Agencies Have Funny Way of Showing 'Commitment' to Diversity

Don't Be Surprised When the Lawyers Start Knocking on Your Doors

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The New York City agency world should be ashamed of itself.

The New York City Commission on Human Rights held a public meeting Monday night regarding the issue of diversity in the advertising industry. A rough count of those sweltering in the close quarters of a conference room on Rector Street showed 27 people in attendance. It's hard to say what was more discouraging: that of the 27, three were members of the commission, two were lawyers and three were journalists; that of the six white people in attendance, two were members of the commission, two were lawyers and one was a journalist; or that in an industry this size, on an issue this public and this important, a turnout of 20-some-odd people was considered a success. (And before anyone starts griping about other representation, there was one Asian-American woman in attendance and no Hispanics. But let's be honest: From the start, this has been predominantly a black-white issue.)

More embarrassing and much more troubling? Of the 16 New York ad agencies that have had their dirty laundry aired by the commission -- and of those many, many other agencies that hide behind the other 16, thinking "Better them than us" -- exactly two, Arnold and Saatchi, had representatives in attendance.

There may have been some confusion about the nature of this meeting. Commission Director of Communications Betsy Herzog indicated that it wasn't exactly meant to be a public spectacle (though it was advertised in Ad Age) and that the commission wanted attendees to feel comfortable airing their grievances. One of the agency representatives mentioned that other agencies didn't want representatives there for fear of intimidating those gathered.

But at this point, these meetings should be more than an opportunity for middle-aged black men who are at their wits' end and have nowhere else to turn to air their grievances to one another.

To quote industry gadfly Sanford Moore, "This ain't kindergarten."

Maybe those in attendance would have been less inclined to speak if agency representatives were there, but that's highly unlikely. These men aren't shrinking violets. Besides, none of them work for agencies at the moment.

And that's the stark reality of the situation that agency executives don't want to face. Undoubtedly, some agency executives might be surprised that their attendance was expected. After all, hasn't a panel been convened? Haven't diversity initiatives been started? Haven't those shops on the list played along, sharing their minority hiring goals and retention rates?

That's not enough. Not even close. (And no offense to the men and women toiling away on agency diversity issues, but it's not you who need to be at these meetings; it's your bosses and your bosses' bosses.)

Ultimately, white people run this industry, and there should have been more white people in that room.

It's no one's idea of a good time, and it would have dramatically altered the dynamic of the meeting, but that's what's needed. The people present at the meeting have talked and talked and talked. It's about time that agency executives start listening.

No, it's not fun to sit there and put faces and names to the stories you hear in the industry. It's not fun to see grown men and women wrestling with a mix of pride and frustration, to sense that they're just this close to throwing their hands up in defeat and that you, an agency executive, are partly responsible. It's uncomfortable to hear a 20-something black man who has an agency job call this "the most discouraging business to be in." It isn't easy to try to distill the cases of racial discrimination from those of talent discrimination, to parse the inside stories and personal grudges that haunt a corner of the industry that most executives probably don't even know exist.

It isn't easy to hear Sanford Moore heap scorn upon the ad industry, to scoff at the "so-called progress" made so far. Sometimes, it's hard not to roll your eyes when Mr. Moore turns just as quickly on someone else in the room, slamming this one for being na�ve, that one for not providing data, this one for going about the problem all wrong.

It's certainly embarrassing to hear him liken an industry run by self-described well-meaning liberals to Apartheid South Africa. (You can just hear them protest: "But ... but ... some of my best friends are black!")

And it's frustrating beyond belief when Mr. Moore dismantles every line of reasoning or excuse the agency world has thrown at this problem.

We need more awareness in the next generation. "Why are we talking about children when there are grown men who can't get jobs now," said Mr. Moore.

There are simply not enough black people interested in the industry. "We can find black people when we want to take money from black people," he said, pointing out that when general market agencies need help with minority work -- and need to prove they have minorities on the account -- they can produce black talent seemingly out of thin air.

Black people get frustrated and leave because of lack of support; there's no one in middle management. "There are men sitting in this room who'd jump at such jobs," answered Mr. Moore. "And where are all those interns from the 1970s and 1980s? Where did they go?"

We need better training for minority students; we need to establish a pipeline. "White people don't have a pipeline. They don't need a pipeline. Advertising is the last business where undereducated white people can make money. ... Advertising is made up of the bottom 12% of any MBA class. ... They get paid while we get screwed."

That's a comment that cuts deep at the heart of most people in the industry, partly because it wounds the ego -- we all want to believe our jobs are extremely difficult -- but partly because you know it's true. Suddenly you remember all those white acquaintances who, by all rights, should have been run out of this business long ago: the copywriter who needs help spelling his name; the art director who keeps recycling her same dull idea for each client pitch; the account executive who remembers that the client changed the brief only half an hour before the big meeting, after the creative team has pulled an all-nighter. Yet not only do these people keep their jobs, some of them crawl their way up the ladder.

That's not to say that Mr. Moore is 100% right. There are many reasons why the agency world looks more like a gated community than a global one. There is a lack of awareness in certain minority enclaves; portfolio schools are expensive. The starting pay stinks for qualified candidates who can get better jobs with marketers. Not all of these are excuses.

But they start to sound that way when the executives in question don't have the decency to give the problem its due, don't have the balls to show up in person and look these people in the eye.

Not showing up also allows charges to go unanswered. Rafee Kamaal, a TV producer, likened the industry to insects when calling for more attention to the matter. "Roaches scatter when you shine the light on them." Others said that a system of discrimination is "embedded in the industry." Euro RSCG was named-checked no fewer than three times in last night's meeting -- and it wasn't for enlightened hiring practices.

And then there was attorney Cyrus Mehri, also on hand last night. Perhaps agency executives will recognize Mehri & Skalet from landmark cases such as Ingram vs Coca-Cola Co., Augst-Johnson et al. vs. Morgan Stanley and Gutierrez vs. Johnson & Johnson. Mr. Mehri wasn't there to hold hands and make friends. "I am just stunned," he told those gathered, "by an industry that's been so entrenched in a good-old-boy system for so long." They've been doing "rope-a-dope" since 1963, he added. And perhaps the one thing that might cut through the clutter in an agency exec's mind: "The only reforms that really work are those that entail true accountability."

Mr. Mehri wasn't talking the paltry $250,000 fine that even Commissioner Patricia Gatling calls laughable. The truth is, though, that in all these years no one's brought a suit against the industry. And Congress hasn't shown much interest (though a Democratic sweep in November may change that).

So for now, those fighting for diversity have to rely on shame. In fact, Ms. Gatling was refreshingly honest about it. "The only thing government can do," she said, "and we don't do a lot well, is bring issues forward. ... Our issue is holding people morally responsible." She added that perhaps the most effective outcome of the hearings was to embarrass agencies in front of their clients.

Which only goes so far against an industry that would gladly sell colored sugar cubes to toddlers if it could get away with it. Sure, agencies respond to shame -- and to its close cousins embarrassment and very public humiliation. But only up to a point. It seemed clear on Monday that the forces gathered to do something about diversity in this industry realize they've reached a limit to what they can do with those tools.

So no one should be surprised if they do take the next step they've been threatening for the last 40 years: lawsuits and regulation. Agency execs, you can't say you weren't warned.

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