This week on The MCA Prodcast Pat Murphy talks to Efrain Ayala, Global Creativity and D&I Director at Reckitt. With more than 15 years of experience under their belt, Ayala is known for their strategic approach to DE&I, which not only elevates the conversation but also produces measurable progress. Their unwavering commitment to creating a more inclusive world has earned them numerous accolades, including the esteemed role of WFA Global D&I Ambassador and juror for the prestigious Glass Lion: The Lion for Change award at this year’s Cannes Lions festival.
Efrain examines the complexities surrounding social media and its governance; as social shifted from organic to paid reach how should governments and policymakers respond to regulate the online social space. From social to AI, Efrain expresses his concerns around using artificial intelligence to generate representation for minority communities. Can AI really represent and benefit marginalised communities, or is creating an avatar with a minority appearance, for example, merely a tokenistic representation of supposed diversity.
Efrain also explains his role in supporting brands with DE&I in their marketing. He describes how many brands tend to include diverse groups in their campaigns as ‘window dressing’, which can perpetuate stereotypes. Brands should instead embed diversity and equity throughout their processes in order to meaningfully represent marginalised communities.
Efrain also talks about his role as an ambassador for the World Federation of Advertisers, bringing brands and agencies together to collaborate and share experiences to enhance DE&I within the marketing space.
Watch Efrain’s favourite ad: AXE – Find your Magic
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Hi and welcome to the MCA Prodcast – your fix for everything innovative in advertising production. I’m Pat Murphy and I’ve been working in the industry for more than 35 years now. I’ve seen loads of changes, but know there’s plenty more around the corner. Each week on the podcast, you’ll get to hear from one of the movers and shakers who are shaping the world of advertising and production for the future, and we’ll dive into some of the key challenges facing our sector today and how we’re best placed to overcome them.
Today we’re talking to Efrain Ayala, the Global Creativity and D&I Director at Reckitt. He has more than 15 years of experience with strategic, creative and digital transformation and is well known for his approach to DE&I being named in 2023 as a WFA Global D&I Ambassador. Also in 2023, he was appointed to the new role created by Reckitt, where he is helping creative agencies to tackle the world’s biggest challenges with creativity.
Efrain, welcome to our podcast. It’s a great pleasure to have you here today.
Thank you so much for having me.
Let’s start off. I remember hearing you say once that you were both trying to lead the industry but also very much learning on the job. That’s really quite an honest admission. So what’s your biggest lesson so far?
Yeah, there’s probably a few lessons that I’ve picked up along the way. You know I’m a digital marketer through my past experiences and professional career and 2020, I was asked to create a D&I transformation within Reckitt because I had been previously leading our data-driven marketing transformation.
So the lessons I learned was A – it’s really hard to simultaneously learn and lead, but within this particular space of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, you’re never not learning. Culture and society is constantly evolving and changing. Our languages are evolving, so we have new ways to talk about specific communities and issues.
So for me, it was always reminding myself that you don’t know everything. You will never know everything, and the smartest person doesn’t have every answer. The smartest person knows where to go and find the answer.
The second thing for me was understanding how to move in this space while also protecting my own energy and self, because when you are arguing over digital media investments, it’s very different when you are trying to advocate for marginalized communities and encouraging brand teams and marketeers to really take a chance to welcome those communities into their business or even go further and to try to create positive societal change. So I had to learn how to protect myself so I can continue to do the work that is so desperately needed within this industry. So those two things – having to simultaneously learn and lead and constantly be on that learning journey, while also at the same time recognizing when I need to maybe take a step back, protect myself a little bit, because it can be quite taxing to constantly have to advocate for the humanity of groups of people.
Early on in your career, you spent time running a social team, an area that continues to grow and grow, but one that’s not without its challenges, of course. What’s your perspective on how the industry manages, controls and even regulates this stuff?
Yeah, I think it’s quite interesting, you know. Back in the early 2000s when I was the lean social strategist on a big global agency account at an agency, it was really about that day to day churn of always having content, always trying to maintain top-of-mind awareness by leveraging social platforms. And then, the big Facebook zero came out, where organic reach was taken off the table and it needed to be focused on paid, and so the shift that we had to take within social was quite dramatic, happened quite fast, and we were all quickly having to learn. And as the earning models of these platforms changed, we started to see that it was quite easy to monetize emotional responses to content, and when algorithms are in charge of that, they will look to monetize these reactions. But it’s also about understanding how the algorithm generates the easiest emotional reaction, and so I think this is pretty well known at this point.
But we’re seeing extreme emotional reactions being the easiest to generate on the platforms and then thus easiest to monetize. And when we think about how that’s being regulated, it’s not being regulated all that well from political bodies. I think there have been many US hearings where you see senators and congress people asking the likes of Mark Zuckerberg about twitter. Obviously he’s not involved with the twitter business, so it’s just a clear acknowledgement that politicians aren’t really familiar enough to be governing and putting in policies that are sophisticated enough or fast enough for how quickly these platforms evolve and how impactful they’ve been on the societal thinking around issues and also community. So I think there’s been a big miss in how policymakers are being able to govern these platforms to add to society versus monetizing them as quickly and as big a scale as possible.
You say that there’s been little, if any, regulation around this, but then of course, we have AI around the corner. It’s going to have such a massive impact probably much more. And there’s still no real regulation around that. What’s your view on how we move forward with some kind of governance?
Yeah, I don’t know if I have the answers around governance, but AI does make me a little scared. We’ve seen some brands play with AI to address their DE&I work or their representation work by using avatars, or using avatars to essentially have more diverse representation in their work, and the DE&I part of me wonders who benefits from that? Who benefits from creating avatars of diverse and minoritized talent? Is that just the people who have the privilege and the access to build the AI and do they fit a certain demographic? And how is that benefiting the communities that you are building artificial personas to represent? How are we creating equity with these AI technologies and a lot of what I’ve seen in places almost feels like digital blackface. You are using a technology to create the representation of communities, but not actually engaging those communities in any way or moving economic equality to them by paying them for their talent, and so I think, when it comes to representation, a new business model needs to be built to ensure that we can benefit from the capabilities, the scale and the speed of AI, but it shouldn’t be at the cost of supporting the communities that diverse representation ultimately will end up benefiting.
I totally agree, and you mentioned earlier your role has changed recently, so hugest congratulations on your promotion. Creativity has been added to your responsibilities around D&I and it’s great to see a specific role bringing both of those things together – creativity and D&I. What does that actually mean for you on your day to day?
Yeah. So in 2020, I took on a DE&I role to create diversity and inclusion practice within Reckitt’s marketing organisation. And that evolved and they added creativity to my scope and what that allows me to do is really work with our creative agency partners, our production partners, to really embed and ingrain diversity, equity and inclusion policies and practices, so it doesn’t fall into this place where it becomes just window dressing.
I think we’ve seen lots of brands who are really eager to reach out to diverse communities and want to represent them in the work, but it often feels like window dressing. I kind of use the college or university brochure analogy. It feels like some brand marketeers are like, ‘okay, I need one of every community in my spot and if I can get them in front of the camera, job well done’. But what ends up happening is you bring together a bunch of disconnected people with no rhyme or reason and it ends up either perpetuating stereotypes or feeling amiss by those particular communities, and that’s when brands get into hot water, because it’s not strategically ingrained in the brand strategy or the processes and practices that are being built together with client and agency. So my role is really to bring those together so we can take meaningful action when it comes to diverse representation and these kind of marginalized communities.
Definitely, and that’s kind of been a box ticking exercise, I think historically hasn’t it? And I noticed recently in the ANA report in supplier diversity from the supplier perspective include a number of verbatims such as ‘lots of talk, little action, marketers must put action and funds behind their lofty speeches from the podium’. And there’s another one ‘there’s a gap between requiring diverse suppliers to bid projects versus actually awarding the work’. So this pretty damning verbatims from the ANA report. What’s your opinion on how we can bridge that gap with diverse suppliers?
Yeah, it’s really tricky, right? Because there’s all sorts of ideologies that have been floating around, one being ‘okay, I’m going to invite people who are certified diverse-owned’, and what that ends up doing is it also becomes a bit exclusive because in order to get that certification that you’re diverse-owned, you need resources to go through the process to get those certifications. So it becomes a bit of an exclusive exercise to work with those organisations.
We also know that minority owned start-ups often will partner with someone who isn’t necessarily diverse because they are able to get VC funding much easier, because if you look at how funding is distributed, it’s also inequitable. So a lot of these minority owned companies will partner with someone who isn’t necessarily identifying in that way because of their access to funding. So then they’re no longer considered a minority owned business because they’ve had to give up a portion of that business to partner with that individual or that group.
So it’s really complex, it’s really nuanced, but I agree there needs to be more thought and resource put into how we bring these minority owned businesses into the fold. That can be simple things like ask your agency partners to disproportionately spend time with those minority owned businesses to help them prepare their pitch before it meets to the client so they aren’t disproportionately disadvantaged. Because one thing that we also see is a lot of brands are inviting minority owned businesses and directors, if you will, to bid on projects and that also takes time, energy and resource to prepare the bid. But then if the awarding isn’t happening we’re just draining the resource of those smaller minority owned businesses, making it even harder and harder. So what I do think we need as an industry is more guidance and more nuance in our approaches, and I’m really excited that the WFA is going to be releasing here later this year a guide that is being co-developed by the WFA’s D&I task force and the sourcing board to help brands and agencies really bring that additional nuance and thinking into their procurement process so we can hopefully start to make progress. But progress is desperately needed here.
Definitely, and anything that’s going to make this a simpler process for those kinds of companies is going to be a really great thing, because, reading through that particular report, you know, when you hear that some of these companies have had to fill out huge, very long RFP processes, it’s madness, total madness!
You’ve been on the jury at Cannes for the Glass Lion for change. Is this the first time you’ve been on a jury like this, and how did you approach your final decisions?
Yeah, it’s the first time I’ve been on a jury period! So to go from never being on a jury to going to be on the Glass Lion jury felt like quite the leap. So I immediately had a little bit of imposter syndrome. But I’m reminded by some wise words I heard from the strategic director at McCann World Group, Harjo. He told me ‘there is no imposter syndrome for people like us, because spaces weren’t made for us. So why are you feeling like an imposter? These spaces weren’t made for us, so don’t feel like an imposter’. So I quickly had to remind myself of those words And then I just rooted myself in.
What is this category about? This category is about what work is creating positive impact for gender equality. So I think we’ve all seen the Cannes case study reels where it’s millions of impressions, you know millions of earned media. And for me, while that’s great and all because it shows some indication of interest from people, consumers. I was really looking for who’s actually making change and what level of the change pyramid are they making that change at? Is it policy change Or are they investing to create new thinking in society by engaging young schoolchildren to help break some of the stereotypes and kind of ingrained social thinking that has kind of perpetuated these harmful stereotypes or exclusiveness around women and women’s issues. So for me it was who’s making the change and who’s doing something, not saying something. That was really key for me when I was going through the cases for the judging this year.
And how many other people were on the judging panel with you?
I believe I don’t know the exact number, but I believe there was roughly 10 of us, plus the jury president, and so it was really great to be surrounded by a group of people who represent regions all over the world, who come from different backgrounds professionally but also personally, intersectional identities all trying to come to an agreement to which campaigns are doing something and which campaigns are creating lasting impact to help create more gender equality.
We often see brands trying really hard to do the right things, to be inclusive, to be sustainable, but they end up getting it wrong sometimes and at worst it becomes a – we mentioned earlier – a tick box exercise. Have you got any advice that you can give to marketers?
Yeah, I think the first piece of advice I always give every marketer is like don’t be paralyzed by fear. If you are so concerned about getting it wrong that it prevents you from doing anything, you’ve let the fear win. Think about those incremental steps forward that you can take, right? We’re on a long journey here. Social inequities have been baked into society for centuries and we’re not going to be fixing things overnight. And while consumers are turning to brands to do more to create positive change, in some instances they expect brands to create more positive change than even governments. It’s about what are those incremental things that we can do?
For example, a large portion of the Reckitt portfolio of brands sits within the hygiene and home cleaning category, and I think if your listeners were to close their eyes and think of an ad that covers a home cleaning product, you probably imagine a woman being featured doing all of the cleaning, and oftentimes that woman is in khakis, a nice cardigan, and that’s not the reality of how women are doing the home cleaning. But also, women and girls do three times more unpaid domestic labour, preventing them from social mobility. So what is our responsibility with such a large home cleaning portfolio that reaches millions and hundreds of millions of people a year worldwide with our ads. We need to take a choice on – there needs to be more representation of men and even the children taking some ownership of those household duties, because it isn’t one individual’s responsibility just simply based on their gender expression.
And it’s those small steps that can be taken. And when we took those small steps where we show the dad doing the laundry versus the mum in this instance, while that might feel like a small incremental change, it actually drove such a stronger response from consumers with that ad because it starts to feel much more authentic and it feels much more relatable to their lived experiences. And so I tell marketers don’t be paralyzed by fear And if you are nervous, think about those small incremental changes you can make now and then build on them year over year. And through that journey will come to a much more progressive place. And if you’ve seen any of the Kanter white papers that they’ve been producing over the last several years, progressive ads always outperform ads that are laden with stereotypes.
All of that sounds fantastic, But do you find the challenges are quite geographic around the world? Because obviously if you take a look at the US and the UK, obviously we’re quite progressive, But then in other markets around the world it’s not quite like that. Do you find that a challenge?
Yeah, I think it’s always a challenge. I also think there are some assumptions that are made where in the Middle East you could never show a man doing the laundry because that’s not what is culturally acceptable, and I always push back on that. I always ask for ‘can you show me the data that would say, if you were to have a man doing the laundry, that the ad wouldn’t work or your brand would be harmed in some sort of way’? And surprisingly, or at least not surprisingly to me, I’ve never seen any of that data come through, and you know we have some of those challenges and we take nuanced approaches by region. For example, in the typical laundry ad there might be six interactions with the washing machine and the laundry. Why do all six need to be with the woman? Maybe two or three of those interactions can be with the man and two or three of those interactions can be with the woman. And we can start to take a more balanced approach versus just being completely one-sided and falling back into ‘well, we can’t do anything different in this market because it’s unacceptable’.
Now you’ve just touched on a very interesting point about diverse casting. Again, I was listening to your presentation at the Creative Equals event in that too often diversity is left too late and forced at the casting stages but actually can miss the point and still see diverse people portrayed in the wrong way, or indeed the stereotypical way. Is there some advice you can give agencies, production houses to get this right? When is the right time to discuss this in the process?
As early as possible and think about when you want to start talking about D&I within the work and then do it earlier. For us at Reckitt, it’s about ensuring that our brands can take meaningful and measurable action to benefit society and the planet. So it starts with our brand strategy. Each one of the Reckitt brands aligns to one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals where they can make a tangible difference and contribution to those goals. Within that, that’s where our purpose sits right. Why do we exist? But uniquely at Reckitt, we also pick a fight, and a fight means we take action and that there’s an enemy and there’s a beneficiary, and it’s within understanding who will benefit most from those brand actions. We determine who the brand can claim as a D&I commitment or the community that it can benefit the most. So that sits within our brand strategy. And the fact that it sits there ensures that when we do insights and consumer research, we already have a lens to the communities we want to be bringing along in this journey, whether it be water-scarce communities with the finished work we do to skip the rinse, or whether it be women who suffer disproportionately from pain because there’s a gender pain gap that’s been created through biases.
So we know this going in. So then it guides our insights and research. It, of course, goes into our brief. Then we do it through the creative development process. So by the time we get to casting and working with production partners, we have a very clear vision as to who we want to benefit and how we can portray those people to make sure that that benefit lands within the work. So for us it’s about all the way upstream but also keeping a red thread through the entire comms media value chain.
Such a great piece of advice there. We often see with all of our clients that it’s never really discussed at the right, appropriate time. You’ve got it right up front, so there’s never an early enough time to be doing this.
Now. I’m an audio guy, as you know. One of my earliest podcasts that I did was with a chap called Steve Keller from SXM in the United States. He discussed diversity in audio when it comes to a choice of voiceover or the talent used in music, and these are often unconscious and often forgotten areas of production whereby diversity is overlooked, isn’t it?
Yes, very much so, And it’s actually quite interesting that you’ve brought this up, because we have partnered with CreativeX, who has an AI technology that helps us measure representation within our assets, and we’ve measured over 175,000 ads across the globe that Reckitt have produced and deployed to the public, and one of the things that we’ve measured is the voiceover. Is it male presenting or female presenting?
And there’s this kind of notion that exists that a male presenting voice is authoritative, it’s credible. So you want to use male voices, especially in categories like over-the-counter medicine, which we have a large portfolio in, or even adult nutrition, like vitamins, minerals and supplements.
So it tends to be the default to use a male voice. But with this AI, we were able to also bring in our performance data and start to intersect representation and performance. We interestingly found that a woman’s voice drives a 400% increase in click-through rates for our performance marketing, which really broke the assumption that it’s a man’s voice that you need and want to hear to make you feel confident and comfortable with categories like over-the-counter medicines and VMS. So it’s something that I encourage people to measure what they care about, and when you measure what you care about, you will start to understand some of these nuances and opportunities. And, of course, that’s given us the confidence to be a bit more diverse in how we think about things like voiceover It doesn’t always have to be a man’s voice.
Exactly, and you know, unfortunately audio always gets left to the last part of the process when we’re making ads. So this is, I think, the opportunity for agencies and creative partners is to bring it right up front and, you know, ask ‘what is the role of the voiceover’? And ‘what is the role of the music’? What does it play during the process? As early as possible, a bit like we were talking earlier about casting!
You’re an ambassador for the WFA, Efrain. What does that entail?
A lot! It’s an industry body where some of the biggest brands within the industry get together to find ways to move the DE&I agenda forward within brands, and so the body really is about finding the areas where we haven’t really figured a lot of things out.
I mentioned, you know, diverse suppliers being one of those key areas where we haven’t really figured anything out, or a lot of things out. So the body then decides ‘well, we need to produce guidance as a collective and share our experiences from each of the different brands and the work that they’ve been doing to bring that together into a collective piece that we can then open source to the broader industry and encourage others to take action’.
It’s also about, like I said, we measure what we care about. So the WFA just recently launched their second wave of the global DE&I census, where we’re looking to measure the representation within the industry and the progress of that when it comes to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. And so it’s about creating a unified group of large brands and agency partners and associations who are dedicated to making positive change within this space and really talking about the good, bad and the ugly, sharing our experiences and aggregating that in a way where we can help others, who may be smaller brands or may not have DE&I teams within their businesses, to really be able to contribute in the small ways that they can, through some of the learnings that have been produced from the collective of the WFA DE&I task force and its partners.
It’s a really important job that you guys are doing with the WFA, alongside with some of the people, the other people we know, with some of our other great clients as well.
We have one final question on our podcast. That time has flown by! Efrain, what’s your favourite ad?
Yeah, you asked me this and it took me a while to think about this, because we see so many ads over the course of a day, let alone our lives, and I wouldn’t say it’s my favourite ad, but it’s an ad that left an impact on me quite early on in my career – Axe Body Spray, which historically had been a very kind of macho brand. It was a position in a way, where if you use this Axe Body Spray, the smell and the pheromones you would give off would just make women want to lust after you as a man. And the ads would literally be men running from hordes of women chasing them down because they smelled so great.
And obviously that worked for some time. But, like I said, society is constantly changing and evolving. And hearing that now you might be getting a little ick or you might be thinking, ‘oh yikes’. And so several years ago they moved to transition to brand positioning to be more open and less about heteronormative experiences, having women lust after a man, and I remember one of the first ads that I saw within their repositioning had a queer ballroom scene. And it was really inviting different parts of different communities to participate in the brand journey.
And while it had some bumps along that kind of repositioning and transformation. For me it stuck out because it was one of the first times I had seen such a major global brand take a stance and really say ‘you know what, we need to be more inclusive and we’re going to start to do something about it’. So it’s always kind of stuck out in my mind as an example of the journey that brands should be going on. And even with such a brand that had been so rooted in kind of this machismo, even they were able to shift and take a stance. It gives me the courage and confidence that any brand can start to make those incremental changes to move towards more progressive portrayals.
Amazing. We’re going to post it on our MCA Prodcast website. Thank you for that suggestion Time’s up. Where is that time gone? I have so loved chatting to you today. I want to say a huge thank you for joining me. There’s been some great insights there. Thank you so much, Efrain.
Yeah, thank you for having me.
I want to say a big thanks to Afrain Ayala for taking time to talk to me today. It’s been a real insight into the world of creativity, diversity, equity and inclusivity. Important issues for our industry.
To find out more about the MCA podcast, please head to the prodcast.com, where you’ll find the details on all my guests, links to their favourite ads and full transcriptions of all the episodes.
If you have any comments, questions or feedback, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m Pat Murphy, CEO of MCA. Do come and connect with us on LinkedIn or Instagram, of which all links are in the notes for this episode. We’d love to hear from you. Thanks again to Efrain, my team at MCA, and to my production team at What Goes On Media.
Thanks for listening. I’ll see you next time.