'Relegated to leftovers'
Madison Avenue, under fire for its failure to build diverse workplaces, was also slapped today for not buying enough ads in media outlets owned by African-Americans, Latinos and other minorities. In hearings at City Hall, media owners and City Council members blasted the industry for what one described as an environment where these outlets are "devalued and relegated to leftovers." But it wasn't just media plans that got the goat of the council. What raised the council's ire and brought out some of the loudest verbal fireworks was the decision by agency executives not to show up and testify, a move that could ultimately lead to more hearings.
Left holding the bag was the agency business' trade group, the Association of American Advertising Agencies. 4A's Senior VP Adonis Hoffman said the agencies' decision not to appear followed a series of agreements with the New York City Human Rights Commission that had the effect of canceling a separate set of hearings into diversity hiring matters also scheduled for this week. Both sets of hearings were scheduled to coincide with Advertising Week, the industry's annual celebration.
With those agreements, he said, the agencies "would be free to proceed with their diversity plans without hearings on the issues that were resolved as a result of many months of negotiations. Thus, following the advice of their individual legal counsel, the agencies, as you can understand, opted not to appear today."
Councilwoman Letitia James said the decision was "an affront to the City Council. We're pretty offended by this. It's disrespectful."
For his part, Mr. Hoffman acknowledged the challenges facing the media outlets, in an era of media consolidation, and he offered a set of recommendations for how the city can help. He said the city should use tax incentives and other economic-development tactics as part of a program to promote minority-ownership of media.
But that did little to ease the concerns of the media owners. Following a presentation by a Verizon government-affairs executive touting the company's diversity record, Elinor Tatum, editor-publisher of the New York Amsterdam News, questioned Verizon's commitment to minority-owned media. She said that in her paper's case Verizon bought a couple ads every January and February to coincide with Black History Month and Martin Luther King's birthday.
"It seems like black newspapers exist only in January and February," Ms. Tatum said.
List of grievances
Overall, a long list of grievances was aired, ranging from the fact that multicultural agencies are often subcontractors and thus control a small slice of ad budgets to the fact that those budgets often are relatively tiny set-asides and don't come out of general-marketing budgets. Said Ms. Tatum: "Agencies blame clients. Clients blame agencies. That way all the doors stay closed."
Mr. Seabrook, who brokered an agreement with Omnicom Group, the largest ad-agency holding company, to provide more than $2 million toward a diversity program, has been trying to broaden the debate beyond workplace issues to include matters such as media spending. Last week, four Omnicom-owned agencies followed shops from WPP Group, Interpublic Group of Cos. and Publicis Groupe in settling with the Human Rights Commission, agreeing to set and report minority-hiring and promotion goals.