Diversity: Not an Add-on, Just Good Business

“Diversity isn’t something you get to when you aren’t focusing on the rest of the business. It is now very much the state of the business.”

That assertion from Marva Smalls, Global Head of Inclusion and EVP, Public Affairs, Kids & Family Entertainment Brands at ViacomCBS, encapsulated one of several themes running through last week’s virtual Licensing International workshop, “Advancing Diversity in the Licensing Business.” The program included a conversation between Smalls and Pam Kaufman, President of ViacomCBS Consumer Products; a discussion among Richelle Parham, Managing Director at the venture capital firm West River Group, Payne Brown, President of the National Basketball Players Association’s Think450 licensing arm, and Steven Wolfe Pereira, CEO of Encantos Media Studios; and a presentation from Madeline Di Nonno, CEO of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.

Beyond race and gender
While the subject of diversity and inclusion (D&I) is often tied to race and gender, the discussion has evolved over time to include such areas as sexual orientation, physical disabilities and others. The overarching goal: to achieve, in the words of one participant, “diversity of thought” that impacts decision-making.

That’s an important extension, Smalls said. “I focus not only on diversity, but also on inclusion and belonging, and understanding that it is a competitive differentiator for us. Diversity without inclusion is tokenism.”

D&I issues were approached from a number of angles, including communication with employees and recruiting new talent; identifying and addressing new business opportunities; establishing goals and measuring (and incentivizing) individuals’ and the organization’s progress; and creating a structure to achieve those goals.

It starts at the top, but doesn’t end there
“It really comes from the top,” said Parham. “You have to have a diverse board [and] executive team and then that needs to get pushed down through the organization.  The other thing we know, at least form the organizations that I’ve been in, is that if it’s not part of someone’s goals, they don’t actually do it.”

Or, as Smalls succinctly observed: “What gets measured gets done, what gets done gets rewarded and what gets rewarded gets repeated.”

“If your leadership doesn’t look like the people you serve,” Parham continued,” you actually have a problem. Because the decisions that are going to be made at the company level need to be based who you are actually serving, and creating the right type of content to not only deliver what they are looking for but to give them other options.”

But it takes a conscious effort to broaden the perspective, from establishing internal employee resource groups (as is the case at ViacomCBS) to going outside one’s natural comfort zone in hiring. “Don’t always go to your own Rolodex,” said Kaufman. “Really be intentional about meeting new people. We need to bring fresh talent into this industry; too often people dial [who they] know, and that creates homogenous teams.”

And it can extend outside the organization, Smalls said. “We are looking at third-party vendors whether they are creative agencies or other organizations as we diversify who we are working with,” Smalls said. “Through a diversity of suppliers we want to impact the business in the communities where our employees live as well as the geographies where we do business. Supplier diversity is a value add that creates more efficiency that makes you more competitive and absolutely helps the bottom line.”

Leveraging a changing reality
It’s just good business. Brown recalled his days in the Comcast executive suite, when he often was faced with making “the business case” for employee diversity: “I need you to recognize that a significant number of your subscribers are people of color, and they’re loyal, so why not have people in the business who can speak for them and might market to them a little differently because they recognize they have some similarity in culture.”

Whatever business you’re in, he continued, “you not only have to understand who your audience is, but the question is do you value that audience? Do you respect their culture? Do you speak to them in a language they understand?” That “language” may be music, he said, pointing to the production of the NBA 2K videogame.

Wolfe Pereira expressed frustration with the reality that “over half the kids in America are diverse (black, brown and Asian), and 100% of growth in retail [in many categories] is coming from diverse, multicultural customers, but yet you don’t have that share of spend, you don’t have the investment, you don’t have the product assortment.”

But those lines are blurring. As Parham noted,Because of the internet, YouTube, TikTok and Instagram, [kids] can actually choose the content they want to consume. And when you look at the music they’re listening to, the content they’re viewing, they’re actually choosing to look across diverse content.”

Or, as Wolfe Pereira put it: “It’s not about multicultural marketing, it’s about marketing to a multicultural nation.”

And tapping into that consciousness takes effort, whether for a huge multinational or a much smaller firm. “It is like any other start up,” Small said of taking the first steps toward D&I. “How are going to drive your KPI? How are you going to ensure you don’t have blind spots that will create a miss by not investing in a department or investing in programs?

So if it’s not about hiring a large team, at least create a brain trust or cross-section of employees to start helping you build the journey that you want to create.  Sometimes it’s not about budget; budget does matter, but tap into the resources you have in terms of the people who are in your employ.”

Licensing International has a D&I toolkit available for download. Thanks to our sponsors: NFL Players Association; National Basketball Players Association; Sony Pictures Consumer Products, and Peanuts Worldwide.

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