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Tackling Diversity in the Marketing World


In December 2014, I was invited to give a keynote talk at a digital marketing event in Europe. There were 15 speakers. All white men.

When I realized that all the education and training was being provided by only white men, I actually became physically ill. Simply put, it felt wrong to be part of an event like this.

Have you ever experienced something that made you look at the world in a different way?

Well, for me, that event was it.

Upon arriving back at the office, I was compelled to examine my personal behavior. At that time, I was in planning mode for Content Marketing World 2015 (I’m responsible for the agenda each year). I went to the 2014 speaker list and performed a simple speaker count.

  • 120 men (70%)
  • 51 women (30%)
  • 9 people of color (5%)

There’s nothing like seeing your personal bias on paper. Ouch!

You either believe what you think or you question it. There’s no other choice.  – Byron Katie

Male privilege

From my standpoint, we always went out and found the best experts on the planet and rocked an amazing Content Marketing World. But in truth, I went out and found the best experts in my network … and my network was made up of mostly white men.

Male privilege was alive and well, and living inside me. Tin Geber perhaps says it best:

My male privilege happened. Or, more precisely, my lack of recognition of the fact that male privilege is real, and it favors me and others like me. No matter if we want it or not … The amount of knowledge I can reach, the wealth of insight I can gain, the quality of skills I can count on … they are all filtered by implicit bias. It’s not only gender either: race, language, culture, and other superficial differences can effectively block us in echo chambers … And of course, as biases do, the gender bias is a self-affirming closed loop: the more it remains unchecked, the more it tightens the screws on its own casket.

Male privilege is an issue that needs to be actively fought against says @tingeber. #cmworld Click To Tweet

Recognition of the problem

After that moment, I began to notice things (or maybe not ignore things) for the first time, especially the lack of speaker diversity at events I attended. This probably won’t surprise you, but most of the people who own and run marketing events worldwide are white men. It was like a bunch of “me’s” out there living in a white male world.

It was also the first time that I believed we were doing a disservice to the audience at Content Marketing World. To create the best possible attendee experience, it is our responsibility to get expertise and experiences from everywhere we possibly can. If we didn’t, the attendees would see a limited view as to what was really going on in marketing and communication. A lack of diversity was a falsehood that we were helping to project.

To create the best experience at #CMWorld, we need to get expertise from everywhere. @JoePulizzi. Click To Tweet

In 2015, we did better:

  • 137 men (63%)
  • 82 women (37%)
  • 12 people of color (5.7%)

But yet, still pretty sad.

That year, and into 2016, I committed to going further outside of my network. I made an effort to get more of the CMI staff involved in the speaker selection process (70% of the CMI team are women). I increased my research into diverse speakers, watching more female speakers and speakers of color while traveling to other events, and started to open up and talk more about these issues with the members of the CMI team. We could no longer simply rely on voluntary speaker submissions (70% of speaker submissions come from men … surprise, surprise).

Here were the numbers for 2016:

  • 86 men (55%)
  • 70 women (45%)
  • 14 people of color (9%)

After adding sponsor speakers (speakers selected by session sponsor), the final numbers were:

  • 110 men (57%)
  • 83 women (43%)
  • 15 people of color (7.7%)

Was this better? Yes, absolutely. Was it good? Not good enough.

At the same time, we performed a competitive analysis of the speakers at three large, independent marketing events. Here’s what we found:

  • Event 1: 64% male; 7.4% people of color
  • Event 2: 67% male; 4.4% people of color
  • Event 3: 72% male; 10.5% people of color

The problem was (and is) rampant.

What are we doing about it?

Two weeks after Content Marketing World 2016, Robert Rose and I discussed the issue on our podcast This Old Marketing (here’s the episode if you’d like to listen). I simply asked for the audience’s opinion and said that my goal was to listen and then adapt.

Up to that point, Robert and I had produced almost 150 episodes and we never received as much feedback about any other topic. It was simply amazing.

In one particularly effective response, Meghan P. had this to say:

Don’t hide the ball.

“First thing that came to mind was that study where women will apply for a job if they think they’re 100% qualified; men will apply if they think they’re 60% qualified. You have to make explicit the things that are implicitly taught to white men 

Make it clear in your call for speakers exactly what you are looking for, including guidance on how to write a presentation and pitch it. You may even consider running a small workshop and/or webinar series on creating and pitching sessions.

Put yourself in a position to listen and adapt

You don’t just want women and minorities standing up there parroting the same thing that white men would be saying. If you want diversity in the faces, then you have to be OK with diversity in the stories and approaches.

Be completely unapologetic.

I am absolutely thrilled that you guys are doing this. There is no need to apologize or hedge on this. I heard some backpedaling [on the podcast] on calling it an “issue.” It is an issue. It’s kind of embarrassing that more people aren’t reaching out the way you are. If there are white men who are offended by your reaching out on this, then that is their issue, not yours.”

I can’t thank Meghan and the rest of the community enough for this incredible feedback.

Right now, here is what we are doing about this issue.

  1. Listen – We don’t have all the answers. I’m asking for your feedback to help me (and us) with this effort. Please comment below or feel free to email me directly at [email protected] (if you want your comments to remain private).
  1. Collaborate – We are working with other marketing events such as Content Jam and Interact Ohio to help surface speaking talent. We are reaching out to a number of other marketing and technology events to help find, work with, and promote talent we are not yet aware of. If you have an event and are interested, please let me know.
  1. Reach out – As I stated, I’m actively reaching out to a number of women and people of color to help me in this effort. At this point, I simply cannot get enough perspective and feedback on this issue.

Perhaps the most tangible thing we are doing, CMI has recruited a team of experts to assist in this effort, including Lisa Welchman, Ann Handley, Tequia Burt, and Tamsen Webster (each of them thankfully reviewed this post). They, along with the CMI team (and others), are developing a pool of speakers that will help us reach our goals.

We believe this is a two-pronged effort.  First, there are women and people of color already out there who are amazing, accomplished speakers. We need to stop ignoring them. Second, there are talented marketing experts that may want to speak, but have, to this point, not reached out to us. We want to reach these people as potential speakers as well.

If you would like to recommend someone to speak at Content Marketing World, or would like to nominate yourself, please use this submission form. I also developed a short video you can watch so you can hear exactly what we are looking for.

In closing, we are going to make mistakes. I already know we don’t have it “just” right. That’s why we need your help. And as this article states, “Small wins are everything.” As we continue to get more feedback and more people involved in this program, we will make a difference in not only our events, in not only the content marketing industry, but in the entire marketing and advertising industry.

CMI is proud to be a leading voice in this industry … and we need to continue to show it. And it starts right now.

Nominate yourself or suggest a great presenter for Content Marketing World 2017. Fill out this form and get all the latest on CMWorld at

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute