Being Black on Mad Ave: Two Generations

Two Minority Execs Discuss Diversity Issue

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Doug Alligood and Erika Emeruwa are a study in similarities and contrasts.

Both BBDO Worldwide executives are passionate about advertising and work with top marketers from DaimlerChrysler to Federal Express, PepsiCola and Target. Both hail from Middle America -- Mr. Alligood, the son of a handyman-craftsman, grew up in St. Louis, while Ms. Emeruwa, the daughter of an accountant and a media consultant, was raised just outside Cleveland. Both built a career on storied Madison Ave. And both are blacks in a predominantly white industry, committed to attracting more minorities into the businesses and believe that retention is a crucial element in building a more diverse industry.

Yet Mr. Alligood, 73, began his first stint with BBDO back in 1963; Ms. Emeruwa, 27, joined the agency six months ago, after five years at Ogilvy & Mather. The nearly four decades' difference in experience factors into their differing perspectives on diversity in the ad business, and influences the personal philosophy each has crafted over the years about how to succeed.

Let's start at the beginning. How did you get into advertising?

Mr. Alligood: My dad was in private-family work -- he was a yard man, he'd paint the house if you wanted him to, wash the car. ... As such he was given a lot of magazines to bring home -- Life, Look, Saturday Evening Post. ... I pored over those magazines. Something as a kid struck me: Nobody in these magazines looks like my family. I've got a couple of good-looking aunts, but they're not here. I'd see Aunt Jemima, I'd see the I.W. Harper waiter, and that was about it. My attitude was, "I think the world is more than this. I would like to be a part of this to change things." I was a kid.

How I got that attitude, I don't know. ... At Bradley University, I majored in commercial art. ... Before BBDO, my first job in advertising was in 1956, at a black agency in Detroit: Seymore, Leatherwood & Cleveland. ... In 1959, worked at a radio station as a merchandiser. One of my clients there was PepsiCola. ... [Through that I met] Bob Anderson, head of BBDO Detroit.

Ms. Emeruwa: I stumbled upon it in my senior year of college [George Washington University]. I was a marketing and finance major. My senior year, I needed to fill a requirement, so I checked out an advertising class, and absolutely loved it. It was so much fun. We broke into teams, acted like agencies to market a product. I had a ball pulling it all together and presenting it. Right there, I got the bug.

In 1968, the New York City Commission on Human Rights investigated minority hiring in advertising and found that minorities were under represented. A year later, after the agencies pledged to improve, a follow-up said little progress was made. What was happening in the industry then?

Mr. Alligood: When I came back to BBDO in the early 1970s, though there hadn't been a lot of progress, a lot of people wanted to change that. We had this organization called the Group for Advertising Progress (GAP). ...

GAP called a meeting in New York, and discovered 75 or 80 people in the industry who we didn't even know about. Others came -- photographers, producers -- who wanted to get in the business. I was president of GAP. Our philosophy was not to tear down the industry, but improve it. We were part of it. So we set up workshops, with help from Doyle Dane; N.W. Ayer, BBDO, Y&R, they all pitched in, they sent guys to run the workshops.

At that point, a number of blacks were recruited into the industry in middle and senior positions, correct?

Mr. Alligood: Yes. There was an article in The New York Times one year and that showed all the black account executives in New York at that time. I think JWT had six. I was in it; I think I was the only one from BBDO. There were a couple of others at other agencies. There were like 10 guys; 10 years later not one of them except me was in the business.

How did that happen?

Mr. Alligood: Because of the problems that are inherent in this business. People get disenchanted after a while. Many people -- particularly blacks -- they're high-profile, well-educated, work hard, very good at what they do, and outside industries can buy them off a lot easier than advertising can. That's what happened. And a lot of the goods ones left to form their own firms and become CEOs: Sam Chisholm, Frank Mingo. There were some who were less than stellar and who wanted to move faster than they probably should have. You still have that today among all people, not just minorities. I think it was that combination. I think there was another reason, too: I think middle management at a lot of places made it difficult.

Was it racism?

Mr. Alligood: I can't cite an example where I can say it was because of personal bias. But the progress was slow in advancing up. There was a glass ceiling. The top title in those days was account executive. There were no senior account executives. You just didn't make that next jump. Many agencies would tell you, "Our clients won't like this." Nobody ever proved that, but what are you going to say?

Clearly there's been a change in the industry over time, but how do you explain the low numbers of minorities at agencies, particularly in middle and senior ranks?

Mr. Alligood: It goes back to what we found when we had GAP many years ago. The industry in my view never really made an all-out effort to recruit minorities. At the same time, maybe because of that, minorities never really looked at the industry. The biggest impetus was not what the city did, but what clients said.

Did you have any concerns about coming into a predominantly white industry?

Ms. Emeruwa: To be honest, no. I pretty much grew up as the only African-American kid in my classes. George Washington is a very international school, but again, there were very few minorities. This was no different from my previous experience, being the only one.

When you hard about the investigation by the Human Rights Commission, were you surprised? What was your response?

Ms. Emeruwa: I wasn't surprised that they were looking into this. Many minorities don't know about this industry and the different careers in it. The nature of it is that when you first start you've got to spend time doing [basic, detail-oriented tasks] that will get you to where you want to be. People see other ways of making money, regardless of race or background. But I don't think the issue is getting people in. I think it is retention. You've got to keep people in the industry.

You've been involved with the American Advertising Federation's Most Promising Students program. This year, you were selected as one of the industry's rising stars. How did that happen?

Ms. Emeruwa: I was one of the Most Promising Minority Students program in 2001. Last year, the AAF sent out a notice asking all program participants what they've been up to, how they've grown. ... They also asked what advice I'd give to people coming in to the industry. ... Be focused. Understand the rules of engagement. Look at those who are phenomenal about what they do.

It is often said that one of the reason minorities don't stay in the business is that they don't see other minorities at the top. Does that bother you?

Ms. Emeruwa: No. One question I was asked in the American Advertising Federation's Rising Star questionnaire is whether I've experienced any barriers. My answer is no, thank goodness. No, I haven't, from a racial standpoint. I don't worry about not seeing anyone at the top because -- maybe I'm being overly optimistic -- I feel like when you are doing the job that you are supposed to be doing, if you are doing the job well, all of that will come.

Do you believe that change will happen now? And what is your role with BBDO's diversity council?

Mr. Alligood: Diversity is not just going out and hiring people. You've also go to make them feel comfortable when they come here. [The council] develops guidelines and programs. One example is diversity training. Another is an initiative that launches this week, an internal website that introduces all staff to each other. It's like a BBDO Facebook.

Are there any recommendations you'd make to the industry?

Ms. Emeruwa: The industry is starting to do a very good job expanding its college recruitment effort, and it should do more. Once the kids are here, we need to invest more in making them realize that what they do early on paves the way to do great work. Then, two to three years in, when people are starting to get antsy, there needs to be some mentorship to really grab them, and keep them interested. Continuing programs throughout a career will keep minorities -- and everyone -- here.

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