Diversity, and inclusion are active topics of discussion in the creative community, and have been for many years. But it’s safe to say that, before June of this year, there was much more talk than action. Data we collected from agency leaders in Q4 of 2019 showed that just 56 percent of agencies had a formal diversity, equity, and inclusion policy, and only 41 percent said that they track the gender pay gap at their company. Nearly half of the agencies we surveyed didn’t have a DEI program and I think it’s safe to say the other half would characterize their previous efforts as lacking in terms of resources, focus, urgency, and impact.

That, we hope, is changing as agency leaders grapple with the lack of progress in our industry and their role (and responsibility) in effectuating change. Within the SoDA community, leaders have moved quickly to launch new programs, expand existing programs, and devote more time, money, and people resources to making a change in their own shops.

We recently spoke with founders at Stink Studios (New York, London, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Buenos Aires, Paris and Shanghai) and Jam3 (Toronto, Los Angeles, Amsterdam and Montevideo) to understand how they are tackling diversity, equity, and inclusion in their agencies. While both are taking concrete action against what requires a systemic and multi-generational unwinding of embedded patterns, they realize these steps are just the beginning. They readily admit that they don’t have all the answers and they approach their responsibility as business leaders and people of privilege with a serious sense of gravity and humility.

Mark Pytlik, CEO, Stink Studios

“Listen. Learn. Act. Repeat.” is the journey they’re on, and we hope some of their initial steps will help inspire ideas for new and continued action in your own agencies. Beyond broad statements of support and vague, aspirational commitments, both are taking concrete action against what needs to be a systemic and multi-generational unwinding of embedded patterns. They have realized these steps are just the beginning, readily admitting that they don’t have all the answers and need to approach their responsibility as business leaders and people of privilege with a serious sense of gravity and humility.

Pablo Via, Executive Creative Director, Jam3

How do you define diversity, equity, and inclusion in your organization?

Mark Pytlik, Stink Studios:

I have two answers to this. For starters, diversity, equity, and inclusion aren’t just about taking steps to ensure that there’s equal representation throughout an organization, but that there’s equal representation among people who are in positions of power. You can only hope to change your culture if you’re willing to change your power structure; otherwise, you’re just reinforcing the same structural racism that already exists. That’s why it was important for us to also pledge that our leadership team would look different in a year’s time. I’m under no illusion that meeting this pledge will be enough to fix the problem, but it felt like an important step.

My second answer to this hinges on something I think about often. I recently had a conversation with a Black designer who shared that they had consciously decided to stay freelance because they didn’t feel like there were enough agencies that felt “safe” enough to warrant a full-time commitment. They went on to share that their Black contemporaries often ask each other about different agencies by asking the question: “Is it safe?”

To be clear, they didn’t mean “Is it safe, physically?” Rather, they meant: is it safe to practice my craft, to share ideas, to share a bit of myself… is it safe to do my job without having to worry about constantly being confronted, overtly and covertly, with the racist structures of most agencies.

That insight stayed with me. No white designer thinks that way. No white designer worries about whether their work is going to be taken seriously, or whether their whiteness might be an impediment in the day-to-day. So, my long-term answer for how we define diversity, equity, and inclusion for Stink Studios is to make it an environment where anyone can come to do their best work and feel safe in doing so. And that’s much more difficult to judge because that sort of change can’t be effectuated as policy; it needs to be felt by everyone in the organization.

Pablo Vio, Jam3:

We believe and value different perspectives, identities, and experiences; these differences are what cultivates a rich culture and a commitment to an inclusive safe community for all. We must nurture empathy, respect, and encourage transparency to educate and inspire Jam3, our communities, and our world.

While we are now more diverse than ever, we have a lot of work to do with respect to gender, race, sexual orientation, and physical and mental ability equality. Our DEI vision is to do the right thing: create a more positive, safe, and equitable workplace for all of us to freely express ourselves. By attracting and retaining talent as diverse as the audiences we serve, we can ensure multiple perspectives for empathy, which will empower more innovative ideas, and access to a wider range of clients.

Tell us about the DEI efforts at your organization. Are there any specific organizations you’re partnering with or supporting to help broaden your impact?

Pablo Vio, Jam3:

Building awareness is the first step toward real change. We plan to educate ourselves alongside our employees as we learn how individuals are impacted by unconscious bias, and what actions continue to reinforce unconscious bias. We will be encouraging everyone working at Jam3 to build awareness and address unconscious bias by reviewing, questioning, and analyzing their own personal potential biases and assumptions. We have selected Crescendo as our vendor to take our organization through this exercise and will continue our growth and education of Diversity and Inclusion through this partner. Building awareness is the first step and it’s important that all staff have tools and training to provide guidance on actions for moving forward.

Another way we plan to build awareness of diversity and foster greater inclusivity is to be aware of and acknowledge a variety of upcoming religious and cultural holidays. Our Diversity and Inclusion Committee has planned out an entire cultural calendar for the whole year where we celebrate and educate our employees about specific cultural moments throughout the year. We also select books, movies, podcasts and articles of the month to create discussion, conversation and insight.

Our recruitment activities will include a more deliberate focus on where we post our positions to elicit a more diverse talent pool. Partnering with communities, schools, groups and associations who can offer more diverse talent we connect with. Our recruitment process currently involves a three step interview where candidates are interviewed by various different roles, genders and titles at Jam3 ensuring we don’t self perpetuate a mono-culture in a specific department.

How do you measure and track progress?

Pablo Vio, Jam3:

We will utilize the tools offered by Crescendo to measure our progress with diversity and inclusion within our workplace. We’ll also be measuring our success with the various job boards we plan to post our jobs. The success will not only include the number of candidates we received but also how many we decide to employ.  Lastly, we are looking within ourselves and measuring how diverse we are as an organization and how much of our talent is in leadership positions in order to practice what we preach.

Our priorities for 2020 and the months ahead are: inclusive language and unconscious bias training, D&I recruitment and hiring goals for each department,  community outreach and direct support through the donation of time, money and pro-bono services and a regular schedule of multicultural events to foster a deeper understanding and sense of belonging across our company.

We’re very early in our D&I efforts and there is still a lot of work to do. However, in the past year, we’ve committed to change by organizing a D&I committee, IWD Commitment to gender equality, and BIPOC equality commitments (600 & Rising Commit to Change).

Mark Pytlik, Stink Studios:

We used 600 & Rising’s open letter to the industry as the starting point for our public pledge and then modified it in a way that made sense for us. One of the modifications was that, in addition to sharing our diversity data, we pledged to share it publicly every year from now on. That was arguably more important for our teams internally to see than it was for anyone outside of the company; it was a way to signal just how serious we are about our long-term commitment to this work.

Beyond that, we’ve committed to anti-racism workshops, bias training, donation matching programmes, mentorship programmes, and a host of smaller, more grassroots initiatives, like our content inclusion program. For our mentorship work, we’ll be partnering with Scope of Work in the U.S. and Create Jobs in the UK. For the anti-racism and bias training initiatives, we’ll be working with Creative Equals in the UK, and we’re still in conversation with a few companies in the US. (Many of the better companies Stateside have been slammed with requests over the past few months, which is both exciting and embarrassing all at once.)

With all of these conversations, we decided early on that it’s better to be thorough and intentional than fast. That means lots of research, it means lots of exploratory conversations, some false starts, and potentially even some dead ends. That’s OK. My bet is that our intentionality will ultimately translate into actions and partnerships that have a better chance of being meaningful and foundational for our teams.

How are you managing DEI initiatives in your companies?

Pablo Vio, Jam3:

DEI initiatives are managed by our Diversity and Inclusion Committee.  We are a team of 13 co-workers,  which includes the support of 2 partners who also make up part of the team.  We meet once a month to discuss such topics as our current programming and “what we learned’, plan for upcoming events and activities, update each other on the various priorities and how we are tracking.

We currently utilize our Marketing team to curate the creative and production work for any of the cultural celebrations we intend to recognize. This allows the DEI team to focus on more actionable work such as education through training, discussion forums, analyzing DEI metrics, community outreach and creating awareness.

Mark Pytlik, Stink Studios:

We have a bi-monthly action meeting for everyone in the leadership and people functions. It’s where we track progress against our pledge and discuss everything from partnership opportunities to policy changes.

What role do you feel the creative community, at large, has in helping to drive change relative to DEI? What advice would you give to other agency leaders who don’t know where to start or are struggling with the enormity of the challenge?

Pablo Vio, Jam3:

The creative community can play a huge role in this space. There are many talented individuals from all walks of life who can be great additions to our organization. We and our communities need to do a better job of making an effort to find different ways to find talent that are outside of our norm. We support many influential brands that have an impact on many lives around the world. Many of these diverse groups support these brands so why not have them represented in our workplaces?  We need to hold ourselves accountable to this continued commitment. We should be regularly reporting on our diversity efforts to keep each other accountable as part of this group and continue to share ideas and best practices.

For those organizations who are unsure as to where to start I recommend seeking out a DEI consultant to help direct your initial program start up. We worked with Zanele Mutepfa-Rhone a culture and diversity strategist. She was an instrumental part of our DEI development and gave us the tools and processes to kick things off in the right direction. Don’t underestimate the act of transparency and authenticity where your agency has fallen short in the past. Recognizing your gaps and setting actionable goals will keep you and your agency accountable. You are not alone, peers within Soda who are on this journey would be an excellent resource as well.

Mark Pytlik, Stink Studios:

If the creative community wants to drive change, it needs to be willing to completely re-define its definition of what ‘good’ looks like, because right now a lot of what we collectively consider to be ‘good’ is as much a white construct as anything else. As an industry, we tend to gauge success and employability based on awards, or where someone’s worked before, or who they know, but the reality is that those terms exclude an entire cohort of talented individuals right from the start. A lot of diverse creatives get their start in agencies where budgets aren’t as big, or where the draw to win awards isn’t as strong, and that instantly puts them at a relative disadvantage. We need to do better jobs as creatives and look deeper than those superficial connections when evaluating potential candidates.

Meaningful action now, next year and beyond

A lack of diversity and inclusion in the digital creative industry has been an acknowledged issue for many years, but action and investment have lagged far behind this awareness. The events of 2020 have galvanized real commitments and real actions from many agency leaders around the world – this is a promising start, but we need to be in this for the long haul. Three months from now, one year from now, five years from now, we need to be working for meaningful change, not just when the headlines are screaming at us.

As James Baldwin wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Start somewhere. Start now. And keep starting again and again.


Mark Pytlik founded Stink Studios (fka Stinkdigital) in 2009 and now leads the organization as a Partner & CEO. He is based in Brooklyn.

Pablo Vio co-founded Jam3 in 2004 and now leads the organization as a Partner & Executive Creative Director. He is based in Toronto.