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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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