This Issue Won't Be Solved Overnight: Phil Irvine, RPA

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Tell us about yourself. Who or what inspired you to get into advertising and marketing communications?

I originally grew up in a suburb of Chicago and am the son of a man who had a marketing research consulting company. So, marketing was a career path that I was exposed to at an early age. I later followed in my father’s footsteps and attended the University of Notre Dame for my undergraduate degree, majoring in Management of Information Systems.

Notre Dame was a fantastic institution, but there was a void in the variety of extracurricular activities available for minority students. I saw a great opportunity to leverage attendance of capstone events, such as step shows (which I was a part of), and throw after parties that directly appealed to the minority population. The team I worked with invested in renting out large spaces at hotels and clubs, paying for DJs, and charging entrants a fee to attend the parties.

Back in 2001–2002 the idea of Internet marketing for promotions was still in its early stages, and our team was able to establish an integrated marketing strategy to attract large amounts of people to our events. We developed websites to help promote the events, coupled that with handing out fliers, and partnered with a Notre Dame news website to send email marketing communications to reinforce awareness as well. All in all, we had great attendance at our parties and, more importantly, had a lot of fun!

Fast forward to 2009, when I received my MBA from UCLA. I started my post-MBA career in strategy, but soon discovered a passion for how data and analytics can inform marketing strategy and experience design. I began in the space working for Experian’s Cheetahmail division and built up an understanding of email marketing. I then leveraged that to take on ownership of CRM roles at organizations such as Allergan, Beachbody, and the Bouqs Company. In each position I expanded my skill set to gain experience with infusing data and analytics into new marketing channels. Now I am in a great position, managing audience strategy to support all paid media efforts for a variety of clients, which is a great culmination of utilizing each of my various experiences. On top of that, it’s an area that’s always innovating and growing, which makes it challenging but exciting at the same time!

What is your opinion on the current state of diversity in the industry? Have you seen a significant change since the start of your career?

I’ll admit upfront that I’m more of an optimist than the average person and believe there has been a lot of progress made related to diversity and inclusion in the industry. More of my experience has actually been on the brand side and, when I look back at the business settings I’ve been involved with, there have been advances made in diversifying workforces, promoting female leadership, and in general having some awareness of managing different types of cultures.      

I think back when I joined the workforce in 2002, the mindset of a lot of leaders was to hire purely for performance and comfortability. To achieve these goals, executives resorted to their tried and true ways to source new talent, whether from schools they were familiar with, connections in their networks, or referrals from friends. This is still taking place to some degree, but I see advancements in the recognition that diverse schools of thought within a team construct ultimately produce better business results. Case in point: When I was first hired by Experian back in 2009, one of my first interviews was with their COO, and he harped constantly that teams excel when they encompass multiple viewpoints. Even if this causes conflict, the best outcomes result with decision-making to fuel growth.

Where I do see an opportunity to improve diversity, though, is in the executive and C-suite-level positions. There are probably numerous reasons why African Americans especially haven’t broken this barrier, but it definitely still is an opportunity for progress. USA Today recently published an article and noted that only about 2% of top executives at the 50 biggest Fortune 50 companies were African American*. There were a ton of great call-outs, but a theme that stood out was that organizations weren’t finding African Americans in their talent pools for these top appointments. On the flip side, the article greatly detailed that there was a pipeline for that type of talent. So, to me, that illustrated a disconnect with the means of sourcing and evaluating talent at this level. This issue won’t be solved overnight but, in line with the point I expressed earlier, I do believe there is a business advantage of sourcing not only African Americans, but also other diverse talent at these top-tier positions.

Over the years, there’s been a rise of roles focused on Diversity & Inclusion, the introduction of quotas, and other possible solutions. What have you seen to be the most effective, and where have you seen these initiatives fall short?

This is definitely an interesting development in recent times, and I do think increasing roles focused on Diversity and Inclusion is a step in the right direction for many organizations. I have not been aware of the charters of these roles but would imagine their responsibilities focus a lot on diverse recruitment and promoting inclusive workforce cultures. To the latter point, I hope these positions focus on career development and succession planning activities for minority candidates at earlier stages. I think one component that helped with my career growth was the fact that I had African American role models and friends that I could talk to regularly to understand what was possible with my career. I think the same has been extremely effective with women as well and I like how that is being promoted more in organizations.

I can’t speak to what initiatives have fallen short because I haven’t been privy to outcomes companies have seen with D&I leadership roles. But, on the surface, I hope it doesn’t just stop there for organizations. Yes, this practice often adds diversity to their executive teams but, in my mind, unless the culture and modes of operation follow suit, it won’t have a lasting impact. From what I’ve experienced in my career, people become more comfortable and accepting of others when they have organic experiences working together and driving business results together. This helps an organization recognize and accept different points of view.

Within your agency, what’s being done to increase/maintain the diversity of talent?

I’m still relatively new to RPA but, from what I can see, this is something the agency takes seriously. I know we have a pretty robust diversity cohort, called RPA Represent, and we have employee resource groups for Associates who identify as Black, Asian American, LGBTQ+, Latinx, and so on. These groups still aren’t represented enough at the highest levels, but it’s clear to me that this is something that is being actively addressed.

Looking to the client-side, are there any brands you think should be commended for their efforts?

I’ve had the unique experience of working for a few start-up companies in the Silicon Beach area and have seen a really positive shift in the promotion of diversity and leadership in recent years. Historically, I think some had reputations to the contrary, but I’ve seen a change in mindset in the last 5 years. The Bouqs Company is one that I worked at for about two years, and they did a great job promoting female leadership and recruiting diverse candidates across their marketing and advertising organizations.

What do you think can be done at a grassroots level to open opportunities to create a more inclusive future in the advertising world?

Many firms have recently made commitments toward supporting historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and investing in recruiting efforts to source future talent at these institutions. I see this as a great initial step toward increasing pipelines of diverse talent to fulfill new roles. There is also a great opportunity to partner with the leadership of minority organizations at non-HBCU institutions as well. Personally, when I was a student in undergraduate and graduate school, I held leadership positions with Black student organizations and saw huge opportunities for firms to partner with these types of groups to access great talent.

Outside of partnering with these groups at recruiting events, I think alternatives such as “days on the job” sessions and casual networking events would greatly improve grassroots efforts. In my opinion, the way to break down some of these barriers boils down to established leadership having a level of comfort with whom they are hiring. Getting more exposure to minority groups in nonwork settings will go far toward addressing this.

Following one of the largest movements in history for racial justice, what was your agency's response? Have you launched or participated in any initiatives?  

RPA is most definitely an anti-racist organization, and we put a statement out to that effect earlier this year. But, as we all know, that’s pretty meaningless unless you take the actions to back it up internally. So, I know that we are rolling out “Becoming an Anti-Racist Leader” training—first to our Executive Committee and VP-level Associates like me, and then beyond. I also know we have another training called “Allyship in Action” that will be mandatory for all employees. Furthermore, we signed on to the “In for 13” pledge earlier in 2020, which is our commitment to have Black leaders in at least 13% of our senior leadership roles by 2023. I’m excited about all of that to see where it leads.

Personally, I am currently in the fortunate position to be responsible for a team that is growing at RPA and have a few open positions. As part of the process to source new candidates, I am aiming to ensure new avenues are explored to evaluate more diverse talent. I have connected with the Black alumni associations at Notre Dame and UCLA, which are the two institutions I attended. I recognize this may increase our hiring speed but believe this will be helpful in the long run to building a more diverse team structure.