Why Can't Ethnic-Owned Shops Be Agencies of Record?

Hadji Williams Offers Six Popular Excuses

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Hadji Williams
Hadji Williams
Since the 1930s there's been one major yet unspoken requirement for U.S.-based agencies to become an agency of record for a general-market client: Your agency must be a majority White-staffed and -owned shop.

With a couple of exceptions, a Fortune 1,000 company will almost never retain an ethnic-owned shop as its AOR for general market pieces of business. Furthermore, few ethnic shops have ever even been allowed to compete for the chance.

Now this wouldn't be so bad except for the fact that general-market spend nearly 95% of their budgets with White-owned agencies, which relegates Black-, Hispanic- and Asian-owned shops to beg/fight over the remaining 5% slice of the pie.

So why the disparities? Well, the excuses have been numerous. Here's a look at the Top 6:

Excuse No. 1: Black Ad Agencies are too small to be AORs.

Quick: What do you call five White ad pros starting an agency? A boutique. What do you call five Black ad pros starting an agency? The boutique's Black subcontractor.

I've worked on over 60 new-biz pitches over my career. New business is about getting laid -- and everyone lies on the first date. For most White agencies, touting global capabilities is like Paris Hilton saying she owns hotels -- her daddy owns hotels, she's just the name. Secondly, some of the creative work that helps land accounts is often done by hired guns (like me). As for their "core competencies," you can thank their holding company's roster or so-called strategic alliances for the extra muscle.

Every big shop is just a small shop that won a couple AOR gigs. Unless you're a Black small shop, in which case you don't get that chance.

Excuse No. 2: Black agencies aren't good enough to be AORs.

Black agency creative sucks. There, I said it. Most won't, fearing being labeled "racist," but it's true (and I'm Black, so I can say it and you can't. Deal with it.). But seriously, a lot of work that comes out of Black agencies just isn't very good. (God knows I've done some crap. But I've done great work, too. So have a lot of Black creatives. And Latinos and Asians...)

A big reason most Black creative work is so bad so often is that Black agencies are forced to translate and adapt general-market executions and strategies to their audiences whether the strategies are relevant or the work's any good or not. (Nothing creates crappy creative like having to boilerplate someone else's idea with a fraction of the budget in a fraction of the time.)

But despite all those handicaps, the crap coming out of ethnic shops doesn't hold a candle to the sheer volume of garbage cranked out by general-market shops.

But truth be told, general-market shops have turned brand-killing, clutter-creating and off-base strategies into sweet sciences -- out of sheer trial and error, if nothing else. Yet general-market shops will continue getting the chance to jump every shark and miss the broadside of as many barns as they want mainly because they're not Black.

Excuse No. 3: Black agencies lack the mainstream insights/connections needed to be AORs.

No minority survives without being able to understand and adapt to the majority's cultures, standards and values. That's true of every aspect of any society -- and the advertising industry is no different. People of color have survived and thrived in America since Day One because we've had no choice but to understand and adapt to White America's ideas, ideals, values, mores, etc. But somehow once we hit the doors of an ad agency, that skill set goes away?

Also, lemme get this straight: General-market shops and clients can jack everything including the kitchen sink from Black culture for profit and cool points, then claim Black shops filled with the same folks who create the culture they ripped off can't do the same?

In 2009, clients and general-market shops alike still rationalize making Black agencies translate often-irrelevant general-market campaigns for Black audiences and call the process "integrated."

Conversely, recent industry studies have shown that more and more work created by Black agencies targeting Black audiences actually resonates equally well with White consumers.

Excuse No. 4: Black Agencies are too "unprofessional" to be AORs.

Heard it. Seen hints of it, too. Funny thing is, when White shops dress in non-business attire, rock faux-hawks, goatees and pepper their pitches with mood boards and silly buzzwords, they're labeled as "hip." When Black shops rock trendy clothes, use insider-ish lingo and nontraditional work approaches, they're labeled "unprofessional." When general-market shops fail it's "the consumer didn't get it" or "but the research said..." When ethnic shops fail it's because we were off-strategy or our work was wrong.

If Black Agencies were afforded half the excuses general-market shops are allowed to make, they'd enjoy twice the billings they have now.

Excuse No. 5: Black Agencies are too "race obsessed" to be AORs.

Working at general-market shops and dealing with general-market clients always reminds me of one thing: Most White people still think the world revolves (or should revolve) around their view of it. For example:

When a general-market shops say "18- to 34-year-olds," unless ethnicity is specified, they mean White 18- to 34-year-olds and whoever else follows suit. It's why we use handles like Soccer moms, Gen-Xers, X-Gamers, Tweeners, Baby Boomers, Nascar Dads, etc., and claim we're targeting everyone. But when you note that ethnic consumers of color might be overlooked by these efforts, out comes the hand-wringing, backtracking and occasional crocodile tears and confused stares.


General-market shops are still largely filled with and run by White liberals who, like the Democratic Party, take Black folks for granted (beyond talking about how rotten their alternatives are), while general-market clients seem content to treat Black agencies as tax write-offs. The process creates ad efforts that are more remix-the-GM shop's work and pseudo-kumbya PR ploy than legit partnership. And with 40-plus-million Hispanics to court, this biased indifference now has a lucrative backdoor to snake out through.

Excuse No. 6: The economy/changing landscape is tough ...

I know, I know, money's tight and budgets are being cut across the board. Plus the internet is killing everyone, too. Cuts have to be made.

So why not start with the companies and communities you don't respect as equals and take for granted? After all, if you can keep the consumers and cut the agencies, vendors, media outlets out of the equation, that's "good business," right?

In the end, Black Agencies and marketing/PR firms (the good ones, at least) don't want (or need) to be handed their crowns in the manner Donny Deutsch and other Whites got theirs. All they need and deserve is to have their insights and talents respected enough to be taken seriously -- first as human beings; second as professionals, and thirdly, as assets to the brand-building process.

Also, if Blacks can dedicate nearly 85% of their some $700 billion in annual spending power to general market companies (nearly 85% of every Black dollar goes for non-Black businesses) and endorse general-market products on camera, then why can't Black professionals get an equitable shot at building those brands behind the scenes?

Lemme leave you all with a challenge:

If general-market shops are really so great, then why not end the White-skin privilege and start developing work that doesn't co-opt cultures of folks you won't even hire? Why not open up the pitch process across the board and let the best shop, regardless of color, win?

Otherwise, let's just re-post the Whites Only signs at the receptionists' desk. At least then, we'd be putting some truth back into advertising.

Hadji Williams is a 17-year advertising industry vet and author of "Knock the Hustle." As a copywriter, he's built brands, helped win and maintain accounts ... and has even managed to tell the truth. He can be reached at: hadji@knockthehustle.com
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