Alison Weissbrot
May 06, 2021

VMLY&R boss Jon Cook opens up on DE&I

The global CEO of the WPP network was challenged to a public conversation by the agency’s Walter T. Geer, executive creative director of experience design

VMLY&R boss Jon Cook opens up on DE&I

While the ad industry conversation around diversity, equity and inclusion has gotten louder, CEOs of major companies don’t always directly address the topic.

Walter T. Geer, industry activist and executive creative director of experience design at VMLY&R, challenged his boss, Jon Cook, to join him for a public conversation on Instagram live to do exactly that.

The candid, hourlong conversation (see bottom) drew in over 1,200 viewers and touched on topics ranging from recruitment and retention of BIPOC employees, to creating safe spaces at work, to investing in BIPOC communities.

“You don't see CEOs doing this,” Geer told Campaign US. “When people put out their [diversity] numbers in June, they're going to put out numbers and no one will have a conversation. I gave him real, difficult questions, and he managed them well.”

With more than 11,000 employees, VMLY&R is one of the largest agency networks in WPP. The agency doubled its share of Black new hires from 6.6% of overall hires last year to 11.5% this year.

But VMLY&R, and WPP more broadly, still have work to do.

Overall, VMLY&R’s Black population is flat year over year, Cook said. WPP recently revealed its diversity data and many saw the numbers as a big miss.

Black employees make up just 6.5% of the workforce and 3.9% of management roles, while Latinx employees comprise 9.9% and 6.4% respectively, and Asian employees account for 12% of the workforce and 6.9% of leadership. WPP’s management is more than 80% white.

The conversation was positively received by VMLY&R’s employees and industry spectators, who appreciated Cook’s candor on what the agency is getting right and where it needs work.

“The power of what we did is show people that it is ok for individuals to ask questions of their leadership,” Geer said. “We can't get to fixing and repairing issues unless we're willing to sit through uncomfortable conversations and learn from them.”

Cook added that he has gotten “volumes of feedback” from people at VMLY&R and across the industry that’s opened his eyes to how few agency CEOs are having these conversations. “I have heard from people inside and outside WPP who were appreciative that it may have broken down a barrier to be able to talk,” he said.

“People are tired of very corporate panels or overly-staged conversations or documents that try to overplay what's been done or not done,” he added. “And I agree with that. Who wants to have 3 people on a panel with pre-prepared questions trying to make each other look good? It doesn't help anybody.”

Here are a few key takeaways from Cook’s responses during the conversation.

On hiring more Black talent

“We're tapping different groups and organizations. People are tapping their own networks, hiring people who don't look like [them]... and it's working. In this journey, you have to see progress, because if you work really hard and nothing happens, people give up and let off the pedal. Anybody interviewing people, you are going to be talking to a more diverse slate. That's part of our transformation. That is in the mandate.

“We’re doing better, smarter things with our interns. Last year we did a [virtual Masterclass series] called Nexus that was 40% BIPOC, and that wasn’t even on purpose…. And it converted into more hiring. We’ll do that again this year...and a huge portion will be BIPOC.”

On retaining Black talent

“We've invested a lot and have a lot of access to mentorship, sponsorship, training and access programs. We can tap into WPP.

“We had a year of COVID where nobody really advanced or got promotions. So we're making progress on it but … every time we hire somebody, I sit there and burn inside that there's somebody internally [thinking], ‘I wish they knew I was here.’

“The conversation with [team leaders], no matter their background, should be, do you know your team? Do you know this person exists and has been working here for 4 years? Most of the time it's ‘absolutely,’ and sometimes the answer is ‘no’.... So it's important to get to, do you know who is on your team and how they feel?”

On diversity in VMLY&R leadership

“Our U.S. leadership team is 34 people. Six are BIPOC and 2 are Black. That’s not enough. What I've learned is you can't say, ‘We're hiring a new [C-suite exec], make that person Black or a woman.’ We have to put the ingredients in place for that to happen.

“We're growing and creating new opportunities. We need new depth in how we think about data, tech and creative, mixed with a more diverse set of eyes looking at positions and making those hires will lead to good things. Hopefully, we'll talk in a year from now and there will be progress on that.”

On discrimination in performance reviews

“It doesn't totally surprise me because it's a big company… We put a lot more training in place in the last year... Racism and accidental micro-aggression, there's probably a fine line there. So [we need] training.

“It also takes people leading by example, leaders talking to other leaders. Little things, that are horrific, if you let them go, they will happen in the next interview if you don't do something about it.”

On celebrating Black talent

“Where we are on celebrating voices is really strong. [Through] things like ERGs and forums, Black voices, diverse voices are way out there in the universe more. Being white, you are hyper-aware and proud of everybody you now see out there with voices and leadership. It's because we've put a real emphasis on forums and thought leadership from the Black community. Qualitatively, you would feel, if you are Black, white or anything else … you see it, hear their voices and are excited.”

On making Black talent feel comfortable

“I do hate that you can't walk into our company right now. Math is a part of the equation, and an important part, but it has to feel [diverse] as you go in. Anecdotally, at VMLY&R in a pitch or meeting, you do see more diverse faces. Years ago, if there was a Black person in a meeting, you knew that in your white subconsciousness. It was just more rare. It's just getting more normal to see multiple faces that are diverse. And I like that it's not — ‘Hey look, there’s Black person!’ which it would've been at many agencies.”

On WPP’s diversity data

“The progress was minimal. It was a point here or there. I'm on the executive leadership team of WPP so I am a part of that. I know the efforts there. I have sympathy for how complicated it is to actually get the EEOC data to get those numbers. The numbers are far from good enough, everyone was expecting more progress, but I like that there's a baseline.

“With the amount of churn in the industry, it hasn't been easy for WPP to stay flat. I'm not saying they should get a medal, but it's still hard to get ahead of flat statistics just because of movement in the industry.”

On how VMLY&R is approaching diversity in client work

“We've offended a few people accidentally. With our Culture Studio … we have an organization every team can turn to to understand how things will play in culture. It's lazy to say everyone needs to pay more attention to it … it's true science, training, mixed with intuition and experience.

“We also started an inclusion business that [chief integration officer] Myron King is leading. Clients are asking and paying us for consultation on their organizational transformation.

“We don't have any process saying this team has to be diverse. It's happening a lot more naturally because we have diverse [people] leading teams.”

(This article first appeared on

Campaign India

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