Protecting the diversity of cultural expressions is more important than ever. We are no longer in the age of awareness. We have enough understanding, articles, and anecdotal stories to know that we are still struggling to bring diverse talent to the table and keep them there.
To celebrate World Diversity Day this year, FREE THE WORK brought together an all-star panel from across industries to discuss the state of diversity and inclusion today, to riff on wins + challenges, and to reflect on what an equitable future will look like.
Nikki Weiss-Goldstein, Founder/Owner, Nikki Weiss & Co.
Sally Conner, Vice President Global Content, Programming & Partnership Marketing, Walt Disney Co., DPEP Yellow Shoes Creative Group
Whitney Cusack, Executive Producer
Zanah Thirus, Filmmaker + Creative Strategist
What steps have you taken in your own workflows over the past 5 years to shift DEI practices?
Zanah Thirus: Honestly, the fight for DEI in commercial production was ultimately what led me to shift my career from producing to strategy. From 2017-2022 I was a creative producer at various agencies (FCB, Leo Burnett, and Havas to name a few). In every campaign, I tried really hard to include minority directors in the bidding pool. It was like slamming a revolving door. It was the constant hamster wheel of “they don’t have enough work on their reel,” while also not giving directors opportunities to PUT the work on their reels.
In 2021, I awarded a Black Woman director (Fredgy Noël) to a commercial campaign, and that’s when something shifted. I knew that I wanted to be closer to the ‘why’ behind creative work. I no longer wanted to be at the tail end of the execution (producing). This year, January 2023, I began my first full time role as a creative strategist. Now, I’m a part of the creative concepting from the very inception and I’m building a closer rapport with creative teams to push DEI at the onset of a project.
Sally Conner: While one might have a diverse team, you can’t assume you have diversity of thought. All employees need to have a voice at the table, regardless of title or position. If you create a safe environment where all employees can be heard, then you have real inclusivity.
When we start a project, we’ll end a meeting and regroup if there isn’t proper representation. All levels are asked to contribute on projects, regardless of their positions and level. The most junior person might be asked to chime in first. We created “peer reviews” where the team reviews and shares creative projects and programming development and all cast members (employees) comment, discuss and learn. As a leader, I encourage my team to speak first to avoid compliance and encourage unbiased and objective insights, opinions and diverse thinking.
“While one might have a diverse team, you can’t assume you have diversity of thought. All employees need to have a voice at the table, regardless of title or position.”Sally Conner, Vice President Global Content, Programming & Partnership Marketing, Walt Disney Co., DPEP Yellow Shoes Creative Group.
What are the common roadblocks when pitching diverse directors?
Whitney Cusack: OPPORTUNITY. For some reason it seems like the creative imagination narrows right when it’s time to translate the work on someone’s existing reel as a possibility for a new project. There has to be a level of trust, communication and true partnership in order to remove these roadblocks. There’s a reason why you’ve hired a particular producer or team to help you get the job done. If you can’t trust them to bring forth some of the best talent options, then why have them on the project?
Creatives and clients should be more open to talk to some of the diverse directors being presented. Take one meeting and I’m sure your perception of their ability to do the work will change. Don’t assume just because they don’t yet have some huge brand or A-list celebrity on their reel that they’re not legitimate or haven’t put years of work in before your producer presents their portfolio. Remember, someone gave you a shot once too.
“For some reason, it seems like creative imagination narrows when it’s time to translate the work on someone’s reel as a possibility for a new project.”Whitney Cusack, Executive Producer
With declining production budgets, what steps can companies/orgs take to ensure they are not sacrificing diversity and inclusion in their hiring and production practices? How can we also provide that diverse creators are paid equitable rates?
Nikki Weiss-Goldstein: Companies MUST prioritize diversity and inclusion and actually put it into action, not just talk about it or tick a box. Diversity and inclusion has to be a core value of a company’s mission and culture, ensuring that perspectives are valued and actively sought throughout the creative and production process.
Companies should establish transparent compensation policies that outline how pay rates are determined, considering industry standards, market rates, and the value of the work performed. Rates need to be regularly reassessed and adjusted to account for market changes, making sure that creators are compensated fairly.
Also I encourage negotiation transparency. An open and transparent environment where creators feel comfortable discussing compensation is really important. Diverse creators must know their worth!
“An open and transparent environment where creators feel comfortable discussing compensation is really important. Diverse creators must know their worth!”Nikki Weiss-Goldstein, Founder/Owner, Nikki Weiss & Co.
Zanah Thirus: Declining production budgets means you aren’t flying a team of 30 people first class to the Maldives for a shoot that also includes $200,000 worth of CGI work. It means that your teams are writing scripts within budget (location, characters, props, etc). THAT is where budgets are cut…not salaries.
Regardless of declining production budgets, companies should still be paying their crews fairly. Full stop. And frankly, with declining production budgets, you aren’t going to get Steven Spielberg to direct your spot, so why don’t you hire a (more than capable) minority director to direct your 30 second commercial?
Using declining production budgets as an excuse to NOT incorporate DEI is a deliberate choice.
What steps can media companies take to ensure that their efforts towards DEI are not just tokenistic gestures but meaningful and sustained initiatives?
Zanah Thirus: Companies need to make a commitment at the beginning of every year to award work to a certain number of underrepresented directors. In every triple bid, there needs to be a minority director included. At the end of the year, there needs to be an audit to hold the agency accountable to their DEI commitments.
I also think we need to go beyond the ‘It’s the right thing to do’ mentality when it comes to DEI. While this is true, we also don’t have to take our eyes off of the bottom line. Having creative teams that are inclusive of people with different cultures, backgrounds, and experiences inevitably leads to more creative and innovate work. Ultimately, that is the type of work that stands out in an oversaturated industry, and that’s the kind of work that attracts clients to creative agencies.
“Having creative teams that are inclusive of people with different cultures, backgrounds, and experiences inevitably leads to more creative and innovate work. Ultimately that is the type of work that stands out in an oversaturated industry, and that’s the kind of work that attracts clients to creative agencies.”Zanah Thirus, Filmmaker + Creative Strategist
Nikki Weiss-Goldstein: Promoting diversity and inclusion leads to creative innovation, better decision-making, and improved business outcomes. I do believe that every company should pledge and honor its DEI commitment with a yearly audit.
Finally, what steps can production companies and agencies take to identify and address biases and inequalities in their workplace policies and practices?
Sally Conner: Over 7 years ago, Geena Davis brought to our attention the underrepresentation of women in content. The stats were shocking. We audited 5 years of content, programming and advertising with Geena and her team. We were willing to look at ourselves and see where we got it right and where we did not. It is important to take the time to see if you are representing diversity correctly with organizations like Free the Work, Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, See Her, Change the Lens and many more.
Nikki Weiss-Goldstein: Production companies shouldn’t just sign diverse directors for optics on their roster. There needs to be a heavy-handed commitment to help ensure these directors have a seat at the table and aren’t just sitting idle. One step could be that a seasoned director on the same roster takes a minority filmmaker under their wing by being instrumental as a creative director or a co-director scenario on a project. This allows the diverse filmmaker access to campaigns that they might not have had.
Whitney Cusack: Agencies need to listen to their BIPOC employees. I’ve seen organizations be awarded outwardly for their “innovative” diversity practices while the employees on the inside struggle daily for their opinions to be valued. Agencies have to be willing to face the hard truths if they want to implement real, lasting change. Admit what you don’t know, hire specialists trained to evaluate current practices and then commit to doing the work.