"I don't battle anymore! I uplift motherfuckers!" - GZA
Sunday, February 24, 2008,11:02 PM
Google's Douglas Merrill

If you think you have a lot to do, consider what Douglas Merrill wakes up to every morning: As the 37-year-old chief information officer and vice-president of engineering for Google, he oversees “organization of the world’s data.”

Think about that job description for a minute. Overwhelmed yet?

Specifically, Merrill is in charge of developing and testing the company’s numerous organizational tools in order to make all existing information universally accessible and useful. To do this, he chairs about 60 meetings per week, travels 25% of the year, and manages about 1,000 people.

With such a vast, high-pressure mission, you’d expect him to have lost most of his hair, carry a bulging briefcase, be flanked by assistants, juggle multiple PDAs, have a tie that’s askew, talk to himself, and even have a twitch or two. But instead, Merrill has 3 earrings, 4 tattoos, and looks like he’s just ordered a second glass of merlot at a blues club. He has long black hair, which he likes to sweep back as he puts his feet up on chairs and closes his eyes in thought. He has just one assistant. He carries an iPhone but often travels without a laptop. He never wears a tie and generally looks well-rested and fit (6’4”, 183 pounds, 7 percent body fat). In meetings, he counters the geek speak (“we hacked the proto buffer directly”) with laid-back SoCal surfer lingo (“cool,” “dude,” “awesome,” “sweet” and “I’m so amazingly jazzed.”)

What’s almost disarming about Merrill—unlike other big-time execs—is that while he’s talking to you, he doesn’t glance at his email or eyeball his blinking phone. Instead, he looks you in the eye. He’s focused. He’s there.

That’s not just an impression; it’s his modus operandi.

“The whole point of organization for me is to clear my head in order to be in the moment,” he explains. “The less stuff that’s rattling around in my brain, the more I can focus on whatever I’m doing.”

And by the time the conversation ends, whether it has lasted 10 minutes or 2 hours, you want to inhabit his space, too.

Indeed, if Merrill can be organized, anyone can. He admits to being forgetful, partially deaf and also dyslexic. Because of these personal challenges, he’s had to discard traditional approaches to organization and innovate. “I’m not very good at filing things or writing in notebooks,” he admits. “If I had to use those tools to stay organized, I’d be in trouble. If I am the world’s most organized man, it’s because I manage to keep things together despite my situation and because I’ve learned to view organization in an entirely new way.”

And lord knows we need that.

According to Herbert Benson, M.D., the director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, 60 to 90 percent of visits to doctors are due to stress. “It’s the root cause of anxiety, depression, anger, insomnia, high blood pressure, heart attacks, infertility and legionnaire’s disease,” he says. In today’s hyper-paced world, better organization is not just a desirable skill; it’s the key to better health.

“Indulge me in a surfing analogy,” says Merrill, grinning. “I learned to surf on a traditional board that was short, single-fin and really hard to get up on. But nowadays people are using much longer boards that help them balance on the waves. I thought about that and said, okay, there must be similar things that will facilitate my ability to surf these waves of information that keep crashing over me.”

The New Rules of Organization

1. Empty your head. Research shows that your short-term memory can only hold about 7 items at any given time. (That’s why phone numbers have 7 digits, and Scrabble racks hold 7 tiles.) So if you have more than 7 things going on in your life (ha!), don’t even attempt to keep track of them in your head.

“Much of our stress comes from the fact that people are trying to manage a lot of their world in their psyches instead of in a system,” explains David Allen, author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. “As a remember-and-reminder mechanism, the brain just isn’t very good.”

The brain’s other organizational flaw is its tendency to dwell on incompletion. This is called the Zeigarnik Effect, after the Russian psychologist who first noticed that people remember incomplete or interrupted tasks better than finished ones. Worrying about what needs to be done puts the brain in a sort of subconscious reminder loop that instigates stress.

“I used to wake up at night worrying about things I had to do,” says Merrill. “For a while, I even took a notebook to bed with me. Now I don’t even attempt to store stuff in my head. It’s impossible given the ridiculous amount of information being created. The first step to organization is recognizing that you’re human, and you’re going to forget most things.”

2. Swap filing cabinets for scaffolds.The traditional approach to organization involves putting things in folders, either manila or electronic. Tax receipts go here, mortgage information goes there, investment advice gets put on that pile, vacation ideas on that stack, etc. While this works for a short time, eventually we end up with cluttered offices and hard-drives full of information that’s neither accessible nor useful.

“There’s a common perception that organization is innate and that it looks the same for everyone,” says Merrill, sipping from a bottle of—what else?—SmartWater. “Both of these assertions are false. Organization is learned, and it’s learned in a way that’s special to you. For me to cram you into the traditional filing-cabinet model is a disservice. A much richer way of helping organize someone is to give them a set of tools that can be personalized.”

Merrill calls these tools “scaffolds” and encourages us to think of the information we’re accumulating as an ever-expanding building. This scaffolding represents the means for quickly gaining access to any floor or room. It’s your network of virtual assistants or, to continue the analogy, ironworkers.

Merrill has wrapped 7 (that number again) scaffolds around his world. Naturally, they’re all Google products and include: Calendar, Notebook, Reader, Documents/Spreadsheets, Gmail, Gadgets and iGoogle. (If you want to scaffold your life similarly, they’re all available for free at google.com.)

But you don’t have to go all Google, all the time. Just realize that your brain is only one storage option, and paper is just one way to record something. Open up to other options, and you free yourself from mental overload and paper at the same time.

3. Redefine organization as search. This is key. Rather than pack-ratting information in your head, home or computer, deposit it in “the cloud,” as Merrill refers to the Internet, where it can be retrieved when needed. In other words, rather than trying to anticipate answers beforehand and file information accordingly, let technology search your personal database later as important questions arise.

“How much easier is it to organize yourself if, instead of thinking of the world in terms of filing cabinets, we start thinking of the world in terms of search?” says Merrill. “For example, when I come across something interesting on the Internet, I don’t worry about whether or not I’ll ever use it. I just dump it into my personal cloud. Organization then becomes this big, long, loose pile of information that’s growing forever and you don’t care, because every time you ask a question, you get everything back that’s relevant.”

There are practical advantages to this. If your office catches fire, your system is hacked or your laptop is stolen, your life goes on with minimal interruption. You have neither the worry nor the stress involved with warehousing and protecting information the conventional way. However, like all forms of letting go, this approach entails trust—trust in technology, trust in security.

“There’s a common American expression: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” Merrill continues. “It makes sense in some contexts, but not in this one. The most common sources of data loss are laptops and hardware being stolen and machines dying. There’s a huge benefit to not having to worry about that.”

“To me, search is the oxygen of life,” he adds. “I can’t live without oxygen, and I can’t live without search. I store everything I have in the cloud, because I know I can always find it later.”

4. Leverage other people and their ideas. One of the secrets to Google’s success is that it’s an exquisitely diverse company unafraid to attack problems from different perspectives. “My job is essentially to hire great people with fascinating, unusual backgrounds and facilitate their working together,” says Merrill. The result is a 10-year-old company with a market cap of $142 billion.

The organizational benefits of such a corporate strategy are twofold. First, once you recognize who you are and what you do best, you’re free to surround yourself with people who are not you and have different skills. This eases the pressure on you to do it all and simplifies life.

Just like that, you’re better organized.

Second, the same approach works for information management. When you come across great ideas or intriguing thoughts, don’t file them away. Instead, throw them together with other people’s great ideas and thoughts and see what percolates. Whether you do this via email, blog, website or search doesn’t matter; it’s the sharing that’s important.

“Value comes from the conjunction of multiple things,” explains Merrill, who has a Ph.D. in psychology from Princeton. “Collaboration is cool. It allows you to leverage your strengths and the strengths of others. Different perspectives yield better answers and better people.”

How to Take Control

To prove that what he preaches is practical, Merrill permitted Men’s Health into the inner-sanctum that is Google’s New York City office. We shadowed him through meetings and receptions to see firsthand how the world’s most organized man applies these rules to different parts of his life – and, of course, how you can, too.

For business meetings… Most have a 30-minute time limit and are done via videoconference. To make them as productive as possible, Merrill prefers that all presentations be distributed beforehand. This insures that the meeting will be an active discussion rather than a passive slideshow, which better leverages the minds involved and yields faster progress.

For travel… Besides some surf stickers, the only other things on Merrill’s laptop are a browser and an operating system. No photos, no schedule, no top-secret information. That’s all stored in the cloud. Subsequently, he often travels without a computer, relying on online access when necessary. It’s convenient and less stressful.

“We had a situation once where we were visiting a company and on the way to the presentation someone broke into our rental car and took our laptop,” he recounts. “Normally, that’s a crisis. But for us, well, ‘Can we borrow a web browser?’”

For staying in shape on the road… When we met with Merrill, he hadn’t seen his personal trainer in 2½ weeks. But through Google Docs, they were still staying in touch. “Look here,” he says, pointing to a chart on his screen. “I whined about this cable row he had me doing yesterday, but instead of replying he just deleted my comments and increased the weight. So that would be my trainer reminding me to get to work.”

When he’s on the road and can’t find a gym, Merrill orders a set of 35-pound dumbbells from room service. (“All the better hotels have them.”) Then he does a 45-minute routine first thing in the morning. “Knowing that I have to wake up an hour early forces me not to sit in bars consuming needless calories.”

For daily to-do’s… Most guys keep a business calendar, a list of things they need to do around the house, plus tuck a sports schedule or two into their wallet. Not Merrill. “Life is a complicated mix of business and personal,” he says. “It makes more sense to manage everything at once.” For this, he uses Google Calendar, which allows him to overlay multiple agendas. Blue indicates his work-related tasks, green his personal stuff, red his speaking engagements and, during the 2006 World Cup, yellow represented TV broadcasts. Any or all of these schedules can be shared with other people. Overall, the approach showcases a basic tenet of organization: consolidate.

For staying current… Merrill acknowledges there’s too much information for him to digest the conventional way. So he doesn’t have stacks of newspapers on his desk or hundreds of bookmarks on his browser. Instead, he uses an online filter to capture pertinent info, continually scanning his favorite sites for relevant content.

For leaving work with a clear head and a sense of accomplishment… The more stuff you leave hanging at the end of the day, the more distracted and ornery you’ll be that evening. Although Merrill receives hundreds of emails and requests daily, he tries to do “a little processing on each.” This gives him a sense of completion, which enables his mind to let go.


posted by R J Noriega
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Sunday, February 03, 2008,7:35 AM
A Craving For Cool
By: Lucas Conley

When Hasbro wanted a hand lifting its decades-old My Little Pony toy line out of the realm of kitsch last year, it turned to a tiny Brooklyn, New York, creative agency called Thunderdog Studios. The result: a New York gallery show full of Ponies, each uniquely decorated by a different woman artist.

Now, that was cool. Which is exactly what Hasbro was after. The question: Why did a $3 billion toy giant with 6,000 employees need the help? Even Thunderdog, now preparing to freshen up the toy giant's Transformers line, is at a loss, sort of. "We're all very young. When we're in the boardroom, we feel like, 'What are we doing here?'" admits president Tristan Eaton. "We're waiting for them to realize we're just a bunch of kids."

We should've seen this coming. For decades, business pundits (and, okay, we) have lauded the merits of lean, flexible organizations: Embrace the activities that truly add value; jettison everything else. And companies have done so, outsourcing their IT departments, human resources, copy shops, even manufacturing and distribution.

But this is something different, and more sinister. Companies are outsourcing cool. They're paying other companies--smaller, more-limber, closer-to-the-ground outsiders--to help them keep up with customers' rapidly changing tastes and demands. Talk about a core competency! It's like farming out your soul--or at least, asking someone what you should wear in the morning.

It's happening because technology allows ever shorter design and manufacturing cycles--in turn forcing more-fleeting half-lives for anything deemed "cool." So our friends at Time Inc.'s Fortune have hired hipster ad shop Strawberry-Frog "to contribute some strategy on how to best position the Fortune brand," according to The New York Times. A magazine spokeswoman says it's a "small research project." (Fortune to StrawberryFrog: "Honey, should I wear the gray suit or the brown suit today?") Mitsubishi Motors recently did the same.

"We surround them and give them a hug; it's a process we call 'total engagement,'" says StrawberryFrog president Scott Goodson. It's not clear how literal he's being about the hug. "When we started [at Mitsubishi], they had dissatisfied dealers, apathy in the organization, no sense of spirit. The mission we came up with was to fight boredom. It was a movement to make a more dynamic organization." (StrawberryFrog to Mitsubishi: "Oh, dear, don't wear that old thing again.")

There's something ageless about this: One generation has looked to the next for advice on cool for as long as there have been out-of-it parents. But seeking advice is one thing; letting an outsider set your agenda is another. Doing so forfeits control of your brand to someone who doesn't own it; it turns you from a creator into a distributor, which is a pretty low-value activity to base a business on. Martin Lindstrom, whose 25-person consulting firm, Brandsense, helps 11 of the world's 100 largest companies keep their brands cool, says, "I'm surprised when they come to us, because they should have structures built in to inform and shape their brand in those fundamental ways."

They don't because staying cool is difficult work. It requires constantly scanning the horizon and taking gambles. And that's scary. "People in huge corporations are afraid of being fired," says Lindstrom. "They don't dare take those risks anymore. The only way they can get a mandate to do this is by taking the risk outside of the company."

The question: Can big companies find their inner Thunderdog? Can they create internal structures and processes that let them recognize, and embrace, cool on their own? Some already have. Procter & Gamble's Tremor is an in-house "word-of-mouth marketing" division that continually tests new ideas and products (80% of them for non-P&G clients) with a network of 220,000 teens. And in April, P&G launched Vocalpoint, intended to do the same thing with a universe of 600,000 mothers.

"I'm surprised when they come to us. They should have structures built in to inform and shape their brand."
To get closer to customers and speed the feedback loop, Samsung's U.S. marketers established relationships with some 1,500 Web sites that serve its target markets, from fly-fishing sites to the home pages of rock bands. When designers in Korea give the word that a new product is on the way--often with only a few months' warning--marketing puts out the word through its network. Presto! Instant product launch.

It's a promising approach to the challenge of keeping up with one's customers. Cool, even. So, your choice: Farm out what most makes you distinctive to a bunch of kids in Brooklyn--or do the hard work of figuring it out yourself.

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posted by R J Noriega
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Saturday, February 02, 2008,12:38 PM
The cold, cold heart of Web 2.0
By William Davies

Column Imagine a world in which parents read to their children in the evening, not because it was a pleasurable and meaningful activity, but as an investment in the child's future earning potential. Or consider a close-knit neighbourhood in which people clubbed together on social events not so as to enjoy a sense of community, but so as to reduce the risk of their property being damaged.

This "rational choice" view of society is most closely associated with the work of Gary Becker, one of the world's most celebrated and also most controversial living economists. Since the 1950s, his work has pushed the boundaries of economics ever further into foreign territories, using economic methods to analyse such seemingly non-economic phenomena as drug addiction, families and crime. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1992, and he is in many ways the godfather of the recent fad of pop economics, exemplified in the best-selling Freakonomics.

Strange as it might sound, not least to Becker himself, he may also be considered the closest thing Web 2.0 has to an ideologue. The same spirit of adventure that characterises Web 2.0 is present in Becker's work. But the two also share the same delusions about human beings, and it's these that may be more consequential.

Humans as selfish equations
Along with many colleagues at the legendary Chicago School of Economics, Becker's achievement was to see that economics needn't confine itself to studying markets. Economics, for Becker, was simply a particular way of understanding any social behaviour. What distinguished it from other social sciences was not its domain of study, but its guiding assumption that individuals will always act rationally to maximise their own satisfaction.

The implications of this are stark. All altruistic, moral, cultural or emotional behaviour becomes reconceived as the outcome of individual calculation. It is no longer just businessmen and traders whose behaviour can be understood in terms of rational self-interest, but that of politicians, parents and neighbours.

This is a novel and unsettling way of viewing society. But what has it got to do with Web 2.0?

The first dotcom boom was principally about putting the internet to work in increasing the efficiency of existing services. There was already a market for books, but Amazon found a way of cutting out the inefficiency of the high street. The government already obliged car owners to pay tax on their vehicles, but the web offered a way of avoiding the tedium of post office queues when doing so. This became known as disintermediation.

While these sorts of efficiencies aren't necessarily limited to markets situations (as the car tax example demonstrates), they are all one-to-many services. They feature an organisation that resembles a 'producer' offering something to individuals who resemble 'consumers', who usually have some choice about whether or not to accept it. To apply efficiency criteria in such situations can be controversial, as arguments about reform of the NHS demonstrate, but even traditionalists have to accept there are financial constraints which have to be taken into account.

The significance of the new Web 2.0 services is that it abandons this conventional one-to-many model of service provision, and sets about exploiting the many-to-many potential of the internet. Rather than using the web to connect producers to consumers, it is used to connect individuals to each other.

The examples are familiar. Last.fm aggregates and organises the musical tastes of its users to provide personalised music recommendations to them. Facebook offers endless new ways to connect individuals around existing friendships, shared interests or events. In the civic sphere, Pledgebank provides a mechanism to get new voluntary movements or group activities off the ground without central organisation.

Of course many-to-many communication precedes even the internet we know today. Email mailing lists and message boards were features of the first Bulletin Board Systems (BBS), and migrated to the internet. They are both examples of individuals grouping together in a self-organising fashion.

What has changed is that these otherwise secluded and organic realms of social interaction are now the focus of obsessive technological innovation and commercial interest. The same technological zeal and business acumen that once was applied to improving the way we buy a book or pay our car tax is now being applied to the way we engage in social and cultural activities with others.

In short, efficiency gains are no longer being sought only in economic realms such as retail or public services, but are now being pursued in parts of our everyday lives where previously they hadn't even been imagined. Web 2.0 promises to offer us ways of improving the processes by which we find new music, new friends, or new civic causes. The hassle of undesirable content or people is easier to cut out. We have become consumers of our own social and cultural lives.

It's here that the connection with Gary Becker becomes plain. Where Becker took the utilitarian assumptions of economics and pushed them into areas of society seemingly untouched by rational self-interest, Web 2.0 takes the efficiency-enhancing capabilities of digital technology and pushes them into areas of society previously untouched by efficiency criteria.


What's missing from the numbers
But in both cases there is a crucial aspect of human relations that is missed out and threatened as a result. This is that the means by which people discover, choose or access something can very often contribute its value. People are not only outcome-oriented.

Technologies such as recommendation systems, used most prominently by Amazon.com to help people find books and music they may like, can erode valuable processes by which people discover new authors or artists. The process of discovery is speeded up to the point where the end product also becomes that much more disposable. Bands now shoot to fame with their first record, then disappear soon after. The pursuit of maximum convenience in the cultural sphere risks dissolving what we value in it in the first place.

Outside of the economy - and very often within the economy too - we find that the constraints and accidents of everyday life are the basis for enjoyable and meaningful activities. They don't necessarily connect us to the people we most want to speak to or the music we most want to listen to. Sometimes they even frustrate us.

But this shouldn't lead to business process re-engineering. Becker would disagree, but when we vote, chat to neighbours, browse through a record shop we are not seeking some outcome in the most efficient manner available. We are engaging in an activity that we find valuable.

Undoubtedly there are instances where we do want our social lives to be more efficient. Organising a party can be time-consuming and tedious, and the fact that Facebook now makes this vastly easier is scarcely going to harm the atmosphere of the party.

But we should worry about this psychology seeping too far into our lives. What if there were an application that could make it easier to pass on my love to a family-member? What if I no longer needed to read books in order to cite them, but could search the quotes other people had extracted from them?

The irony is that Web 2.0 has been heralded as the dawn of a new era of community and togetherness. Through the financial eyes of a venture capitalist, this may appear to be true. For the rest of us, what this means is that community is now available to manipulate, choose and consume.


posted by R J Noriega
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Friday, February 01, 2008,12:13 PM
Are advertising agencies serious about hiring African-Americans?
By O'Connor, Brian Wright
Date: 1993

After several false starts in trying to diversify the industry, blacks are still woefully few in number.

The sounds and images of American advertising reflect the rhythms of black life.

Aaron Neville extols the virtues of cotton fabrics in his trademark New Orleans falsetto. Line-dancing California Raisins croon Motown take-offs. Bill Cosby, America's favorite Dad, shills for Jell-O with a repertoire of voices from the streets of Philadelphia. And Chicago Bulls star "Air" Jordan reaps millions from marketers who gamble that Nike-wearing, Gatorade-drinking American youth want to be like Mike.

But the picture behind the pictures shows an industry with far less color than the palette of its products. The boardrooms and executive suites of general-market advertising agencies nationwide resemble percale sheets washed by the latest detergent--whiter than white.

"The contributions that African-Americans have made in the cultural arena--from music and dance to clothing and slang--have had a major impact on advertising," says Charlie Rice, associate creative director with the black-owned Caroline Jones Advertising Inc. in New York. "Although advertising continues to borrow from African-American culture, ad executives have not expressed the same enthusiasm about working with black creative people."

Rice, who joined the Caroline Jones shop in 1990 after 20 years with top general-market firms, directs creative efforts for such clients as Prudential, Bankers Trust and Western Union. To illustrate the challenge of working in a general market, Rice comments: "Sometimes when you walk into the conference room with a terrific storyboard, eyebrows go up for a half second. Although they try to mask their surprise, the discomfort comes through anyway. What most white ad execs and clients see isn't just a creative director, but rather a black creative director. There's always this little inference that although we let you into the group, don't expect to be treated quite on the same level. In fact, I've had people say to me in so many words--'Wow! You can think like a white man!'"

Rice also speaks with some bitterness about the paucity of advertising business won by black agencies--an estimated 1% of the industry total. Despite their successful track records, black ad agencies still primarily handle ethnic-targeted advertising. "It's a tough, competitive business, and I'm sorry to say that I've found my white brothers very selfish when it comes to sharing the power," Rice says.

Ken Gilbert, a black senior executive with New York-based Messner, Vitere, Berger, McNamee Schmetterer, is one of the highest-ranking African-Americans in advertising. He believes that competition for power is only a small part of the problem. "The larger issue is the racism that exists throughout the industry and the unwillingness to recruit and train African-Americans," says Gilbert, whose 16 years in the business have included stints at both black and general-market agencies. "At the top levels you'll find some of the most sincere racists anywhere."

Gilbert expresses as much puzzlement as distress over the fact that he has met no blacks holding similar management responsibilities at general-market agencies. For example, finding an African-American senior vice president, media director (the person responsible for placing advertising) or creative director is virtually impossible in general-market agencies. "Since African-Americans set the tone for creativity as defined by pop culture, then you'd think most ad agencies would get smart and hire more blacks to create ads and direct campaigns," says Gilbert, who manages accounts for A&W soft drink brands and cable television's USA Network. "Today's advertising has no soul. And I don't mean that ethnically. It's just that commercials have no substance. I think African-Americans can change that--if given a chance. Unfortunately, this is not happening. That's why the industry definitely needs to be shaken up."

Well, things are beginning to be shaken up as some industry insiders are finally admitting that racism and apathy--not a lack of potential minority talent--are the causes of the industry's lack of diversification. In fact, last June, Advertising Age, the industry's leading trade publication, revealed many unspoken truths about the business in a controversial article titled: "The Ad Industry's 'Dirty Little Secret.' " The subtitle was even more revealing: "After a brief hiring flurry 20 years ago, blacks have again become invisible men in the agency workplace. What went wrong?" Although the article never really answered its own question, it was obvious from the quotes throughout the piece that hiring African-Americans was just not a major priority.

To prove this point Advertising Age asked the top 25 U.S. agencies: "How many blacks work at your shop?" Of the 25, only five provided figures; six claimed they would get back to the editors, and 14 refused to disclose hard numbers.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), African-Americans make up 10.1% of the nation's workforce, but only 2.1% of managers in marketing, public relations and advertising positions. The BLS reports that the percentage of blacks in these areas ranks 336th out of 351 occupations monitored by the federal government. A survey of 2,500 agency media employees by the trade publication MediaWeek in May 1992 showed that less than 1% of all workers are black, and about 2% are Hispanic.

Affirmative-action requirements on government contracts are credited with boosting hiring numbers at agencies that develop ad campaigns for the public sector, such as the armed forces. However, most ad agency clients never even consider diversity as a criterion when choosing talent to create and manage their accounts. In fact, several black industry insiders say, race is still a factor that will keep you off plum assignments.

And although black celebrities and athletes are often tapped to pitch products, the lack of black agency professionals is certainly a factor in the overall scarcity of blacks in print and television ads. A 1991 study of magazine advertising, conducted by New York City Consumer Affairs Commissioner Mark Green, revealed that while African-Americans make up 12% of the U.S. population and 11.3% of the readership of all magazines, they represent only 3.2% of the 21,007 people shown in reviewed ads. And as part of the snowball effect, black media still have a tough time convincing white media planners that black consumers have clout.

The industry's failure to reflect the mosaic of American life has been a sore topic for over 20 years. Jock Elliott Jr., chairman emeritus of New York-based Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, one of the world's largest agencies, has earned a reputation as the industry's leading hand-wringer. His career at the top of the advertising pile has been marked by a pair of bookend speeches, one delivered in 1968, the other in 1991. Both contained essentially the same message: There's something wrong with the color in the industry snapshot.

Speaking two weeks after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Elliott asked members of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, "How have we, as an industry and as individual agencies, discharged our responsibility to our fellow human beings, the Negroes of America? I am afraid we find something wrong here."

Substitute a term or two and Elliott's summary of industry excuses, aired at a 1968 New York City Commission on Human Rights hearing, could be replayed today without missing a beat: "Why has our record on employment been so bad? If you had sat through these hearings, you would have heard the same explanation over and over again: 'We are a small business requiring specialized talents. We have always had a nondiscriminatory, open-door policy, but very few Negroes apply to us for jobs, and we can't find qualified Negroes.'"

Fast-forward 23 years to 1991, about 10 weeks after the videotaped beating of Los Angeles motorist Rodney King. Elliott addressing the American Advertising Federation (AAF) national conference, damned with faint praise the advertising industry's hiring record since his presentation a quarter-century earlier. "One of my great regrets is that over the past 20 years advertising has not made more progress employing minorities, and that today we are not trying hard enough."

Why so little progress between what might be called Elliott's "King I" and "King II" speeches?

According to veterans of the ad business, part of the problem lies in the inability or unwillingness of many executives in mainstream agencies to believe that increased minority hiring is good for business.

Valerie Graves, senior vice president and creative director of the black-owned UniWorld Group Inc. in New York, recalls sitting on an industry panel discussion in which the question was posed, "Why not hire more blacks?" A high-powered creative director from one of Madison Avenue's top firms curled his lip and responded, "Obviously, that's a political question."

Graves (no relation to BE publisher Earl G. Graves), whose client list at UniWorld includes AT&T, Kodak, Burger King, Gatorade, Reebok and Coors, broke into the industry after a Detroit advertising executive complained in a public speech that his agency couldn't find any blacks to hire. Just out of Detroit's Wayne State University, Graves challenged the agency to match its rhetorical commitment with action. Hired in 1974 at what is now called D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, she worked on their lucrative Pontiac account. She soon went on to general-market jobs in New York and Boston before joining UniWorld in 1985.

"Your success in a big general-market agency depends on how much you can be like a white male, and I was good at that," says Graves. "But if you want to express yourself in terms of your own culture, you have to look for work elsewhere."

If "Mad Alley," as Madison Avenue is sometimes called, appears to resemble the Woody Allen film Manhattan--a movie devoid of African-Americans--don't expect the audience to sit quietly much longer. In late September, a group of black freelance photographers, graphic artists and commercial producers picketed the Chicago headquarters of the Midwest's largest advertising agency, The Leo Burnett Co., to demand greater use of their talents.

"Instead of waiting for the civil rights groups to come around to us, we decided to do something ourselves," says Lowell Thompson, president of Lowell Thompson Creates Ltd., a Chicago-based advertising consulting firm. "There has been no aggressive enforcement of equal-opportunity laws in the industry. The power to conceive and control advertising messages won't be given up without a struggle, so we have no choice but to put pressure on the industry ourselves," says the 25-year veteran creative consultant to general-market and black agencies.

But how effective can pressure be when the advertising pie is shrinking? Some of the biggest names in the industry were swallowed in the merger mania of the 1980s. The huge debt loads carried by the newly formed conglomerates have led to budget-trimming and leaner operations. At the same time, consumer goods giants have developed direct-mailing and targeted marketing techniques that depend less and less on the talents of full-service agencies.

Layoffs forced by the cutbacks in advertising have led to a scenario of experienced personnel competing with newcomers for a scarce supply of jobs in a rather small industry. Right now, there are about 73,000 people in the top 500 agencies. In comparison, IBM alone is laying off that many people. And because of its size, adds Ken Gilbert, "the ad business has not undergone the scrutiny in minority hiring faced by the computer or auto industries."

A Series Of False Starts

Although there have been several false starts, the advertising industry has rarely kept any focus on the issue of minority hiring. From the industry's infancy in the early part of the century until the late 1960s, it was a WASP-dominated trade in which white male captains of industry handed over accounts to the white males controlling the images of the marketplace.

The first attempts at minority hiring began in the late 1960s as corporations acknowledged the black consumer market. Unfortunately, hard economic times in the mid-1970s wiped out much of those gains. The industry, struggling to recover, paid little attention to what was perceived as a social, rather than a survival, concern.

With few minority role models to spur mass interest in the industry, agencies went through the 1980s consistently lagging behind other industries in affirmative-action hiring and promotion.

According to some industry veterans, the conservative political climate in the 1980s contributed to the advertising industry's amnesia when it came to the high-sounding rhetoric of equal opportunity from the civil rights era. As the economy picked up steam early in the Reagan years, blacks who had lost jobs in the industry were not asked back nor were strong recruitment efforts undertaken to bring African-Americans and Hispanics into entry-level positions.

"What's happened to blacks in the industry is not a very pretty picture," says Carolle Perkins, former vice president and senior producer at Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising Worldwide in New York. "We've been decimated. During the sixties, when the industry was at its apex, some gains in hiring were made. But the conservative drift in the country and the retraction in the economy have affected those gains."

Perkins, like many black executives at general-market agencies, has gone through her career without ever working for a black supervisor or manager. The lack of high-level mentorship has played a significant role in the decision of many blacks to abandon the general-market field to join agencies or leave the industry all together. Perkins left Saatchi & Saatchi last December.

Until starting up his own commercial production firm, Campanella Levy Films Ltd., Sheldon J. Levy worked in the general-market field for 17 years, producing commercials for Volkswagen, Toyota, General Mills, IBM and Proctor & Gamble. His last stint with an agency was as executive vice president and associate director of broadcast production at Saatchi & Saatchi. A black executive producer at a New York agency gave him a start in the business and turned out to be the only supervisor, jokes Levy, "who ever looked like me."

"Most people in the business don't even think about, let alone discuss, minority hiring," says Levy. "Especially in the creative departments, ad agency people live their entire lives within a 40-block radius of their office--little boxes, nice comfortable little boxes."

Bypassing in-house Talent: In Search Of Interns

With America's changing demographics, the ad industry's major trade associations--the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the AAF--have recently decided to step up efforts to break down the boxes, including their own all-white executive suites.

Jim Myers, vice president/group publisher of travel publications for the Honolulu Publishing Co. Ltd., chairs the AAF's Equal Opportunities in Advertising Advisory Board. In June 1992, the AAF approved an eight-point list of objectives intended to increase the ranks of minorities in the advertising field. The AAF, consisting of 50,000 members from agencies as well as advertisers, is recruiting minorities to join its 220 professional ad clubs and 200 college chapters.

"Even here in Hawaii, where ethnic groups are in the majority, white people are the majority in the advertising industry," says Myers. "The solution, as we see it, is to increase the ranks of minorities entering the industry. That's why we're drawing on our strength in the clubs, trying to get our members into the schools, beginning as low as junior high, to talk about advertising as an active and lucrative field."

John O'Toole, president of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, calls the industry's hiring record deplorable. "I attribute this to two things," he says. "Number one, a failure on our part to raise awareness of this problem, and number two, the lack of applicants we have, particularly from the black community. There is not much interest on the part of young black people in this business, and we haven't done much to encourage that interest."

The association, commonly called the 4 A's, runs the Minority Advertising Intern program, which has offered summer employment to about 650 participants since its inception in 1973, according to Karen Proctor, the 4 A's vice president of professional development. (For more information, call 212-986-4721.)

A separate program in the Los Angeles area was launched in 1989 by Jay Chiat, president of Chiat/Day Advertising Inc., who donated $100,000 of his own money to establish the Minority Advertising Training (MAT) program. The company matched that sum. Thus far, the program has offered three 13-week training cycles to over 50 participants. (To find more information on this program, call 310-314-5996.)

Laurie Coots, senior vice president and director of administration at Chiat/Day Advertising, says the training effort was launched because agencies found that "very few of the senior executives we recruited were willing to leave their positions in minority-owned firms."

To that, Valerie Graves asks: "Who wants to go back to a general-market agency and fall into a fruitless search for recognition of their talents?" Other black ad professionals question why training or advancement opportunities for African-Americans already in the agency pipeline are not a priority.

Unfortunately, the tokenism of black executives and creative talent in ad agencies still reflects the '60s spoof film Putney Swope, in which a black agency executive is unexpectedly elected president of a general-market firm.

While poking fun at white attitudes toward blacks, the movie strikes a raw nerve for African-American execs who have been overlooked, patronized or mistrusted by agency colleagues unwilling to make blacks full partners at the table. It seems that three decades later, very little has changed.

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