Stop Talking About Transformation in Adland -- Do It

JWT Suit Shines Beacon On Woeful Lack of Industry Diversity

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Credit: Hanna Barczyk for Ad Age
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It's likely to be blindingly sunny this week in Miami Beach as the 4A's convenes. There will be well-deserved celebrations over the appointment of Tamara Ingram, a rare woman in a CEO role at one of the industry's best-known agencies. But let's not get so caught up in congratulations we overlook the dark cloud hanging overhead.

The lawsuit filed against her predecessor, Gustavo Martinez, by JWT's communications chief is still pending. The filing alleges that the former CEO used language insulting to African-Americans and people of the Jewish faith. It claims some of it was caught on tape and said in front of a reporter.

The suit also charges that the exec referenced rape and manhandled Erin Johnson, who filed the suit.

It's not the intention of this column to either blame or exonerate Mr. Martinez. That is for the courts to do.

But one thing is clear: This isn't just about JWT. It's about advertising as a whole. The suit shines an unflattering light on the industry's woeful lack of diversity and—Ms. Ingram aside—the scarcity of women in leading roles.

I've been at Ad Age almost 30 years and I've seen a great deal of progress. When I started, Ronald Reagan was president, "The Golden Girls" was in primetime, "Lonesome Dove" was on The New York Times best-seller list and telephones were actually tethered to walls. I've watched the industry adapt to innovations from broadcast TV to cable to the web to handheld devices. I've seen agencies form incubators that went from making candles and beer to developing anklets that save babies' lives. I've witnessed milestones in term of e-commerce, data and targeting, and innovations like virtual reality and self-driving cars.

But for all those miraculous events, the faces in agency boardrooms have not changed much.

I recall my editor receiving a call from the president of an agency I covered as a young reporter demanding to know why he wasn't getting much ink—and in those days it was ink. My response: I'd been avoiding the president because he was hitting on me.

That's far from an unusual story and hardly confined to the ad industry. Millions of women have similar tales to tell and, in truth, I'm seeing less of it today, though that could have a lot to do with my age.

But it's there. Just look at the commentary on social media that the JWT suit has ignited. No matter how this case is resolved, it has reopened that can of worms for advertising, which as an industry is talking the talk when it comes to diversity but not walking the walk. Eight years ago, ad agencies were—not for the first time—called out by the New York City Commission on Human Rights for their woeful record of hiring minorities, and civil-rights attorney Cyrus Mehri threatened a class-action lawsuit for racial discrimination. That suit went nowhere, but one has to wonder if Ms. Johnson's suit will prompt others to step forward.

This issue is dedicated to talent and raises a number of sore points for the industry. For one, creative talent—increasingly high-level talent—is fleeing advertising for digital domains because people are not feeling fulfilled (p. 20). And ageism is still rampant. Our story of how Dave Shea, a post-55 male, found employment as a creative director is a rare case of a positive outcome (p. 24).

There have been numerous stories written about diversity initiatives in the industry and myriad task forces formed to bring more people of color into advertising. But getting people on staff is only part of the solution.

Just ask Kayla Robinson, an African-American and recent grad who works at BBDO. "The perception is that [the ad industry] is really difficult to get into," she said (p. 25). "You become the token person in the room."

She elaborated: "The industry is visually dominated by white males. There is an unspoken pressure that you must be twice as good and work twice as hard to prove that you belong in a situation that, on the surface, doesn't seem to be the most welcoming.

"If you do get hired, you are likely one of a kind, making you stand out and not necessarily for your hard work," said Ms. Robinson. "There's added pressure when you may be asked to speak for your entire race or gender. There is even more pressure when you're not asked for an opinion, but must speak up on behalf of your race or gender because you're the only member present."

And we wonder why there aren't more top-level agency executives of color in this industry. Or women.

The 4A's conference is again called "Transformation." So let it deliver just that. Forget the rafts of task forces that spend years talking about the problem. Instead, executives from agencies (and marketers) need to roll up their sleeves to make this business into one that accepts, respects and celebrates talent of all genders, ages and colors.

Now is a good time to start lifting those clouds.

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