Gene sees very few black faces in the pages of our publication, and when he does run across them on our picture page they are invariably athletes or entertainers. What's more, when we do our sections on multicultural advertising they are mostly about Hispanics. "We are the forgotten folks," Gene told me.
He acknowledged that media in general often have a negative perception of blacks. When an Illinois Department of Tourism audit determined $500,000 couldn't be accounted for, Gene's agency was mentioned in the Chicago Tribune as one of three on the account, but what wasn't mentioned was that its shortfall was only a few hundred dollars.
"If we get any coverage at all it's not particularly positive," he said. "Unbalanced and biased coverage exists." One problem for the press is they have "no real roots" within the black community. "They don't understand the nuances. ... They could be right on top of something and not understand what's going on."
The ad industry has difficulty recruiting young talent, and Gene said that's "particularly acute" with blacks. "Our industry is just not competitive. We offer an M.B.A. $40,000, and he or she can get twice that much on the client side." Blacks as a rule don't have the same connections as white people, and so they don't go looking for an agency job. "The guy living next door to you, or your uncle, doesn't work at an ad agency, so it makes it much more difficult for African-Americans to think of a career in advertising," he said. "They don't see anybody who looks like them, and they wouldn't be welcomed with open arms anyway."
'No net gain'
So there's very few places to recruit from, Gene says. "You can hire from clients but you're not likely to raid your own clients," or you recruit from African-American agencies, but that doesn't help the black-agency-employee count as a whole. "There's no net gain. The needle doesn't move at all," Gene noted.
A lot of the blame he added, must "lie at the feet" of clients. They have the power to force change, but many clients don't demand diversity, and they don't hire African-American agencies to reach the African-American market or the general market. "It's disingenuous to tell your agency to be diverse if you yourself aren't hiring people of color."
Those same issues could be raised this fall in New York when the Human Rights Commission holds hearings on agencies' dismal record of hiring black employees. "It's appalling," Gene said.
I asked Gene if it wouldn't be easier to work for black clients. The problem, he said, is that they don't have the money to spend, or they want to save money by doing ads themselves or they don't understand the role of advertising and marketing.
"The problem I've had when I've been tempted to work with young companies is that they run out of money," he said. "We don't work cheaply, and even though we try to accommodate them to a certain degree, we've never had any luck" servicing black companies.
Achieving full potential
My father always believed that our economy can't achieve its full potential unless black people were full participants. That, of course, includes their fair share of employment at ad agencies and everywhere else, but it also includes success as small-businesspeople. The number of black-owned businesses in the U.S. increased 45% from 1997 to 2002.
To get bigger, they need help, and if black-owned ad agencies, for their own good and sufficient reasons, don't want to lend a hand, who will step up? Wouldn't it be ironic if small white-owned agencies saw this situation as a terrific opportunity?