Top Lawyer Preps March on Mad Ave

Man Who Beat Coke and NFL Starts to Study Diversity in Ad Agencies

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NEW YORK ( -- Cyrus Mehri, one of the nation's top civil-rights attorneys and a man who has been dubbed one of Washington's most feared lawyers, has turned his attention to the ad industry's woeful diversity record.

Blacks in advertising
Mr. Mehri declined to discuss whether a lawsuit was in the works but said his firm was behind the preliminary results of a study obtained by Ad Age. Any way you look at it, the fact that a top civil-rights attorney has commissioned a survey of diversity in ad agencies does not bode well for the agencies whose ranks are still overwhelmingly white.

The study, which isn't complete yet, is being conducted by economist Marc Bendick Jr. on behalf of the firm. According to the summary, Mr. Bendick looked at census data and figures for similar "persuasion" industries (media, law, philanthropy, high-end sales) and came up with benchmark percentages of minorities one could expect in an industry such as advertising. Whereas, according to the benchmarks, African-Americans would be expected to make up 9.5% of the professionals in advertising (a number even lower than the 13% in the general population), it turns out they make up only 5.8%. On the executive and managerial side, African-Americans make up only 3.2% compared with an expected 7.2%.

That amounts to a 39% shortfall in African-American representation among the industry's staff and a 56% shortfall among managerial employees. Unlike previous efforts, this study takes into account the entire ad industry, not just a handful of agencies operating out of New York. The figures include employees and managers at African-American-owned shops; Mr. Mehri said he expects the numbers to be even worse when those agencies are not factored in.

'Purposeful discrimination'
"If this was 1970 and they had this shortfall, I could be sympathetic," he said. But, he added, "the preliminary results [of this study] are showing shortfalls that are rare to have in this magnitude in this modern day and indicate purposeful discrimination." He went on to say that the industry won't resolve this issue until it stops focusing on a false "supply" argument (not enough African-American candidates) and starts focusing on the people in charge.

Nancy Hill, president-CEO of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, declined to comment on the matter.

Mr. Mehri, a partner at Mehri and Skalet, wouldn't disclose the firm's long-term plans in relation to the ad industry, but he made it clear he is not working with the New York City Commission on Human Rights. He did attend a forum held by the commission earlier this year on behalf of ad-industry employees who'd contacted him.

A look at Mr. Mehri's case history should worry the industry. His firm was behind suits against Texaco and Coca-Cola Co. that resulted in the largest discrimination settlements in history -- $176 million in the Texaco case and $192.5 million in the Coke case -- as well as dramatic reforms in both companies' employment practices. His firm was also behind recent gender-discrimination suits in the financial-services sector. The so-called Women on Wall Street Project has resulted in, among other things, a $46 million settlement against Morgan Stanley and a $33 million settlement from Smith Barney. Even when lawsuits aren't filed, Mr. Mehri leaves his mark. He, along with Johnnie Cochran, released the report "Black Coaches in the National Football League: Superior Performance, Inferior Opportunities." That report, backed up with the threat of a major lawsuit, led to the hiring of numerous African-American coaches.

"We're serious players," Mr. Mehri said. "We're going to do our homework. We're going to interview everybody who contacts us. We're going to build this up step by step. This is a world of difference compared to anything [the industry has] faced before."

Economist's perspective
Mr. Bendick, who's conducting the study, is an economist who specializes in employment and human-resource management at Bendick and Eagan Economic Consultants. He's done work for both employers and employees, the departments of Justice and Labor, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Most of his work doesn't involve litigation.

Mr. Bendick wouldn't comment for this story, but in previous studies -- such as "Changing Workplace Cultures to Reduce Employment Discrimination" -- he's touched on types of discrimination that may sound familiar to those toiling in the ad world. "They often derive from social relationships that informally limit access to information about job opportunities. They may reflect issues of 'social comfort' and personal style that affect whose comments get listened to, who is perceived as competent and who gets credit for accomplishments."

On the other hand, he told The Washington Post in January of this year, "If you ask what is the impact of diversity training today, you have to say 75% is junk and will have little impact or no impact or negative impact."

According to Mr. Mehri, the study won't be ready for several weeks. "I want to be clear that our firm has commissioned this study because we do our homework before we come in with guns blazing," he said. The study is meant to offer raw data, a look at causes behind the lack of diversity and, hopefully, remedies.

Leadership problem?
While Mr. Mehri wouldn't disclose what shapes those remedies might take, he was clear that the answer isn't more internships, scholarship programs and diversity initiatives -- which he sees as "rope-a-dope" schemes designed mostly to make it look like the industry is doing something about the problem.
Getting the ball rolling: Cyrus Mehri (l.) makes things happen even when there's no lawsuit involved, as he did when he and Johnnie Cochran released a report on the lack of black coaches in the NFL, which led to numerous hires.
Getting the ball rolling: Cyrus Mehri (l.) makes things happen even when there's no lawsuit involved, as he did when he and Johnnie Cochran released a report on the lack of black coaches in the NFL, which led to numerous hires. Credit: Amy Sancetta

"It's not a matter of forming affinity groups among the excluded," he said. "What needs fixing isn't the African-Americans; it's the white guy running the agency. We want to relentlessly focus on not the excluded groups but the excluding groups, the people who control the power and make the decisions. That's where people are running into barriers. The leadership has to come from the top."

He went on: "We know the industry has had various diversity efforts over the years. However, these efforts are going to continue to fall short until they understand they're operating under a false premise -- that the problem is the supply of African-American talent -- when the real problem is the lack of leadership at the top and their exclusionary policies and practices."

Mr. Mehri countered the argument that the problem is a lack of interest in the industry among African-Americans or a simple lack of candidates. "Supply is important. But you also have to shift the focus to a level playing field. So you can applaud the work that they're doing, but there's still going to be this revolving door unless there's this tenacious focus on a level playing field."

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Contributing: Rupal Parekh
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