More Agency Execs Need to Get Involved With Diversity

An Ad Age Editorial

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If advertising agencies get hauled in front of Congress because the lack of the diversity in the industry, they'll have only themselves to blame. And ironically enough, part of that blame will lay at the feet of those who proclaim to be professionals in the world of image-making.

There's been much ado surrounding the meeting of the New York City Commission on Human Rights held July 7. Of the 16 agencies that have signed agreements with the Commission, only two had representatives attend. There could have been any number of reasons for this. Letters weren't sent directly to the agencies. The meeting, though advertised, wasn't widely publicized. Agency executives didn't want to be seen as intimidating those there to air their grievances.

All of that is beside the point. Ultimately, the image created is that shops don't care. Agencies can send hundreds of people to Cannes, but can't be bothered to get an executive to downtown Manhattan.

That is the image. And, as any agency executive worth his or her salt should know, the image often creates the reality.

Let us be clear: We're rarely in favor of government regulation. Even Human Rights Commissioner Patricia Gatling concedes that government doesn't do many things all that well. Regulation would be a blunt instrument to use on an issue this complex. Just to list a few of the complexities: lousy starting pay; overpriced portfolio schools; talent retention; and an industry carved into niches in which many qualified "ethnic" candidates are pigeonholed as ethnic specialists.

This probably won't be solved by the Human Rights Commission. It's not going to be solved by sending out a diversity specialist to make the case for your shop.

What's needed are upper-level agency executives willing to sit down and listen and talk. Listen to the stories being told. Listen to the census numbers showing that "general market" is no longer synonymous with "white market." And talk. Tell them about your efforts. Show them the data that you have proving that it's hard to find or retain talent (assuming such data exist). Show those involved that you realize this problem deserves more than a couple of press releases and a few thousand dollars contributed to a scholarship fund.

That won't necessarily fix this complex issue, but if agency executives don't come to the table and start using their own sets of tools (and money) to unravel this mess, the next tool likely to be reached for will be lawyers.
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