Ad industry: Continue to Ignore Elephant in the Room at Your Peril

Commentary on Diversity Hiring by Agency CEO Richard Wayner

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Here it is 2006, and the lack of diversity in the advertising industry is still the elephant in the room. At the True Agency, we have always preferred to address it head-on and not pretend that it isn't there, or that it is someone else's problem. As a multicultural, multiracial and multilingual agency, we are pretty confident that minority-owned agencies and minority advertising professionals are the ultimate keys to the issue and to a brighter future for all of us.

We view the lack-of-diversity issue the same way we look at the integrated and digital-media age: as an industrywide opportunity. Likewise, the agencies (and clients) who best adapt to a new reality of diversity will be the Googles and Yahoos of the ad industry for the next 10 to 20 years. Everyone else (the "foot-draggers") will be stuck in the 1960s using mainframe computers.

Dominant influencers
Latinos and blacks have already become the dominant cultural influencers in the U.S. Any cursory, objective review of popular culture-from MTV playlists to Billboard music charts to major celebrity endorsements to the "hip-hop-ification" of the English language to the debate of Spanish vs. English-only policies-points to the same thing: It shows that the cultural revolution has preceded the demographic revolution expected to arrive in 2050 when the nonwhite population will outnumber the white population in the U.S. As Jay-Z would say, "It's ova, Hova!"

To repeat: The cultural shake-up is happening now. Fight the trend and you (and your clients) will lose out and become culturally irrelevant-and advertising is all about culture. Lead the trend and you (and your clients) will win, or at least stay current.

Embrace change
Our advice to Madison Avenue: Don't wait for 2050. Don't wait for any more subpoenas from the New York City Commission on Human Rights. Don't wait for the final report from your diversity consultants in three years. Embrace organizational change now and be ahead of the demographic wave. In your creative department, in your account team, in your media team and especially in your senior management. And if you don't get it in your senior management, that 0%-2% group, you'll simply be filling a leaky bucket.

Our advice to clients: You can't get enough advice from and spend enough money with multicultural and minority-owned agencies. Look at your consumers. They've been living integrated lives in the U.S. since the 1960s, so your communications and messages to them should be integrated too. Otherwise you are talking to them in analog and black-and-white, and they are living in HDTV and color.

Keep in mind that "good advertising is good advertising," which means minorities can do it too. So "buy black" and "buy Latino," and we'll deliver in English, in Spanish, with black people, with brown people and with white people, too. Whatever it takes, we can do it.

Getting it right
Minorities choose to work in this industry too. And we like it. And we want to help the industry get it right. It just ain't cool that Madison Avenue is less diverse than Wall Street! We need a new approach, a new school.

It should never have gotten this far. The Human Rights Commission shouldn't have had to send subpoenas to ad-agency executives (a third time). After all, no one has to tell Doug Morris and Universal Music Group to hire Jay-Z as the CEO of one of its largest labels. Because Doug Morris knows that, as much as anything else, he's in the business of culture. He gets it.

Gets what? That diversity is an opportunity, not a threat. Imagine music today without Latino and black artists and executives. Imagine baseball, our national pastime, without Latino and black players. Imagine six years of the Bush administration without Colin Powell, Condi Rice or Alberto Gonzales.

Black and Latino leadership
Well, so is Madison Avenue without a healthy and vibrant dose of black and Latino leadership. Madison Avenue is a lot less interesting, less entertaining and less exciting than it could be. Of course, black and Latino executives can do great general-market work with big clients and big budgets. Our cultures and styles have always crossed over successfully. We have always made "hits," and we always will. If Ray Charles can do country music, we can do general market.

Led by progressive (some might say "brave") executives at client companies and general-market agencies, the working relationship with minority-owned agencies and minority advertising executives must be completely restructured. We must be allowed to contribute as much as we are capable of and be at the center of the action, not in a corner.

It is the only way for Madison Avenue and its clients to stay relevant to an increasingly diverse population. Minority executives and minority-owned firms must be integrated (not isolated and segregated) into the core of the action in advertising, at the head table, with the big clients and the big budgets.

Sound crazy? It's far less crazy than having a segregated industry in the middle of an integrated country. At the end of the day, embracing this approach is the only winning strategy for Madison Avenue and, most importantly, for clients.

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