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Disability Inclusion: “2019 is the Year for No More Excuses”


The Valuable 500’s Caroline Casey explains how her movement for full inclusion is a huge opportunity for the ad industry

Disability Inclusion: “2019 is the Year for No More Excuses”
“You either believe in full inclusion, or you’re diversish.” That, according to activist Caroline Casey, is what companies need to consider before they sign up to The Valuable 500 - her ambitious year-long campaign to get 500 businesses to pledge to put disability inclusion on their leadership agendas. Launched at this year’s World Economic Forum Annual Summit, Caroline, who is registered blind herself, has already gained support from a host of global leaders including Sir Richard Branson and Unilever CEO Paul Polman, and global brands including Virgin Media and Omnicom.

To coincide with the launch in January, the campaign launched its ‘Diversish’ film, created by AMV BBDO and directed by James Rouse, highlighting how ridiculously behind many self-proclaimed inclusive brands are when it comes to disability.

This week she took to the stage at Advertising Week Europe twice, to discuss the opportunity that disability inclusion can be to brands and to screen the Diversish film again.

LBB’s Alex Reeves sat down with her to talk about the ad industry’s role in making sure brands follow through on their diversity promises.

LBB> You’ve partnered with five Omnicom agencies as strategic partners. You’re speaking twice at Advertising Week Europe. Why is the advertising industry so vital to The Valuable 500 campaign?

Caroline> For me, the allies for this to even hope this could be a reality is this industry and the next generation. They’re the ones who have the chance of flipping it. I’m not saying the power of the younger generation through every industry isn’t important, but in this industry, that’s where we’re going to see the change. 

What we see and what we hear really affects how we behave. We all know that in theory. But if we work in partnership and co-create with these five agencies, we have some chance.

You need to lead with creative and brand and you need to have an internal change. But you can’t wait until the internal story is fixed because we won’t ever get there. I think the pressure point of advertising, creative, marketing, communications is what’s going to put the pressure on the businesses to go on the internal journey. It’s real chicken and egg stuff.

Your industry is probably the most influential industry of them all. 

At the moment I’m sitting in a big conversation, but is it really what your industry is interested in? Not yet. But by next year… I’m throwing down the gauntlet. I think this will be a very important piece that the industry is going to have to talk to. I think it’s coming. 

LBB> And you’re screening Diversish again to the industry. Can you tell us a bit about the film?

Caroline> That film is absolutely a representation of everything. However when you see this satirical film, directed by James Rouse - James is a legend, right? - you’ve got this extraordinary director who listened to everything we had to say and produced this. Those two minutes - people laugh and they squirm. In two minutes, it gets all the messaging of why The Valuable 500 exists across. 

LBB> What do you think about the representation of disabled people in advertising? Is that ‘see it, be it’ aspect important?

Caroline> Representation is one part. But it’s the vehicle through which we can communicate our message better than any other.

The reason I’ve chosen to work with Omnicom as well as Virgin Media is that I wanted to work with a group like that. It was either going to be WPP or Omnicom and I just got to Omnicom first and Janet Riccio [EVP], who has an acquired disability. You’re going to hear her story very soon. 

It’s also because I believe it’s not just about representation. It’s about messaging. It’s how we PR and communicate. It’s getting CMOs on board to consider 20% of our market [the percentage of the world population with a disability], 1.3 billion [the number of people], $8 trillion [their estimated spending power], and how they can build that into communications. The Maltesers ad has been amazing, we’ve all loved it, but we need a new Maltesers ad. The Microsoft Super Bowl ad - brilliant. I remember Pepsi did their one in 2008 for the Super Bowl, which was amazing. Then the wheelchair basketball in 2013. But we need more.

In representation we need to get away from the hero model or the pity model. It’s absolutely ridiculous. I’m a person with a disability. I’m neither a hero nor a sad person. I’m a human. I think it’s lazy. I want to see people with disabilities in advertising not talking about disability. I want to see them talking about sex, drugs, rock and roll, holidays and banking.

It’s those ads that contain diversity that are getting a better reaction from the consumer. Because it’s saying something. It doesn’t need to get it all right. But it’s saying something. 

LBB> Why has disability been so neglected from the diversity and inclusion conversation?

Caroline> Lots of reasons. If I could find one reason we’d have all the problems solved. There’s a combination of reasons. Obviously because of The Valuable 500 I’m biased. But these are my three:

1. We still have framed disability in medical, charity, government conventions. It’s not framed in a business context. The extraordinary ROI that exists for disability, like anything else, the $8 trillion market, the acquisition of talent and retention of your generation who care about inclusion, the brand opportunities. We get it, but businesses don’t buy it. We know it, but it’s not being filtered in.

2. I honestly think businesses think they have enough on their plates, it’s not worth it and they can’t be bothered because there’s so much else to do and because diversity and inclusion is so cluttered anyway - we’re pitching off humanity against each other, as if you can do that. 

3. But the most prominent reason the Valuable 500 exists is there is no leadership accountability.

That’s what the Valuable 500 is doing better than anyone’s done before. Six months ago I’d be trying to convince you about my great idea and that I’d been working in this space for 18 years. Now I’m like: actually, bullshit. 2019 is the year for no more excuses. Leaders have delegated the responsibility of diversity and inclusion to HR or somebody else. Leaders themselves are very uncomfortable with this topic, they don’t see the business [sense] and we’ve never had one before Paul Polman stepped up. So if you have Sheryl Sandberg going on about gender, that’s amazing, and Mark Zuckerberg talking about the democratisation of the internet - that’s fantastic - but where’s the one for 20% of our population? Without leaders it’s never going to happen. And leaders follow leaders. So we need leadership intention and accountability.

One of the things I’ve been very concerned about after we launched The Valuable 500 [is that] no company has said no to us yet. But there’s no grey here. You are either committed to beginning, scaling and leading or not. You don’t get to sit on the fence. We’re now having lots of companies saying they’ll come back to us. We say no. We will approach 1,000 companies. Who’s going to be on the Diversish list and who’s going to be on The Valuable 500 list? And what are the reasons?

In the end we’ll find out what those reasons are. If you can imagine what The Valuable 500 looks like in Davos next year, that’s 500 CEO signatures. That’s a tipping point. 

What we’re trying to do is create FOMO. Those companies think they’d rather be on that list than not on it. And that’s the beginning. Leaders have to be accountable. You don’t get to sit on the fence. You either lead a company that reflects the society you operate in or you don’t.

LBB> So it's easy for them to say they’ll sign up. How do you hold them to account?

Caroline> We have interviewed hundreds of companies to get the positioning of this right. If it’s too tricky they can have an excuse. If it’s too simple they can have an excuse and we lose credibility. It’s a three-commitment process:

1. You need to put it on your board agenda and have a discussion. It can be one, two, five, 10 minutes - I don’t care - but it has to be in your minutes.
2. From that, you will agree to make a commitment to action. You can do it at that board meeting or before 31st December, but you’ve got to do it, we have to see it and it gets printed. 
3. You have to communicate your involvement in the Valuable 500 to your business and to the external world.

We can track you. We see them and follow through with them and keep following up.

LBB> And what’s the ad industry’s role in that?

Caroline> You’ll help us keep account of them. You’ll be saying ‘you signed up to the Valuable 500. We’re not hearing you talking about it. What have you done?’ You are our accountability. That’s why you’re so important. Isn’t it fun?

We’re playing chicken here. It’s terrifying. But this is not about shaming. It’s just, are you going to honour a commitment or not? All I’m asking leaders is to admit that they don’t know what they’re going to do, but they’ll begin. That’s OK. But do not make an excuse that you can’t because A, B and C. If you look at #Diversish you will see all of those excuses.

LBB> Right. I can imagine some interesting meetings happening between ad agencies and clients who’ve signed up to this!

Caroline> Where I think [the ad industry] is so interesting is we’re creating a massive volume of opportunity for work for the agency world. I have a relationship between the leaders of AMV BBDO, RAPP, Interbrand, Porter Novelli, Ketchum and Manning Gottlieb. I meet the leaders as a group of co-creators. It’s not Omnicom - John Wren and Janet Riccio, it’s the people on the ground. They’re not doing it just because they think it’s a nice cause. It’s because they see potential work. If we’re creating a market, who's going to fill it? Well, I hope these agencies will be ahead of the curve. AMV already are, working on Maltesers.

If I was a renegade agency or a starter agency, I’d be sniffing around thinking there’s something revolutionary in this and we could fill that gap. I’d be going around to all The Valuable 500 and asking: “How are you going to express that? Let me help you.”

If you’ve got 500 companies and 500 CEOs, someone’s got to do something about the communications part. I can’t wait to see what it’s going to be like at Advertising Week Europe next year.

Photograph: Jack Caffrey

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LBB Editorial, Thu, 21 Mar 2019 15:34:05 GMT