Agencies Need to Do Better Job of Retaining Black Talent

An Ad Age Editorial

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We're a month and a half into the New Year and halfway through another Black History month. For the first time in U.S. history, an African-American man stands a very good chance of being elected to the highest office in the land. And ad agencies haven't been publicly smacked around by the New York City Commission on Human Rights. So all must be good, right?

Hardly. One of the most striking things gleaned from early reviews of Jason Chambers' "Madison Avenue and the Color Line" is how some of the issues involving race and the ad world have seemed intractable from the start.

But there are some issues that can be addressed on a daily basis. The most important of these is the hiring and retention of black talent by general-market agencies. Strides have been made, but a walk down the halls of any major general-market ad agency will remind you what a white world the industry is.

Both agencies and prospective employees have their work cut out for them. As Big Tent blogger Tiffany Warren pointed out in a recent post, the general-market agency world still needs pioneers. Young African-Americans who feel isolated, who feel the urge to cut and run from the general-market realm to take up freelancing or work at an African-American shop have to tough it out, build relationships, mentor those coming in after them and lay the groundwork for a future generation. And no, there's no bonus pay for that.

But agencies have the bigger responsibility. There are more and more African-American candidates trying to get a break every day. Perhaps money would be better spent hiring them than paying millions of dollars to the same consultants and hip-hop stars (yes, we're looking at you, Interpublic, Steve Stoute and Jay-Z).

And agencies have to do a better job retaining talent once they find it. That entails everything from outreach to mentoring to, most importantly, promoting those talented individuals who do tough it out. Ms. Warren recently wrote another blog post detailing the frustrations of African-American creatives who have the portfolio and who have stuck it out, but never seem to make it to creative director.

Is there a quick fix for boosting the number of African-Americans in general-market shops? Not necessarily. But putting a laserlike focus on retention is probably the best way to make substantial gains in a short amount of time.
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