For Sandra Sims-Williams, diversity and inclusion represent a deep professional and personal passion, helping to serve as “an active and action-oriented voice for the voiceless.” As Chief Diversity Officer of Paris-based Publicis Groupe, Sims-Williams brings a level of commitment to the development and management of diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives that benefit the 92-year-old company’s talent and its business.
One of the world’s largest communications companies, Publicis Groupe includes in its portfolio such iconic advertising agencies as Leo Burnett and Saatchi & Saatchi. In today’s connected world, in which it must rapidly serve multiple audiences across divergent cultures and demographics, the holding company, Sims-Williams says, is focused on “it’s Power of One positioning—allowing people to utilize, think, and be free to put forth ideas, and let their creative juices flow without being constrained by agency silos.” She further states that Publicis Groupe has made a commitment to using artificial intelligence to help connect its people to one another and to opportunities across the globe. Called Marcel in honor of the company’s founder, Publicis Groupe’s AI platform is currently in development and being built on the foundation of four key pillars: “knowledge, connectivity, opportunity, and productivity.”
Sims-Williams, a 20-year-plus D&I veteran who holds a bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University and a master’s from Hunter College, discusses her charge to execute a collective D&I strategy.
How do you infuse a diversity and inclusion philosophy and practice in such a sprawling organization?
At the time it acquired the previous iteration of the agency I was with, Publicis Groupe’s mantra was, “Viva la difference!” (Long live difference!) I love the mantra because not only is it a celebration of work that stands out in the marketplace, it is also a very natural celebration of Publicis Groupe’s talent and all their dimensions of diversity. It is this mantra that inspired me to build a D&I strategy for the benefit of our talent and our business.
The first thing I did was to focus on retention. My approach was to assess the environment so that we knew whether people actually were having a decent and fair journey through our agencies. As part of our journey I created a council to which we invited representatives from all the different agencies to help co-create a D&I strategy. The challenge is that all the agencies were in very different places on the D&I evolutionary curve. Some agencies were already entrenched in and embracing D&I efforts, some were tentative but inching along and others had nothing. So as a holding group level, we set the table with programming options that would support retention, recruitment, professional development, leadership development, advocacy, and community support.
So how did you get the agencies to focus on these areas?
By setting the table with options, we made it very easy for our agencies to start exploring and focusing on their own D&I journey. With time, and support from my team, we have helped agencies not only take advantage of what we had to offer but to create their own offerings too. For example, within the last few years our Publicis Media solution hub ideated and activated what has now become known as the Multicultural Talent Pipeline to help encourage multicultural talent consider career opportunities in the media industry.
Bringing the agencies together was a really high point for us. In fact, not only have we been organizing quarterly Talent Engagement & Inclusion Council meetings in the spirit of Publicis Groupe’s Power of One positioning, our team has also convened an annual Publicis Groupe CEO roundtable. The purpose of the roundtable is to provide our most senior leaders with time to connect, discuss and learn from each other and external consultants on D&I-related topics.
Share with us the importance of the Business Resource Groups (BRGs).
We started with just one business resource group (BRG) called VivaWomen! It is our BRG for women and their allies and it was started as a corporate initiative in Paris. A couple of years later, our talent started raising their hands and offering to start other BRGs. Today we also have Égalité (LGBTQ), GENNEXT (young professionals), MOCA – Men of Color Alliance, Publicis Connects (HR, recruiting, resource management)), and PubVets (military veterans). Under our VivaWomen! umbrella, we also have VivaMama, VivaTech and VivaWomen of Color. All BRGs are open to all members of the Publicis Groupe community and we very much encourage the affiliation of allies.
So how do you foster the cultural connections and understanding needed to create the sense of community that makes the company a dynamic whole?
I don’t believe in diversity training because you can’t train people to change their minds. What you can do is create experiences for them to feel a different way about a subject matter or a group. For example, I’ve taken white women to the BLACK ENTERPRISE Women of Power Summit (BEWPS). One in particular comes to mind. She was a recruiter out of one of our Boston-based agencies and she had shared with me her interest in learning more about diversity and inclusion. She came in for the dinner, and we went around the table talking about what each had experienced after the first day. She sat there, started crying and then said, “I have to tell you, I was terrified to come here because I didn’t know whether I would be accepted or how people would react to me. This has been a turning point for me because I have never been so welcomed, so embraced and felt so at home than with these women. And I didn’t expect that.” She stepped out of her comfort zone and benefitted considerably from the opportunity which to this day she acknowledges has made her a better recruiter.
After people come back from [BEWPS], I have also had managers ask me “What ever went on at the conference? My team member has come back a completely different person. She is more inspired, more proactive, more upbeat and more effective!” I had two participants last year who even gained the confidence and courage from the summit to ask for overseas opportunities upon their return, and both of them were granted what they asked for.
What have been some of the other transformative conferences and initiatives?
We have supported the 3% Conference that was created by Kat Gordon to help bring awareness to the fact that a very low percentage of senior creative roles within our industry are occupied by women. The purpose of the conference has been to improve this and increase the percentage of creative women making it into the highest creative ranks. Égalité, our LGBTQ business resource group coordinates our representation at the annual Out & Equal summit that attracts some 3,000 people. Last year in Philadelphia we sent approximately 55 Publicis Groupe ambassadors to the Out & Equal Summit.
The conferences we attend have a very strong professional development component but we also offer a number of professional development offerings in-house and across the country too. For example, every year we offer unconscious bias, managing inclusion, inclusive recruiting, cultural competency, straight talk and efficacy. What’s great is that these are opt-in opportunities and our talent is clamoring to register for these full day experiences that always have a wait list.
So what do you teach African American professionals to advance in corporate America?
We talk about career stages. While this doesn’t apply to everyone, often times when starting one’s career the tendency is to be “heads down” to show that you actually can do your job. As you progress, not only do you have to leverage your skills to deliver work, you need to hone new people management skills to deliver work through others. At every level, relationship-building is mission critical. Finding mentors who can speak to you about the unwritten rules of success and catching the eye of sponsors who will use their equity behind closed doors when career advancement discussions are taking place is all very important.
Do you address unconscious bias from a generational standpoint as well as related to race and gender?
Absolutely. This is something we have to consider not only in our workforce but the manner in which it influences business opportunities. For example, one of our cosmetics clients looked very closely into the disposable income of more seasoned women. Is that a conversation that would have materialized without a diversity of talent around the table? Probably not. A diversity of perspective, cultural experiences and backgrounds can be tremendous in helping to identify new business opportunities.
How will you continue to keep this level of connection and communication throughout this vast, global organization?
The one element that is high on our list is Marcel, our AI platform I mentioned earlier. With help from Marcel we are going to be better able to manage all of our people across the globe and manage them with more opportunities to showcase their skills by working on projects that cross geographic boundaries. This is what Marcel is being set up to do and acknowledging diversity will be an important piece to getting this right,
At the end of the day, in order for us to work together, we have to respect one another. We have to respect each other’s demographics, backgrounds, experiences and cultures. Embrace each person fully and just watch how we will be able to build on each other’s ideas for the benefit of our business.