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AAF Greater Rochester DEI Roundtable Cohort April Recap

May 19, 2023


At the end of April, a cohort of local agency leaders from Truth Collective, Butler/Till, Flynn, Optic Sky, Article Group, Helen+Gertrude, and DS+CO reconvened to talk about the efforts they’re focusing on this year to support Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in their companies, and the challenges they’re facing.

Throughout the discussion, there were a few key themes that the group focused on.

Diversity accelerates most in times of growth, but in times of downsizing, it needs to remain a focus.

Our agencies are faced with uncertain times. Advertiser budgets are getting slashed for the back half of the year, and that likely means less work for the same number of people. When faced with the difficult decision of potential layoffs or downsizing, it’s so important that we look at the makeup of our company and consider whether there may be a disparate impact. Are we letting more of one group of people go than others?

These are VERY tough conversations to have, and the way that leadership engages with employees through this process and considers how to support the team that’s remaining – who now likely have more work to do than before – is important.

It’s not only key to consider who we’re letting go during challenging times, but it’s also important to keep DEI efforts a part of the strategic vision for the year. It’s still possible to do more with less. There are three ways you can think about this: Time, Talent, and Treasure (financial).

  • Time:
    • Volunteering time and effort, as opposed to money.
    • Making sure that the company sets aside TIME for employees to volunteer, whether through set company time, mandatory individual time, incentives, etc.
  • Talent:
    • Keeping freelancers diverse as work starts to pick up, or as it ebbs and flows.
    • It may be more cost-effective for creative production work to be done in one geography over another, however the diverse makeup of one region may differ from another as well. Consider how to maintain diversity regardless of geography, even if that means bringing the talent you need to the geography that best aligns with your production budget.
  • Treasure:
    • Consider matching donations so that your employees are again empowered to donate where they want to and feel they can, and you can double down on the impact of that.

Education around diversity, equity, and inclusion is still needed.

During our first session with this cohort, so much of the diversity conversation focused around racial diversity. In this gathering, the group explored Gender Identity as an area where many agencies are still learning as well.

Local agencies have been engaging local speakers to help educate their employees about the Transgender experience, the impact of pronouns on developing allyship, and the importance of creating safe spaces where employees can ask vulnerable questions.

Pronoun use can be a challenge for certain generations, however they can also be a challenge for individuals from other countries, cultures, and native languages. When in doubt, the consensus of the room was to use the individuals name and, if you get a pronoun wrong, to correct yourself and move on. Don’t make such a big deal of it that the individual you’re speaking to needs to make you feel better about your mistake.

Becoming more diverse is only part of it. We need to account for the needs of our diverse culture.

The beauty of having diverse populations working together is that each individual brings their own lived experiences to the table, to conversations, to problem solving, and solutions. At the same time, those experiences often yield their own set of needs that should be accounted for in order for EVERYONE to thrive.

Here are a few ideas the cohort shared based on their experiences with their own employees:

  • If you hired individuals during COVID where they were hired with work-remote optional and your company decides to start requiring in-office days, consider the impact that cost of transportation may have on them.
  • Consider the cost of the health insurance plans that you offer. For entry-level employees especially, consider how much of their paycheck would go towards health insurance each period and whether that’s sustainable.
  • PTO policies are often geared towards tenure; the longer you work with us, the more days you accrue. Evaluate whether this accounts for personal circumstances, such as the employee who may need to take time off to care for a parent who is undergoing extensive medical treatment and whether your policies might make them choose between a parent and a career.


Not every employee may feel they have a voice to speak up when faced with these challenges. So evaluating your internal company policies with such scenarios in mind will help ensure that ALL employees can thrive.

Evaluate your company, and your people, to determine what forums for DEI discussions and education will work best.

Related to the educational opportunities for our agencies to learn about different diverse populations, it’s important to consider where and when these conversations take place. One agency offers regular Lunch & Learns to employees that are optional, and another leverages all-agency meetings that are mandatory. There is no blanket right or wrong approach, but it’s important to solicit feedback from employees about these efforts, about the speakers, and the conversations to make sure they’re impactful.

You don’t need to do it alone. There are programs you can join to support your DEI journey.

One reason we started this roundtable group was to have an opportunity to learn from one-another and be a part of each other’s journeys, even though we’re from different (and sometimes competing) organizations. It’s not just about the support we provide to one another, but also about learning of the support each is getting from elsewhere too.

During the discussion in April, there were two programs that were highlighted as ways to strategically support a more inclusive ad industry:

  • BLAC: Building Leaders and Creators
    • This is a 12-week paid internship program focused on pairing small to medium-sized agencies with diverse college-aged talent with the goal of bringing more young Black people into advertising and ensuring that they can full express themselves, find community, and lead.
    • The program takes place at ad agencies across the country individually, and includes a shared experience through group projects within the cohort.
  • Marcus Graham Project
    • This is a non-profit with a focus on providing diverse aspirants in the field of marketing and media with the exposure and experience necessary to solidify a career within the industry.
    • Marcus Graham Project has three different programs/workshops that organizations can participate in, in addition to mentoring opportunities.


Beyond internship and career-related programs, there are other programs geared towards the employee that can make a difference, such as Joon, which is a flexible wellness benefits program that provides increased support to employees, regardless of what “wellness” means to them.


There is still much to be done in our agencies and communities to be better allies, to create more inclusive environments, and strengthen our understanding and empathy. But every conversation and action allows us to collectively get a little closer, every day. This cohort will continue to have these important conversations, forge and strengthen connections, and educate each other through shared experiences. Stay tuned for more from our next meeting in Q4 2023.