Like most of you, I still recall how overwhelmed I felt when I set foot on the tradeshow floor for the first time as part of the promotional products industry. It seemed magical to me – and still does – that so many different products could be decorated employing so many diverse methods. There was palpable energy as suppliers met with distributors to discuss how to solve the marketing problems of end-user clients, and I loved every single moment of it.
As I strolled aisle after aisle of merchandise, I noticed something else: just about everyone resembled me. I’m not talking about balding or being slightly doughy; virtually every human there was white, and most of them were male. While this was my prevailing thought in 2000 when I walked that first show in Dallas, I could’ve just as easily written that statement about trade shows I attended this year. In other words, precious little regarding diversity has changed in 22 years. Unfortunately, if this little story is a revelation, you haven’t been paying attention.
While the industry has made great strides in creating equality for women led by people like Mary Jo Tomasini, Janelle Nevins,Brittany David, Jo-an Lantz, Dawn Olds, Charity Gibson, Stephanie Leader, Michele Bell, Daryll Griffin, Teresa Moisant, and a host of other fabulous ladies, this industry is sorely lacking in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Over the past few years, there has been accelerated and open discussion about the need to create more DEI in the industry, which is good, but talk is cheap.
Frankly, I’m beyond exhausted by the talk because this ongoing discussion without intentional purpose and action is simply a continual wash/rinse/repeat dialog that accomplishes nothing. But, before I go any further, the irony of a white, middle-aged, and, as mentioned above, balding and slightly doughy man writing this is not lost on me. While I understand that I’m willingly wading through a minefield as I attempt to avoid a forced dance at society’s current cancel culture club, I also realize that without people who look like me saying – and doing – something, change will be that much slower to happen. So, I’m willing to take that risk.
If you know me, then you know I don’t like complaining about an issue without offering a solution – which is precisely what I’m calling on the organizations below to take action. To be clear, I have no idea what these enterprises may or may not be doing in terms of purposeful and intentional diversity initiatives, but that’s also part of the problem.
PPAI – Being the industry’s non-profit association, PPAI must lead this charge. While I understand that a diversity committee was launched in 2021, that’s not enough. As I said above, it’s time for real action from the association, such as actively targeting historically minority high schools, colleges, and universities and educating that audience on the value of a career in promotional marketing. Perhaps even going a step further and offering a discounted association membership for women, minority, or veteran-owned enterprises to make our industry more attractive and inviting.
ASI – As a for-profit organization that has done so much to grow our industry, ASI has the ability to do more. Outside of our little promo world, ASI holds the key to opening the gate to the possibilities of a career in promo, which is a powerful position to hold. But, if the Marvel movies have taught us anything, it’s that with great power comes great responsibility. It’s time for ASI to use some of that dominion to intentionally target diverse areas as they advertise for people to purchase memberships. Even further, perhaps they could offer discounts for the first year or two as new members learn the industry and grow their business or offer free booth space to a select number of DEI supplier enterprises at a show.
Regional Associations – As a past president of both my regional association (PPAMS) and the Regional Association Council (RAC) board, this group is very near and dear to my heart. With so many feet on the ground in diverse areas, they have a critical role to play because they can genuinely be “glocal” – thinking globally but acting locally. Instead of worrying about how to squeeze an extra dime out of (another) trade show, perhaps it’s time to purposefully extend educational outreach in rural and urban areas where people are eager for opportunity. Similar to the charge to PPAI, it may be time to educate different audiences and offer them discounts for regional association membership.
Distributors/Suppliers/Service Providers/Buying Groups – One of the biggest mistakes an organization can make when attracting talent is placing a prominence on things that can be taught instead of things that cannot. Emphasizing industry experience over other factors when hiring is wrong, short-sighted, and lazy. Of course, there is value in a new hire who already understands promotional marketing, but that’s also something that can be learned. Here’s what can’t be taught: passion, drive, hustle, and care. It’s time for EVERY SINGLE COMPANY to purposefully and actively pursue new hires that do not have industry expertise. Doing so will not only open up your organization to outside thoughts and creative thinking, it will allow you to find the best person– Female, Male, LBGTQ, Black, Asian, Latin, White, Indigenous, Mixed, etc. – for the job instead of the best “industry” person. Yes, there’s a huge and important difference.
PromoKitchen – It’s not lost on me that the PK boardroom defines a lack of diversity. While embarrassing, it’s a direct reflection of our industry which is concerning. Beyond being intentional about adding diversity at the chef and sous-chef level, we need to do what we have always done best, and I’m not talking about hosting a mixer in Las Vegas. No, PromoKitchen is at its peak when we poke the bear, bring transparency to private conversations, and use our collective voice to start difficult conversations in the industry which is the exact goal of this missive.
As an industry, we can no longer sit back and hope that diversity will simply happen. I, for one, am ready to walk a tradeshow that accurately reflects our society in all its delightfully vibrant colors and flavors. But, for that to happen, the talk needs to stop, and purposeful and intentional action needs to start...from all of us.
Today, my action is writing and publishing this as it’s no longer acceptable to remain silent. Additionally, I will continue to do what I’ve always done: hire the best person for the job. regardless of their background. The question is, will you simply continue talking or will you purposefully do something to increase DEI in the promotional products industry?