Digital marketing isn’t stale, but it’s mainly pale and male

Two business colleagues shaking hands during meeting

I don’t expect diversity in the New York supermarket business.  Rightly or wrongly, I have long associated chains like D’Agostino and Gristede’s as places managed by brawny Italian-American men.

In the public relations professions, the spotlight has been shining on the lack of adequate representation by non-male, non-white personnel for quite some time.  Similar criticism — and in some cases, litigation — has been lodged against the advertising and financial services industries.

But the world has changed since Don Draper types ruled on Madison Avenue, right?  Surely, the next generation of technology-driven marketing services would be led by people who more closely resemble those who live in our global communities where our clients sell their wares.

If the speakers and attendees at last week’s Inbound Marketing Summit in suburban Boston were an accurate sampling of who’s guiding us through the transformation from command-and-control “push” marketing to online and offline consumer “engagement” by brands, the answer is no.  The vast majority of those behind the books, speeches, opinions, videos and business models showcased at #IMS09 were  white males, mainly in their 30s and 40s.

One exception was Candace Fleming, CEO of the social media analytics platform Crimson Hexagon.  Another was Tina Hoang, whose Palo Alto, Calif., venture capital firm was trolling the event for companies to back.

While at PR Newswire,  where I worked from 1989 until recently, one of our overarching goals was building a healthy corporate culture and products that represented the needs of our communities.  Key to our success was attracting and retaining talent of all shapes, sizes, colors, orientations, religions and ethnicities.  The many postage stamp-sized images of my former PRN colleagues I see on Facebook each day confirms that we made plenty of progress.

Why is this important?

Census data from 2008 shows 54% of the U.S. population will be 54 percent minority groups — that is “everyone except non-Hispanic, single-race whites” — by the mid-21st century.  Professions that continue to rely on pale, male and stale people, practices and ideas are much more likely to be irrelevant.

One recent research paper on the topic, Elizabeth L. Toth’s  “Diversity and Public Relations Practice,” outlined the challenge for our profession.  Organizations like the Public Relations Society of America and the Institute for Public Relations have dedicated resources to address the issue.  But traditional PR agencies and corporate communications functions are morphing into new entities so quickly, it’s questionable how much impact the longtime industry standard bearers will have influencing the fledgling inbound marketing field.

There is  plenty of wildly successful marketing work being done in Africa, Asia, Europe and in the Americas using digital tools and creative  ideas from people who have never written a book or proclaimed themselves social media experts.  Events like the the trends-and-technologies Pop!Tech conference, in Camden, Maine, Oct. 21-24, have a broad roster of philanthropic doers who are glad to share their successes and failures with PR and marketing pros who want to learn new skills.

For people without thousands of dollars to spend on conferences like Pop!Tech and TED, last week’s Inbound Marketing Summit was well worth the time and investment.  I’d love to see next year’s event held in Indonesia, Argentina or Tunisia.  If not there, at least invite some of their digital marketing superstars to visit Boston.

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