I usually hear about these articles from my mother. She reads everything and anything she sees in the press about advertising-it's her way of staying connected to her son and one up on her advertising-savvy fifth graders. She usually calls on Sunday night. Tells me about a story. Asks what I think. Wonders why I wasn't included. Then drops it in the mail to me.
It's difficult having a mother who knows your resume better than you do, and remembers every experience you've endured at places like Saatchi & Saatchi, Margeotes Fertitta & Weiss, Chiat/Day, BBDO and now TBWA Chiat/Day. I guess she remembers because she was the one I called when I wasn't sure how to handle problems that arose because of the color of my skin, and the personality that came with it. So I explain that while I'm one of a few black creative directors on the so-called general market side, I'm in no hurry to be the person they only call on issues regarding race, not craft.
The most recent article she sent appeared in USA Today over the summer. It featured Ed Wax, chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide, and two executives from black agencies, Chuck Wimbly and Eugene Morris, talking about the American Association of Advertising Agencies' initiative to increase the number of full-time minority employees in the nation's ad agencies. Wax pointed out that minorities are crucial to helping agencies as they strive to reach an increasingly diverse consumer market. His solution was to encourage ad executives to visit high schools and colleges with large minority enrollment and preach the benefits of a career in advertising. Wimbly said many bright African Americans prefer to work in the marketing departments for clients because of the higher pay scale. Morris concluded that he is pleased with the initiative because it stems from an economic need, not social responsibility.
Reading these articles always makes me a bit uncomfortable. Partly because I would have liked to have shared what I consider to be an insider's point of view, but also because I rarely agree with the reasons stated for the lack of minorities in the business or the proposed solutions to this problem. They always sound like lip service, like something the industry can hold up to the Federal government and Jesse Jackson and say, "See Jesse, we really do want black people in our business." Everyone quoted usually uses their politically correct vocabulary, yet nobody seems to be truly addressing the problem.
I found this particular article to be no different. Unfortunately, we live in an era when you're not supposed to comment on or criticize the actions of other races, and you're certainly not supposed to comment on or criticize your own. Somebody might get offended. And herein lies the difficulty in dealing with race: Nobody wants to offend or upset anyone else, even though it's impossible to speak honestly about race and not offend someone.
Regardless of whether you're doing the talking or the listening, whether you're black or white, discussions about race immediately evoke feelings of anger, fear, de-nial, blame, defensiveness, resentment, guilt, confusion, frustration, and sometimes conflict.
Conflict between what you know, what you think, what you feel and what you believe. So let's start there. With what I believe-or rather, what I don't believe. I don't be-lieve the advertising in-dustry really wants more black people in the business, especially not in the creative departments. And I say this in spite of my career. I say this in spite of the fact that many executive creative directors and creative recruiters have asked me, "Where can we find more black writers like you," or said, "We'd love to hire more blacks, but we just can't find any talented black kids. If we could, we'd hire them." I say this because actions speak louder than words. There's been a problem with getting blacks and other minorities into advertising for over 30 years, and this is the industry that heralds many of our creative leaders as geniuses, incredible thinkers, trend setters and creative problem solvers. So why hasn't anyone solved this problem?
Is it because agencies aren't prepared to deal with the issues, the conflicts, the misunderstandings and the tensions that will come with a more diverse workforce? Perhaps there is a resistance to aggressively developing and recruiting minority talent because eventually someone is going to say, "Well, if we've got blacks and Hispanics and Asians working for us, why should we let our clients take part of the business to a minority agency?" I once heard from a recruiter that agencies were afraid to hire blacks for fear that if they ever had to fire them they'd be sued for discrimination. An executive creative director re-cently assured me they didn't think that was the case anymore. Whatever the reason for not getting more blacks into advertising for the last 30 years, the excuse that young, talented creative black minds can't be found is absurd.
One look int o the success of the rap/hip-hop music industry and it's easy to see that talented young creative black minds do exist. Historically, black college campuses are filled with uptown, downtown, suburban, nappy-haired, chocolate-skinned, flavor-filled, consciousness-raising writers, poets and artists whose minds are overflowing with inspiration and a desire to express those thoughts. In junior highs and high schools across the country, kids walk around with notebooks filled with poems, rhymes and lyrics about everything that's going on in their lives, their minds and their society.
What creative directors and creative recruiters actually have a problem finding are talented young creative blacks with minds that are trained to do fresh, powerful, thought-provoking, informative and humorous advertising, minds that are disciplined in creating unique messages that consumers can't turn away from.
The initiative discussed by Ed Wax and the Four A's in USA Today seems honorable, but preaching the benefits of a career in advertising doesn't seem like quite enough. While it certainly tells the nation the advertising industry wants minorities, the potential results seem somewhat limited. Not to mention that creative directors still will not hire people who aren't trained. Sounds like the perfect Catch-22, and 10 years from now, "We just can't find any talented black writers or art directors" will still be circulating. Perhaps instead of preaching the benefits of a career in advertising, the industry could devise a program that teaches the skills necessary to succeed in advertising.
I can't help but wonder what would happen if there was an advertising curriculum as strong as those at Syracuse and the University of Texas on even a handful of the 117 historically black college campuses in America. I wonder what would happen if there was a school of thought on a black campus that trained students to be creative thinkers and sophisticated problem solvers, similar to what's done at Art Center and Portfolio Center. I can't help but wonder what would happen if young sisters and brothers knew there was another arena to showcase their talents and express their emotions, heartaches, dreams, experiences, perspectives, ambitions and desires, not to mention their jokes, music, poems, designs, photographs, words, drawings and ideas.
Actually, I do know exactly what would happen: "If you build it, they will come."
Build a competitive advertising curriculum on a few black college campuses and blacks will come by the busload with personalities, ex-periences, attitudes, points of view and voices. They will come in different shapes, sizes, colors and sexes. They will come from upper class, middle class and lower class homes. But most importantly, they will come to the table with more than just a knife and fork. They will come with something to contribute. Something this industry desperately needs: Different perspectives, different styles, different voices and different ideas.
They will challenge the industry and question authority. And if they're lucky, they'll get to work for the kinds of people I've worked for, people like Jeff Weiss, Tracy Wong, Maxine Paetro, Stan Becker, Dick Sittig, Ty Montague, Paige St. John, Pat Peduto, Ted Sann, Lee Clow, Jay Chiat and Michael Patti. People who won't be intimidated by their personalities or threatened by their ambitions. People who will have the courage to tell them when they're doing something wrong, who will care enough to show them how to do it right, and who possess the self-confidence to promote them when they perform above and beyond the call of duty.
So why not take a group of the industry's leading creative minds, some of the leading creative recruiters, two or three of the best teachers from Art Center, Portfolio Center, Syracuse, the University of Texas and the Miami Ad School and a few executive CDs who can write a check, and build a new school of advertising at a black college? I guarantee some of the smartest strategic black creative thinkers will start showing up looking for jobs in advertising.
Maybe Howard University in Washington D.C. should be the first site for this project; it could attract creatives from New York, Boston, Baltimore, Richmond and Raleigh to come and support the curriculum.
If this industry is serious about wanting more blacks, there could be some form of a program in place by fall 1997. Advertising could one day be as accessible to minorities as the music industry has become accessible to minorities.
But unlike Eugene Morris, I think this industry does have a social responsibility to blacks and other minorities, one that has gone unfulfilled for far too long. Twenty years of affirmative action doesn't make up for what 400 years of slavery destroyed, and it doesn't begin to compare to all the of years of nepotism Corporate America has engaged in. Nobody's looking for a quota here. Just the knowledge. The education. The information. The skills. The articulation of the craft placed in environments immediately accessible to large numbers of people of color.
And if there are executive creative directors or presidents or chief financial officers or account directors who have a problem swallowing the social responsibility, then think of it as a creative responsibility. Getting more minorities into creative departments will strengthen the creative product. Instead of having a homogeneous staff of writers and art directors from similar lifestyles working on assignments, you'll have people from vastly different backgrounds and experiences trying to find a creative solution to your communications problems. "Diversity" can stop being a buzzword used to appease the ears of liberals and start being something that truly affects the bottom line.
Often I get frustrated by the limitations and narrow-mindedness of this industry, and I feel like I want to pack my bags and walk away, take my skills and my experience and try another medium. But it's not that easy. I love advertising, and I know how lucky I am to have stumbled into it. No telling where I would be it weren't for advertising. It has changed my life and in turn has forced me to change. To grow.
But I don't know if the advertising industry is prepared or willing to change and grow. Are agencies really prepared to make drastic changes? Are people prepared to engage in an honest and unpolitically correct dialogue with themselves and consumers about race? Is the ad industry prepared to stop saying urban when we mean black and general market and mainstream when we mean white? Can we stop classifying agencies by race? Are minorities in the business prepared to open a dialogue with their communities that encourages people not to cry racism every time an ad appears that doesn't uphold or portray middle-class assimilationist values? And are agencies that define themselves as ethnic prepared to stop selling themselves on the fallacy that white people are better qualified to talk to white consumers and black people are better qualified to talk to black consumers merely because of the color of their skin? Whatever happened to talking to opinion leaders and early adopters? Or is it that white people don't want to talk to black consumers and black people don't want to talk to white consumers? And are so-called mainstream agencies prepared to cast minorities as principals in their advertising?
I once asked a studio artist at an agency why there weren't any black people drawn into the storyboards He replied, "Sorry, but we only draw black people when we're told to draw black people." I had a similar experience at the same agency with a casting director when I asked for women, 18-34. After about three hours of voiceover auditions, I asked her why there weren't any black, Hispanic, or Asian women called in. Her response was, "You didn't ask for them. You just asked for women."
There are thousands of other questions that need to be raised and answered. Change is definitely necessary. And it's possible. It won't be easy. Toes will be stepped on and people will be offended. But the world and the industry will be better off for it. If ever there was an industry capable of truly impacting racism in America, it's advertising. And while there is racism in advertising, I'm not sure everything that's done that excludes or offends minorities is an act of racism. Most of it is just plain old ignorance.
So maybe it's time to stop acting ignorantly and start acting like the brilliant thinkers we claim to be. Maybe it's time to capitalize on our similarities instead of our differences. Maybe it's time to see if agencies really want more than a handful of blacks in the business.
If they do, they'll help black colleges develop competitive curriculums. If not, maybe they'll at least stop the charade. And don't worry. I won't tell Jesse.