be “realistic”. Should eliminating homophobia from an agency’s advertisements be the responsibility of John Wren, the CEO of the Omnicom Group? Mark Horn points out that Wren is merely the CEO of the agency’s holding company. There are several layers of corporate hierarchy between Wren and any of ABM/DDBO’s processes. Horn suggest that, instead of addressing Wren, perhaps it is the CEO of AMV/BBDO (Farah Ramzan Golant) who should take action here. [Mark, I’m with you on that one, as are the folks who commented on my initial post .]

The CEO should modify the systems for creating and approving ads.

The CEO should consider system changes to eliminate anti-gay and otherwise biased advertising, and system changes that will promote clever advertising that is generously humorous. Golant should modify the ways that advertisements get created and executed (e.g., adjusting the idea generation processes already in use, or adding standards and checkpoints alongside the evaluations that each idea goes through as the creative quality is vetted.)

The CEO should establish systems that will align the organization’s actions with its claims.

  1. Golant should establish a system for managers and employees to compare the organization’s products with the organization’s statements of purpose and value.
  2. Golant should hold herself and the agency’s employees accountable for producing ads that reflect the creative and social standards that the agency claims to hold.
  3. Golant should create regular opportunities for the organization to assess, reflect on and adjust its actions so that they align with the organization’s claimed commitments.
  4. Golant should establish a process whereby the agency could ask itself:
    How does the advertising we create “use our position to promote socially responsible policies and practices?”

With these changes in the design of the organization, Golant can lead AMC/DDBO towards being more authentic.

Remember, too, that the behaviors of individual employees still matter.

Arguing that the CEO should change the organization’s systems does not let employees off the hook; employees are still responsible for their own actions and for supporting the organization’s claims through their own behavior. Employees’ sensitivity to anti-gay ideas, employees’ commitment to producing bias-free advertising, and employees’ ability and willingness to speak out against an anti-gay creative concepts are very important. But the actions and commitments of individual employees are not enough to eliminate homophobia in the organization’s products.

It takes heroic effort by employees to override an organization’s systems, and no amount of hard work can consistently overcome bad design.

To overcome a system that allows homophobia in, you have to design your organization to keep bias out.

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