Publishers and Buyers Double Down on DEI Commitments as Upfront Talks Begin

Both sides say they remain committed to meaningful change, despite economic uncertainty

The Covid-19 pandemic put a spotlight on social injustice, economic disparity and the need for representation, making DEI a hot topic for companies to address in the upfront and the advertising landscape as a whole.

When it comes to DEI pledges from advertisers and media companies, talk is cheap. There’s a big difference between making upfront equity promises and actually putting forth the eight- or nine-figure ad sales spend required to back that up—especially in the midst of a soft ad market with a possible recession looming.

But despite the economic uncertainty, the DEI promises aren’t just lip service, according to Lisa Torres, president, multicultural, at Publicis Media.

“This is a very different environment than what I’ve seen in prior recessions. This always becomes a focus during census releases,” Torres said. “This time, it’s really from a societal standpoint, the injustices that we knew were in the system but didn’t necessarily address them in the way that we’re addressing them now.”

With this year’s upfront talks already underway, the spotlight will shine on DEI assurances once again, likely with more scrutiny than ever as industry watchdogs start to check receipts. However, in backing up their promises by taking on systemic, industrywide issues, several publishers and advertisers are indeed putting their money where their mouth is.

That includes Horizon Media. In addition to utilizing internal tools such as Hispanic FairShare and Black Media Equity to connect clients with diverse audiences and working with Maven to bring clients to diverse-owned suppliers, Horizon Media introduced its eMbrace platform in 2022 as a way to make its media spend more inclusive. The customized software and data solution, which Nielsen powers, aims to bring cultural equity to communications and media planning.

“[Inclusivity] is one of the reasons why we’re looking at alternative currencies—iSpot and VideoAmp, in particular. In our early analysis of their sample sizes in their households, they have better representation of diverse audiences,” said David Campanelli, evp and chief investment officer at Horizon Media. Last year, the company announced it would transact on up to 15% of its upfront business using alternative currencies.

With a better representation of the U.S. demographic makeup, consisting of around 40 million households each, iSpot and VideoAmp also give more accurate measurement against smaller cable networks, which is important when scale is one of the obstacles advertisers face when trying to connect with diverse-owned businesses. 

“We know it’s a long game and are happy to be active participants in investing in Black-owned media, really all minority-owned media, so that those businesses can reinvest in their business to create better programming; better content; on the digital side, programmatic capabilities; and larger networks,” Campanelli said, adding that DEI is one of Horizon’s key pillars for determining its upfront strategy.

During its third annual Equity Upfront event in February, Magna, the investment company of IPG Mediabrands, also helped connect its clients with diverse media suppliers, giving those partners—36 in all—the platform they needed to pitch brand marketers.

“When we started this, and we were the first to do this, it was focused on Black-owned,” said Dani Benowitz, Magna president, U.S. “That was three years ago. We have expanded that reach to include Hispanic-Latino, Asian and LGBTQ+ to ensure that we weren’t just focusing in one area because diversity takes many shapes and forms.”

Authenticity is key

Though the Equity Upfront takes place early in the season to capitalize on industrywide planning, Magna also hosts smaller, quarterly equity sessions to keep DEI education going throughout the year.

“These audiences not only can drive scale with their tremendous power. They also are influencers in culture, whether it’s driving food culture, music. They have a strong influence on content and television programs,” Benowitz said. “They’re loyal audiences, and marketers that engage with these audiences in an authentic way will reap the rewards for years to come.”

That authentic connection is essential for marketers, agreed Fernando Romero, svp of digital advertising sales, TelevisaUnivision.

“There’s just learning that has to happen because most marketers think, ‘I’m getting 20-30% of the U.S. Hispanic audience, and I’m working with these general markets, so I’m just going to cut everybody’s spend,'” Romero said. “Well, do you also understand that 90% of our audience is exclusive to us? So you’re missing out on a whole new segment, an all-new consumer base.”

But speaking authentically also goes beyond data and requires a diversified media mix, according to Torres.

“This whole ecosystem is built on scale and efficiency right now. It’s about who has the biggest scale of the cheapest CPM,” Torres said. “And we need to humanize the way we buy a little bit more and understand the pieces. We want to make sure that we’re just not solely making decisions on data, that there is a level of human interest or unpredictability that sits in the data sets.”

‘Not a check-the-box exercise’

From the diversity-focused verticals on HBO Max to Disney’s Onyx Collective, meaningful DEI content has multiplied on the publishing side, as several companies are looking to connect brands with the diverse content creators under their portfolios. 

“It’s in lifestyle content; it’s in news; it’s in sports; it’s in premium scripted storytelling that we want to be a thought leader for brands to show up in brand-safe environments.” Sheereen Miller-Russell, svp ad sales and inclusive content monetization, Warner Bros. Discovery, said. “We want them to be able to not only meet their demands for DEI but exceed the sense of richness and resonance for community, audiences and consumers and deliver against an increase in purchasing patterns, all of those things.”

Disney has rolled out several DEI initiatives in recent years, including the Disney Culture Index, which scores and optimizes ad creative against metrics such as casting, cultural authenticity, cultural relevance and business outcomes, and Project Elevate for businesses looking to scale up, helping underrepresented small businesses go through a Disney masterclass.

“This is not a check-the-box exercise,” said Disney ad sales chief Rita Ferro. “It’s how do we have the best talent creating the best storytelling, and that takes hiring the best talent in front and behind the camera and making sure that our platforms deliver that as broadly as possible.”

Delivering on DEI promises

So far, the DEI efforts on both sides have paid off. 

Disney has required multicultural ad buys as part of its upfront negotiations since 2021, and Ferro told Adweek that after clients tripled Disney’s overall upfront DEI ask in 2022, the company is challenging them to triple its original ask again this year. 

“When you put an ask out to our partners, they come back and show up in ways that are meaningful around our partnerships. And that’s everything we do in underrepresented audiences—the African American experience, the Hispanic experience, the LGBTQ experience—but it’s also underrepresented women in sports partnerships. How do we think [about] giving broader coverage and bigger windows, more important windows, across our platforms for HBCU games and all of those important investments that we’re making in quality and extraordinary storytelling,” Ferro said.

For its part, Warner Bros. Discovery identified DEI as a top priority when setting the structure of its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion group in 2022 and is set to roll out new initiatives to connect advertisers with its diverse creators in the months ahead.

On the buying side, leveraging eMbrace resulted in a 25% year-over-year increase in client media investments in minority media at Horizon. Meanwhile, Mediabrands increased year-over-year ad investment with Black-owned media by 61%, Asian-owned media by 32% and Hispanic/Latino-owned media by 7%. 

And though Publicis didn’t share specific numbers, the company said it is tracking to its DEI goals.

‘Doubling down,’ despite the economy

But the current state of the economy can’t be ignored, despite some industry optimism for a second-half turnaround.

“Some brands have grown, not fatigued, but they have other urgent critical priorities that they’re putting forward and saying, ‘OK, 2020 illuminated the need to do more. But we have other objectives that are also impacting the urgent bottom lines and the pressures we’re feeling based on the macroeconomics,'” Miller-Russell said.

However, the Warner Bros. Discovery svp noted that several brands are “doubling down,” recognizing they can’t abandon the space because multicultural audiences will be critical for their continued evolutions.

After all, the U.S. is changing. Census data predicts the majority of the population will belong to current minority groups by 2045, with around 25% consisting of non-white Hispanic.

Romero also agreed that, despite the macro conditions, several partners are “doubling down” on the Hispanic segment at TelevisaUnivision, adding, “We’ve shown them the resiliency of this consumer base, and they’re seeing it back tenfold.”

Regardless of economic pressures, the industrywide DEI push will only expand in the coming year.

“Sometimes we talk about, ‘We’ve made progress, and we’re getting there,’ but there’s no end game,” Campanelli said. “This is something we’re doing in perpetuity.”

This story is part of Adweek’s New Consumer digital package, which focuses on diversity in all the ways it manifests for consumers—including gender, race, age and ability—and how marketers need to reach people where they are and meet their unique needs.

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This story first appeared in the March 2023 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.