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Silent Minorities: Industry Employees Speak Out About Adland Isolation

Results of Study Called 'Very Disenchanting, But Not Surprising'

By Published on . 28

The average ad-industry employee likely agrees the diversity issue is a very unfortunate situation. One that should be remedied. By someone. But on a daily basis, he's likely to carry on, figuring for the most part the industry will evolve and that his nonwhite coworkers are content with the state of adland.

The reality, according to a new study, is that a whopping 74% of minority employees in the industry agree that "My experience as an employee from a multicultural background is different from my colleagues'."

The Impact Study, conducted by cross-cultural talent consultancy Tangerine-Watson, surveyed a total of 831 ad-industry professionals of various races and across general-market and ethnic shops between September and December of 2011.

The study's numbers likely won't shock anyone who's paying attention to the issue. As 4A's CEO Nancy Hill said, "It is very disenchanting, but not surprising at the same time." Carol Watson, founder and CEO of Tangerine-Watson, called the results "sad and concerning."

But one thing this survey provides is actual voices from those responding. What comes through is mostly a sense of resignation tinged with sadness.

"I try to keep my cultural preferences outside of work. . . . Since there isn't much diversity I just have to go along with the flow," wrote one respondent.

Another wrote about feeling excluded "when nobody [in the office] introduced themselves to me."

"Many other people are allowed to just 'be.' As a black man I often have to shield my 'real' self a bit. I wish I could be as open as others. It's something they don't even recognize."

Gender came up in a number of comments. Indeed, men (37%) felt more strongly than women (27%) that their experiences were "very much different" than their white colleagues.

Why does any of this matter? Obviously, aside from doing what's right, it's good for business to have ad agencies reflect the reality of the world we live in. One of the 4A's most recent diversity efforts is called "Competitive Edge" for just that reason.

And it can be bad for business when a creative team overlooks important cultural cues in a campaign. For all the social-media outcries in 2011, the No. 10 most-read story on AdAge.com last year was "Nivea Pulls Ad, Apologizes After Racism Accusations."

But even speaking up to voice concerns about such things comes with its own baggage. "Simply being aware of the presence (or lack thereof) of racial overtones in our advertising concepts and being turned to as the one to call it out is an unwritten responsibility -- and I fear an unwritten liability," wrote one respondent.

And there's also the worry of being stigmatized as a complainer. Wrote another: "I have been treated differently for expressing negative feelings vs. my white colleagues."

That's not to say everything boiled down to race. When asked what they liked least about the ad industry, whites, African-Americans and Asian-Americans all picked "instability" as the top choice. "Instability" was the No. 2 choice among Hispanics, with "challenge balancing work and personal life" being the No. 1 dislike.

That said, lack of diversity does play a major role when it comes time for employees to decide whether or not to say in adland. African-Americans (33%) and Latinos (21%) were more likely to cite lack of racial and ethnic diversity as a very important reason for leaving the industry, compared to whites (4%).

For an industry that 's been hammered over this issue off and on since the late 1960s without a great deal of progress to show for it, keeping the minorities it has is just as important as recruiting fresh talent.

Ms. Watson hopes that the answers to the surveys -- as well as a more granular look at the data and follow-up surveys -- will provide some guidance for agencies.

Looking at some of the responses regarding those times multicultural employees actually felt included, some of the fixes don't exactly require an industry-wide initiative. Being invited to meetings, being included in award-submission processes, being consulted on anything from creative to the new offices -- these were among the things that made respondents feel more included.

Another step agency employees could take? Perhaps realizing that not everyone sees the time period portrayed in "Mad Men" as something to admire. (Responded one person to the scenario "I feel excluded": "When they had a "Mad Men' party.")

But internship programs and affinity groups and mentoring and reverse-mentoring opportunities were also all mentioned by respondents. And that 's where agency executives and the industry as a whole have to step in.

"I've never been shy about saying we have work to do," said the 4A's Ms. Hill. "Our actions ... have cultural cues we just need to think about, especially when we're the majority culture."

Which general-market agencies are doing right by way of diversity? Ogilvy & Mather and Wieden & Kennedy came in tops across the categories among non-Caucasian respondents.

In a statement, Ogilvy & Mather North America Chairman-CEO John Seifert said: "While we are grateful to see our progress recognized, we still have so much to do in attracting and retraining the best and brightest talent from the cross-cultural landscape we serve."

Regarding Wieden & Kennedy, former employee Jimmy Smith chairman-CEO-chief creative officer of Amusement Park Entertainment, said, "It's incredible what Dan [Wieden] and Dave [Kennedy] have accomplished ... especially miraculous when you consider that Portland [Oregon] is one of the whitest joints on the planet."

What does Wieden have that others don't? No. 1, said Mr. Smith, is its client roster. "Cool attracts cool," as he put it. But it's not just Nike . "Dan and Dave have love for people of color. Dave has been heavily involved with the American Indian College Fund since I've known him. And it's true: Dan wishes he could be reborn as a Black jazz musician. ...John Jay is a partner at W&K and he's Asian. He helped me immensely with my transition into W&K, and I'm sure he's helped many others since I left."

Much of which affirms something else Ms. Hill said. "The clear message in all of this is [that ] it starts with the CEO."

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