There’s nothing new about the topic of diversity in the communications business, or about discussions of diversity at Cannes, where the IPG women’s breakfast—now in its seventh year—has become one of the centerpieces of the week-long celebration of creativity. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing new to be said on the subject, or that it has lost any of its urgency.

"We launched our popular annual Cannes event in 2011 to raise awareness of the need for more gender diversity in the industry and to challenge the industry to make progress," said Michael Roth, chairman and CEO of IPG. "Since then, gender equality has become a common topic at Cannes and at industry programs around the world. But when you look around these rooms—even at IPG's own events—you see that women of color are underrepresented in the conversations. It's a business imperative to change the status quo, and that's the process we want to begin with this summit."

But for a supposed "imperative," progress has been painfully incremental for many of the women at this year’s festival.

And indeed, the conversation at Cannes this year featured some statistics that have become depressingly familiar and predictable:

  • JWT’s Women’s 2016 Index, part of its Female Tribes initiative, revealed that 85% of women believe the advertising world needs to catch up with the real world" when it comes to the representation of women.
  • The same agency partnered with The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media to analyze more than 2,000 films from the Cannes Lions archive, and found that men get about four times as much screen time as women and speak about seven times more than women.
  • More than half of respondents to the IPG survey (54%) say there are too many stereotypes and almost the same number (51%) say too many images of women are not relevant to them.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women and under-secretary-general of the United Nations, raised the same issue during the the inaugural session of the Unstereotype Alliance, co-convened with Unilever: "The global advertising industry brings a sophisticated science of influence, finely honed creativity and deep pockets to shaping audiences’ choices of products and services. A by-product of this powerful process has been the shaping or reinforcing of negative stereotypes of both women and men. These persistent images feed into cultural norms and are a serious barrier for gender equality. We need to recognize and change them."

Lena Waithe, a writer on the TV show Bones and co-star on Netflix’s Master of None, went further on that topic during a panel hosted by Getty Images, telling the audience: "It’s not about seeing people of color on the screen, it’s about actually having substance. The material needs to have a lasting impact. We don’t want to just put black faces on the screen, otherwise the people at the top are just profiting from our culture.… People of color need to be behind-the-scenes too and not just used as props, to truly help change the scene."

At the same time, new research identified new dimensions to the diversity issue and new reasons for advertising and PR industry leaders to treat diversity as a business imperative:

  • Research conducted by Ketchum and Fast Company magazine found that while 71% of creative professionals say diversity of thought is valued by their organizations, 85% believe organizations must do more to encourage a diversity of ideas.
  • In the same study, creative professionals say it is important to interact with people who challenge their beliefs and assumptions (95%) and learn about cultures that challenge their beliefs and assumptions (94%).
  • During the IPG breakfast, Roth made the point that "less than 1% of female executive leadership in the ad industry is women of color."

One of the major reasons all of this matters was expressed in a video presented during the IPG breakfast, by one of the women of color interviewed by Refinery29 and National Geographic: "If a company is inclusive, cultural competency will follow."

Cultural competency, it should go without saying, is a critical skill for marketers in the 21st century. Roth raised the same issue, asking: "How can we have the insights necessary to connect with the consumer if we don’t identify with and understand the culture of the people we are trying to communicate with?"

And Rachel Holbrook, global head of production for Airbnb, expressed a similar case for diversity in creative leadership during a session from Global Women in PR at the Edelman House at Cannes. In conversation with ICCO chief executive Francis Ingham, Holbrooke told attendees: "Your goal should be to put together a diverse team because diversity increases empathy. If you have a genuinely diverse leadership team, then the chances are so much better that someone on that team will understand what you’re going through. Through diversity, you can create an empathy machine."

Beyond cultural competency and empathy, there’s an even more basic reason this issue is imperative, speakers suggested: the industry needs to tap into the broadest and deepest talent pool available.

"Global women of color make up the largest untapped labor force for our industry and the largest consumer marketplace for our clients," said Heide Gardner, chief diversity and inclusion officer for IPG, issuing "a call to action to adapt gender equality approaches to include women of more diverse backgrounds for our workforce, and to be more thoughtful in our marketing when it comes to the concerns and interests of these women."

Gardner was introducing research focused on "intersectionality," a term used to describe overlapping and interdependent aspects of identity: "You can’t solve issues like gender unless you take into account other aspects of identity like race, ethnicity, faith, sexual orientation, disability." Or, as National Geographic chief marketing officer Jill Cress explained, "Being a woman is not a monolithic identity and it’s only one aspect of who we are."

"The range of unique aspects of identity that women use to define themselves now requires marketers and the content they create to begin addressing personal identifiers rather than traditional demographics," said Brooke Hinton, insights manager at Refinery29, presenting the research, which included 4,000 women from five global markets.

Globally, the top five aspects of identity for women of culture were education, gender, age, accent/articulation, and body size, but there were national difference. In the UK and India, class made its way into the mix, whole in Brazil physical ability and skin tone were important, and in the US there was a greater emphasis on ethnicity.

In Ketchum’s survey, meanwhile, age emerged as a significant area of concern. Two-thirds (66%) of respondents said that creative professionals with 10 or more years of experience held more weight in choosing ideas than did those with less experience; only 20% said that junior creative talent has a lot of influence in choosing ideas. Yet, 73 percent of respondents say it is junior professionals who offer the braver ideas.

According to Karen Strauss, partner and chief strategy and creativity officer at Ketchum "The effect social media has had on limiting interactions with people who disagree with us and filtering information so it confirms existing views extends to our creative process. These findings underscore the need to seek and embrace dissent to break free of conformity and groupthink."

Added Robert Safian, editor of Fast Company: "The survey respondents see that working alongside people just like themselves limits creative potential, and to get outside our bubbles, we have to build teams from varying socioeconomic, educational and geographic backgrounds."

Respondents to the survey offered concrete suggestions for diversifying creative talent and opinions within organizations: make diversity hiring goals more explicit; end nepotism, cronyism and referral-based hiring; hire for curiosity over experience; hire from outside the industry; recruit internationally; eliminate insider jargon from employment ads; and increase blind hiring practices.

At the Global Women in PR discussion, HP chief communications officer Karen Kahn expanded on those issues. "Companies need to take the opportunity to figure out how people want to work," she said. "Companies spend a vast amount of time and energy on exit interviews instead of, when we on-board people, asking people how they want to work: if they want to drive child to school every morning, or if their child has basketball practice and that’s the way they want to work."

"You can only retain people if you can meet them where they live."

HP has backed up its own commitment to gender equity by telling all of its agencies that they have one year to increase the number of women in leadership roles—an ultimatum that generated excitement and approval from the women present, many of whom expressed frustration with the incremental pace of change and the seeming preference for words over action.

Some agencies are already changing, of course. Charlotte Witte, senior partner at Swedish agency Prime, said her firm was benefiting from a flexible approach to work—for both men and women.

"Sweden is often ranked as one of the most creative countries, in advertising and PR and in areas like music and gaming," said Witte. "We are also one of the equal and open countries in the world and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Sweden is well known for generous parental leave for mothers and fathers, exported into the world by H&M, IKEA and Spotify."

Several men at Prime have become fathers the last three years, she said, and all have spent at least four to six months at home. "They come back more creative than ever. Companies need to dig into their parental leave policies, because in order for women to have a shot in the workplace, men have to have a shot in the home."