Publicis Groupe’s Renetta McCann Speaks at Viacom's Inclusion Week: ‘Organizations Are Temples for Power and Privilege.’

A career change agent describes the limits of imagination.
Oct 1, 2019 2:00 PM ET
Article

By Kelby Clark

Renetta McCann, a 30-veteran of the advertising industry, is honest about the privileges and pitfalls of being a diverse executive.

“I cannot walk into an industry event today and not see someone whose career I’ve touched in some way. It’s almost impossible,” said McCann during an on-stage discussion last week with Louis Carr, president of media sales for BET Networks. But, “the demands of being Superwoman and putting everything on [my] shoulders caused me to compromise my mental health.”

McCann is the chief inclusion experience officer at Publicis Groupe. She was previously the chief talent officer at Leo Burnett—a position she took after a multi-year hiatus from agency life. The self-imposed break, during which she worked as an executive coach and organizational change consultant, spurred her to focus on the lack of diversity and inclusion in the industry, which remains statistically white and male-led.

“In a business of creativity where imagination rules, I can’t imagine why others can’t imagine a way to be more inclusive,” said McCann. “The representation of people of color and people of difference in the advertising industry overall is still incredibly lacking.”

The panel, part of Viacom’s Spark Inclusion Week, underscored McCann’s personal experience as an example of the difficulty in changing the dynamic. She began her career at ad agency Leo Burnett, where she said she was passed over for promotion because her supervisors didn’t think the industry was “ready” to see a black woman in a position of power. Eventually, she became the agency’s first black media director.

In 2005, she became CEO of Starcom MediaVest Group Worldwide. During her tenure, she established Starcom’s first diversity and inclusion program and sharpened the company’s focus on employee development.

And now in her current role at Publicis, she’s focused again on how to create change for individuals as much as for institutions.

“I spend a lot of time thinking about why diversity and inclusion efforts fail,” explained McCann. “Inclusion is an individual experience. It’s individually defined and individually a success. And all of us in this room have moments in time where we think we are included or excluded, and until companies can find a way to make room for all of those machinations, it’s still gonna be a hard struggle.”