On Purpose: MJ DePalma Wrote the Book on Purposeful Marketing and Is Now Challenging the Data Bias
There’s no better advocate for the importance of belonging at work than MJ DePalma, Microsoft’s Global Director of Cultural & Inclusive Business Impact. She has felt both alienated and at home—at the same company.
“I worked for Microsoft in the advertising and sales capacity for many years. I left mostly because the culture really wasn’t a fit for me then,” DePalma says bluntly. “I had some colleagues that I stayed in touch with. It was only three or four years later that they reached out to me and said, ‘You’ve got to come back. We’re getting a new CEO, and there’s talk that there’s going to be a seismic shift here at Microsoft.'”
With Satya Nadella’s appointment as CEO, DePalma returned to the company and realized how much the culture had progressed. Gone (mostly) were the days of tech bro conformity, the fraternity-esque partying that sometimes went so far as to exclude or even offend female coworkers.
“There was a new corporate vice president, Rik van der Kooi. At this employee meeting we have every year, he came out to introduce himself for the first time. When he walked out onstage he walked out with a huge image behind him of a Latina woman sitting on a Harley,” DePalma says. “It was very progressive at the time, having this image to introduce himself. His name wasn’t even on the screen. He made some opening remarks, but that image really made me key in—images matter. And I felt really intrigued and wanted to listen to him, just from that one micro message. After he said his welcoming remarks he said, 'No matter what gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation you are, you belong here and you have a role to play.'”
DePalma was shocked. “I had a visceral, emotional reaction, and I realized that I might actually be home, I might actually be in the right company, finally.” She had long sought a way to have an impact, to advocate for all kinds of diversity. Realizing that it wasn’t just Nadella and van der Kooi, but that the entire organization was changing, DePalma saw an opportunity.
“I realize looking back that I expected not to be seen for who I really was. That I was actually covering up who I was visually—I dressed a certain way, wore my hair a certain way, because I thought I needed to look a certain way to be successful in corporate business.”
In DePalma’s own words, she began doing the best work of her life. “I began to lead what at the time was a very nascent practice called inclusive marketing, leading original research around trust drivers for brands, as well as the psychology of inclusion and its effect on advertising.”
That work became Marketing with Purpose, Microsoft’s framework for building meaningful relationships with customers, and an online playbook with courses that are publicly and freely available .
“Rooting out data bias through deliberate, inclusive analytics is really a greenfield opportunity for every company in the world."
“Building our best collective future with our partners and our customers, and playing a role in that future is important,” DePalma says. “It allows us and other brands to create a shared human experience with products and services so customers can connect authentically and find brands they really want to support.”
DePalma’s work on inclusive marketing also revealed the need for better analytics to inform business decisions.
“Rooting out data bias through deliberate, inclusive analytics is really a greenfield opportunity for every company in the world. Most of the time we build products, services, and experiences on the best performing 20 percent of customers, the 80/20 rule. And what happens? The 20 percent becomes the driving decision maker for any changes or updates to that product,” DePalma says. “We’re leaving out 80 percent of the population, and no wonder they’re not buying because they’re not being designed for.”
A guiding principle that DePalma follows in her advocacy and product development work comes from a saying she learned from the disabled community: Nothing about us without us.
“Instead of building for people, we strive to build with people, with that audience so that it is by them not just for them. Authenticity is really important to being a respected and trusted place in people’s lives. Becoming a loved brand is like being a friend. It’s not unlike a friendship.”
Although usually sanguine about technology and the ability of brands to be a force for good, DePalma pauses when asked how inclusive marketing and analytics fit into emerging online spaces, like the metaverse. Microsoft has been deeply involved in that work and has created many metaverse experiences—including a thoughtful Pride activation that's live now.
“I hope [the metaverse] doesn’t accentuate the anonymity of behavior that we’ve seen on social media. I hope there’s more authenticity,” she says. “It’s important to have diverse representation, especially with those that aren’t even able to access broadband. Think about that. There are people without reliable access to the internet, and now we’re jumping to this metaverse.”
No doubt DePalma will be there, opening the meta door to more representation and equal access when these worlds more clearly emerge.
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