How Howard Will Help Agencies Diversify

4A's Pledges Money and Manpower to New Center at Historically Black School

By Published on .

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Late last month, Nancy Hill, the new president-CEO of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, stood in a conference room in a hotel in Laguna Niguel, Calif., and made what could go down as an important announcement in industry race relations. That the makeup of the 300 or so ad execs in the audience was just about completely white was the long and the short of the problem.
The professional development and research center Howard University is establishing with the 4A's will be based on the school's Washington campus.
The professional development and research center Howard University is establishing with the 4A's will be based on the school's Washington campus. Credit: Howard University

Madison Avenue has made some progress dealing with a much-criticized deficiency by finding more entry-level minority recruits to fill its cubicles. But things are no different when it comes to the question of who's occupying the corner offices.

"The advertising industry has been very good at getting junior-level people of color into the industry, but the problem has been keeping them there," said Adonis Hoffman, senior VP-legal counsel for the 4A's.

The 4A's is now grappling with that problem through a partnership with historically black Howard University. It aims to end the shortage of African-American executives in the ad business with a professional-development and research center at the university's John H. Johnson School of Communications.

The 4A's is contributing $250,000 and has pledged to help raise $750,000 annually for the center, in addition to providing leadership and financial support to develop its curriculum, research and programming. The 4A's also will help staff a board of directors for the center with senior-level representatives from its membership.

Progress reports
"It's a start," said Carol Watson, president of minority-recruitment firm Tangerine Watson, adding that agencies also have a role in this partnership. "It will be up to Howard to not only show that they are providing the right resources but also up to the individual agencies to step up."

The announcement comes weeks after the New York City Commission on Human Rights gave yearly progress reports on 15 New York advertising agencies that were subpoenaed about hiring and diversity practices. Though the majority of agencies being investigated met the minority goals they set for themselves, some didn't. And what's more, African-American and Hispanic hires lagged behind Asian-Americans, and some agencies seemed to lose minority hires almost as soon as they got them.

Some diversity advocates have criticized agencies and the commission for not setting specific goals for African-American hires and promotions, since the lack of African-Americans was what prompted the commission's investigation in the first place. Though the new center is not just attempting to resolve diversity issues in New York City agencies, it will certainly be an ally in this fight.

"There is a lot of churn in the industry because there is not a feeling of being welcomed," said Jannette Dates, dean of Howard's school of communications. "[People of color] do not see people who look like them at senior or middle levels.

"On a lot of levels, this is one of the first times that the 4A's has stepped up to say, 'We believe in diversity, and we want to put some money behind our thinking,'" she said. "This is going to be transformative for the industry."

Potential students
The goals of the center are to provide professional development and leadership training to people of color in middle ranks and above; to develop research and policy; to increase retention and create promotion opportunities; and to develop and measure best practices and solutions to increase diversity.

Potential students could be C-suite executives looking to diversify their agencies; African-American ad professionals looking to further develop their careers; managers looking to increase productivity; mid- to senior-level African-American professionals transitioning into advertising; and other historically black colleges looking to assist in strengthening the diversity of the work force.

The center will be based on Howard's campus in Washington, but the aim is to provide professional development for agencies, both big networks and small independents, around the country. Though the details of the curriculum have yet to be determined, it is possible the program will include some kind of digital component that will allow people to get training online, a 4A's spokesman said.

The joint venture has been in the works for more than a year, since April 2007, when a 4A's task force chaired by Eugene Faison, chairman-CEO of Equals Three Communications, began considering the proposal for the center from Howard.

Top priority
So far, the partnership has been well-received by the industry. "This initiative is desperately needed," said recruiter Sharon Spielman, managing director at Jerry Fields and Associates. "We are desperately missing [diversity] at that middle- to upper-level management."
Jannette Dates, dean of Howard's school of communications
Jannette Dates, dean of Howard's school of communications Credit: Art Beaulieu

However, not everyone thinks it goes far enough. The blog MultiCultClassics said the initial monetary contribution should be bigger, though it need not all come out of 4A's coffers. Agencies could peg their levels of contribution to their size, a "diversity tax." The blog also said diversity is something Ms. Hill has to take on as a top priority, becoming something of a "chief diversity officer."

"Resist the temptation to pass the buck, dodge the drama or delegate the authority to a friendly minority. Immerse yourself in the complex, emotional, maddening mess our industry has allowed to fester for generations -- and strive to solve it."

Just a few months into her tenure, it's clear Ms. Hill is making diversity a front-and-center issue. The Howard partnership was her first big announcement, and for the most part it's getting good initial marks.

Well-regarded school
One of the most promising components of this 4A's initiative is that it brings a university with a good reputation in the ad business into the fight for more minorities in the ad business. While the first place agencies might go to recruit talent might be Virginia Commonwealth University's AdCenter or the University of Texas at Austin, Howard University's communications school is well-regarded in the industry. The university is known to have a big database of professionals that are working in the industry, and among the 103 historically black colleges and universities in the country, Howard's advertising program is the best-known, according to recruiters.

"They have probably the largest percentage of people in the business," Ms. Watson said.

What's more, Howard's communications school has had success with this type of professional-development partnership in the past. For almost 10 years, the school has partnered with the National Association of Broadcasters to develop an annual media-sales institute, a 10-day workshop designed to introduce graduates to media-sales careers. According to Howard, more than 90% of media-sales-institute graduates wind up in the field.

"It's commendable that [agencies] are hiring more people of color, but you still have to look at the challenge of African-American," said the 4A's Mr. Hoffman. "That's what the Howard University initiative addresses in very straightforward way."

~ ~ ~
For more on the partnership and on diversity issues in general, check out our Big Tent Blog.
In this article:
Most Popular