A dirty little secret lives on

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It's been eight years since Advertising Age published "The ad industry's dirty little secret" (AA, June 15, '92), which reported on the ad world's terrible record at hiring and promoting African-Americans above the mail room and secretarial pool.

I was one of the black ad agency professionals featured in that story. I had spent more than 22 years in the business in Chicago -- about 12 creating ads full time for six of the top 10 agencies in the U.S. and (at that time) the top African-American-owned one, Burrell. I spent another 10 as one of the first full-time freelancers.

Included with the 1992 story was a prototype ad I had created. The visual was a sign that read "WHITES ONLY." The ad headline read, "This sign might as well be hanging on the doors of every major ad agency in America."

That 1992 article explored the numbers behind the ad. One that still sticks out was that African-Americans, by my count, then comprised fewer than 1% of the creative staffs of the top 25 U.S. ad agencies. I had done the numbers for an article I was writing, "The Invisible Man in the Gray Flannel Suit." I found about 60 blacks among the roughly 6,500 creatives I estimated were employed by the top 25 agencies.

Immediately afterwards, I noticed a big drop in my "general market" work. I've spent the past eight years creating anti-racist communications, co-hosting a public affairs radio show in Chicago called "The Race Question" and doing free-lance work for Burrell Communications Group and small, mostly African-American-owned, businesses. I've even written and self-published two books and helped start a whole new movement in academia I call "white studies." Now I'm back to see if the ad industry has cleaned up its "dirty little" act.


It's March 27, 2000. I'm on an Amtrak train to New York, to an event called "Creatively Incorrect." Its organizer, the Advertising Club of New York, bills it as "a freewheeling and entertaining discussion" about the relationship between "culture and creativity." It's to feature filmmaker/adman Spike Lee and Donny Deutsch, CEO of the Deutsch ad agency, discussing creativity and diversity. In other words, discussing why there are still so few "non-whites" creating ads in the major ad agencies.

I had a great time, but I've got a few politically incorrect questions.

* Why, 30 years after the height of the civil rights movement, is this event even necessary?

* Why do the clients allow agencies to disregard the most modest equal opportunity goals?

* Why do civil rights organizations give the ad industry a free pass . . . except for high visibility "gotcha moments" such as the "Katz Media memo"? (In the memo, a white Katz executive called blacks "suspects" not "prospects.")

* Why, almost 40 years after African-Americans first were hired in major agencies, are there almost none in the top creative ranks?

* How many black professionals have been forced to abandon ad careers because the industry is still as uncomfortable with the idea of integration (especially at its top) as a Southern school mom in 1955? (There's an idea. Maybe Mad Ave. should try busing.)

* What effect has the free-lance industry (which barely existed eight years ago) and the Internet (in 1992 hardly a glimmer in a greedy geek's eye) had on African-American creatives? (Does www equal White White Web?)


The U.S. eight years ago was in the middle of a seemingly unending recession. One of the rationales (alibis?) then was things would get better for African-Americans' employment prospects in the agency community when the economy got better. Don't look now but last month marked the longest economic expansion in American history.

I applaud the New York adclub committee that put the "Creatively Incorrect" event together. I have great respect for Valerie Graves of Uniworld Group, who has spent tons of time working to "colorize" the agency industry. But I also understand how difficult it is to push people who are also clients, co-workers and peers.

Eight years ago, I proposed a simple way to answer the "we can't find any qualified blacks" conundrum: the Minority Talent Hotline. Ad Age Editor in Chief Rance Crain graciously donated a page ad to announce it. But within two months, three of the four Chicago agencies that pledged to support it pulled out. Only Foote, Cone & Belding held up its end of the bargain for a year.

The hot line can still work but, with the laser vision of hindsight, I think it needed other components to be really effective.

* A clear goal and timetable should be publicly stated. I suggest we shoot for at least 15% of the creative staffs of every major agency being African-American by 2005.

* Every client should make it clear to its agencies that the diversity of the agency's professional staff, especially the creative department, will be a criterion in awarding and retaining its account.

* Someone should monitor results and do a yearly survey, not unlike Ad Age's annual agency billing and ad expenditure reports.

* A campaign to find and spotlight outstanding non-white creative people and their work should be supported by all. Two of the more credible reasons I've heard for why white creative directors don't hire more non-white creative employees or freelancers are: 1) They seldom see their work; and 2) the work they do see is not especially good or only for "special" markets.


I've lots of other ideas. I'd like to work with any agency, client or industry association serious about confronting this issue and moving this ball a lot closer to the goal line -- before another generation of African-American creative talent is lost to our industry. But we must be willing not only to think outside the box but to go outside the little circle where most white ad people seem most comfortable.

Former Ogilvy & Mather Chairman Jock Elliott's much quoted (and ignored) 1969 call for 13% minimum minority professional employment by New York ad agencies by "the end of 1972" is now thirtysomething. I think it would be a crime if we haven't reached and surpassed this goal by 2005. Don't you?

Mr. Thompson is a creative communications consultant, specializing in race relations in Chicago (lowellt@enteract.com).

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