Standing Up and Standing Out

Building something that will last requires a solid foundation, not just slapping a bright coat of paint over a flimsy structure. It’s about working from the inside out, which is one way of describing the role Carlos Sanchez plays at big-brand media agency Starcom.

As Director, Diversity and Inclusion Lead, for Starcom U.S., he helps ensure that the powerful marketing messages the company fashions for clients—a roster including the likes of Chrysler, Fiat, Kellogg’s and Samsung—aren’t just great-sounding ideas about better representation and opportunities for minorities but lived realities.

His job is making sure Starcom’s 1,400 employees in America “feel like they belong, making sure that every single day we’re having opportunities to engage in and create programs and initiatives and policy changes that make sure that every single one of them is able to be their most authentic [self].”

That involves helping develop new policies, programs and initiatives that turn dreams of greater diversity and inclusion (D&I) into practice. “We think about the way we hire,” Sanchez explains, “how can we make sure that we’re bringing belonging to the way we manage, promote and ultimately how we engage with our clients?”

There’s still a lot of work to be done in improving minority representation in the industry, he notes: whites make up an estimated 80% of those in advertising and marketing who shape the messages and images we consume. While it has become almost fashionable for companies to embrace D&I issues over the last couple of years, Sanchez is proud to work somewhere they have been an emphasis much longer.

Starcom founded its Spectrum D&I initiative in 2012 and established a belonging advisory board the year before George Floyd’s 2020 killing. The company has “leaned in in a way that’s making waves and not necessarily just riding them,” Sanchez says. “I think there’s a lot of that going on right now—people trying to ride the wave and all of that—but I think that what we’re doing as an organization is really making waves. Because we were doing this well before [George Floyd], so it’s not reactionary in any way.”

Sanchez describes Starcom’s efforts as “meaningful conversations… outside of just tragic events. Those are reactionary conversations. What we’ve wanted to do and what I’ve done is put into a philosophy that’s created proactive conversations, so we’re helping to get these muscles moving and not just necessarily flexing them when things aren’t going well.”

Leaning in
With forecasters saying that by 2030 people of color will be the majority in the United States, “what worked is not going to work anymore.” So businesses need to wake up to the importance of D&I, he says—thinking about both consumers and employees differently. But it’s not just about making money, it’s also “just the right thing to do for any business.”

In fact, it’s imperative, he goes on. “Being uninclusive in your approach from a marketer standpoint is actually one of the biggest irresponsible disservices a brand could do to themselves, just from a long-term perspective, just based off of what the census is showing.”

From a background in digital media, Sanchez joined Starcom in 2018 as associate director of strategy and investment, stepping up into his D&I work two years later. Away from Starcom, he’s on the board at Prismatic, an organization helping students from low-income communities develop leadership skills and national chair of the Men of Color Alliance.

His interest in engaging the whole D&I world was solidified after personally experiencing some of what it feels like to be on the outside. He went to a bootcamp on the issue hosted by She Runs It, an advocacy group founded a century ago as the League of Advertising Women.

“I went to this room and I was one of three men and maybe 700, 800 people were there,” he recalls. “At first I was a little overwhelmed; like, ‘I don’t know if I should be here.’” Then he realized this was an opportunity to better understand firsthand what diversity and inclusion looked like “and I need to be in this moment and lean in and try to make the most of it.

“It was literally one of the most impactful seminar sessions I’d ever attended because I just saw this passion.”

Sanchez sees three critical factors in bringing about real and lasting change. “First and foremost is acknowledgment,” he says. “Part of the starting of any journey is just acknowledging that you have to be on one,” and accepting that will mean being willing to be uncomfortable.

Having embraced that, the next step is commitment. “The ability to be persistent,” he says. Knowing you need to grow in certain areas requires being willing to have uncomfortable conversations, “but just doing it one time doesn’t suffice. You need to be persistent. This needs to be something that we’re doing so regularly that it becomes second nature and innate.” Finally, it’s important to measure progress just as a business would evaluate other areas of performance. “Measurement is everywhere,” he says. “Why are we not doing it in the same way here?”

Standing out
Looking ahead, Sanchez is optimistic. In five years’ time, he sees the industry reaching “the most trackable, measurable and efficient way to ensure that diverse audiences and our ability to leverage our buying power are coming to a convergence point. And I think that that is something that brands know is coming.”

Starcom, he believes, will be recognized as a model for how other organizations and their clients can restructure and reprioritize to make inclusivity and belonging integral to their business and the way they do business.

Despite the positive signs in corporate America, there is still a long way to go: what does Sanchez suggest to those who might feel they don’t have much say in the process?

“I think what folks should be doing is playing their game, leaning into their stories, leaning into their experiences,” he says. Sometimes, people avoid their uniqueness but “that’s actually a strategic advantage because it’s irreplicable; you can’t duplicate that.”

He speaks of a time when he tried to play “the corporate America game with the rules my white counterparts were using.” But then he realized, “I have this whole unique thing about me—and all people of color, Black people, brown people, we have this unique thing about ourselves and our experience, and we need to play to that.”

He uses a sports analogy: “It’s the ability to use your legs. Standing back and being a pocket passer is great, but if you use your legs, you’ve now created a whole new dynamic skill that can’t be duplicated and replicated and it can’t be accounted for. It’s an X factor. Lean in, find your X factor and leverage that in every and any way. Don’t be afraid of it. Don’t be ashamed of it. Use it, because that’s what makes you, you. That’s what makes it known that no one else can be you.”

From an interview with Louis Carr