The New York City Commission on Human Rights investigation into Madison Avenue's hiring practices has stirred a maelstrom of emotional discussion around that one big question -- and this time around, industry leaders hope that the discussion might just last long enough to yield some solutions.
"Curiously, while we operate in an industry that prides itself on participating in the cultural zeitgeist, if you will, we are not an industry that is tremendously comfortable with differences," said Renetta McCann, CEO, Starcom MediaVest Group. Ms. McCann, one of the top-ranked black women in the business, notes that historically, the industry has not had a huge appetite for this issue. "In my 28 years, I've had about five substantial conversations on the issue of racial diversity in advertising. That's about one every five years."
Indeed, few executives in the business are willing to go near the subject and several of those who commented for this story chose to do so anonymously. But the wide spectrum of reasons they cite range from nepotism -- or what might even be called institutional racism, (a business that started as a white business that's continued to hire its own) -- to inertia and clients' indifference to the issue. Some also believe the problem has to do with advertising's inability to compete with better-paying industries for the most qualified candidates.
Others cite a rule intended to fuel diversity -- government mandates that minority contracts be afforded only to minority-owned agencies -- as hampering it, leaving general-market agencies to decide if it's in their best interests to work with minority-staffed agencies rather staff up with nonwhites themselves.
But while opinions vary, one thing seems clear: Were there no pressure on agencies by a government authority, agencies would be unlikely to take action. "There's not a lot of desire by [general-market] agencies to become more integrated," admitted Don Richards, senior VP-agency diversity at the American Association of Advertising Agencies. "There are more pressing issues: profit margins, compensation, and an overall talent drain from the industry. I don't believe that agencies shy away from trying to get minority employees. But it is more in the middle of things that keep agencies awake at night than a top priority."
Under threat of government investigation into their hiring practices, the Four A's in September 2004 launched Operation Success, dubbed "the advertising diversity initiative program," which intended to help agency members improve their minority-hiring efforts. Sheldon Fischer, CEO of consulting firm GoldenKnock/Pipeline International, chairman of the Four A's diversity advisory board recruitment subcommittee, and an adviser to Operation Success, called it "a Crackerjack box that turned out to be empty. No prize, nothing to eat."
'They aren't wanted'
His take on the reason that there aren't more blacks in the ad industry: "They aren't wanted. Though these agencies are enormous in terms of their global impact, they are small shops politically. They appear to be close-knit families. They hire from among their own: there is nepotism and politics." What's more, clients aren't pushing for change. "Absolutely, if a client asked for more African-Americans on their accounts, agencies would respond," said Mr. Richards of the Four A's. "They'd devote resources to it and make an effort."
The industry has a history of segregation by race and gender. Harold Levine, founder of now-defunct Levine, Huntley, Schmidt & Beaver, recalls that when he interviewed at agencies after World War II, he was told to limit his job search to those agencies known as Jewish only. "It was only in the late '60s, in the midst of the creative revolution, and small agencies were hiring Jews and women. It was only then that the giant agencies started to talk about diversity. The history of the agency business is one of white male Christians. The culture is very white and masculine."
A push during the 1960s and 1970s to bring more African-Americans into the business led to some progress. Gil Griffin, an African-American lawyer in the early 1970s, joined now-defunct Kenyon & Eckhardt as senior VP-administration. "It was not a figurehead role," said Mr. Griffin, who credits one man, Leo Kelmanson, for having the courage to appoint him. "At the time, other firms were debating whether to hire a black copywriter. He had bravery, will and sense of fairness to be way ahead of his contemporaries." Other agencies hired African-Americans then, but, recalled Gene Morris, chairman-CEO of E. Morris Communications, Chicago, "most of those people didn't stick around."
No pepole 'like them' at the top
That lack of top-level senior talent continues to exist today, and makes for difficulty in recruiting and retention at all levels. Mr. Griffin, who now heads recruitment firm Korn/Ferry International's diversity practice, asked why young people would want to go to an agency if they don't see people like them at the top.
Others maintain that the number of African-Americans interested in the business is small. Several respondents to a March AdAge.com poll reported that in their college classes, few African-Americans enrolled in advertising courses. Jack Lindgren, who teaches advertising at University of Virginia, says of the 40 kids in his classes per year, "only a few" are African-American: "If I have one or two, I'm very lucky."
Another reason cited for the low numbers is high demand for a small pool of qualified candidates. "There's a certain percentage of African-Americans in the general population, and those that have graduated from college are a small part of that. Competition for them is strong," said Mr. Richards. "They've got options."
Entry pay levels
Pay in advertising pales in comparison with other white-collar industries, particularly for MBA's. Notes executive recruiter Paul Gumbinner: "The best and the brightest MBA's are being paid $35,000 to $40,000 to start. Why should they go into advertising when they can go almost anywhere else for twice that?"
Still, Carol Dudley, coordinator, the office of career development at Howard University's John H. Johnson School of Communications, said that while some shops -- including TM, Saatchi & Saatchi and Ogilvy -- attend the school's annual career fair, overall agency attendance is low. Of the school's 287 graduates in 2006, 29 graduated with ad degrees, and three took jobs in agencies.
Some observers point out that to win large government contracts, general-market agencies must work with minority-owned vendors, so it is in general market agencies' interests to work with the best minority-staffed agencies rather than staff up with minorities themselves.