'Mad Men' Still the Reality for Agency World

Society Has Changed. Entertainment Has Changed. Clients Have Changed. What About Us?

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[Editor's note: I've asked our Big Tent contributors to respond to the news that famed civil-rights attorney Cyrus Mehri -- who's brought discrimination suits against Coke and Texaco and played a part in getting the NFL to hire more African-American coaches -- has commissioned a study to look at the lack of diversity in ad agencies. We'd also love to hear your take on the subject, so respond in comments or answer our poll question.]

Rochelle Newman-Carrasco Rochelle Newman-Carrasco
When I was on the board of the Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors in the late '80s, the entertainment industry would assert that prepared Latino talent either didn't exist or simply could not be found. The entertainment industry has made progress. Sadly, the advertising industry has not followed suit.

Like the entertainment industry, nepotism and connections are a common reality in hiring practices. "Not in the Rolodex" (remember Rolodexes?) is what colleagues used to tell me to explain why, although well intended, they were usually unable to take the time to explore other hiring options, options that would require them to take more time and be more proactive. The message was basically that they were under pressure, so they reached out to those they knew and trusted and they didn't really know and trust anyone who didn't look or sound like them. Vicious cycle.

Another parallel between the entertainment industry and common advertising philosophies is what we referred to as "They can play us but we can't play them." What this referred to was the common practice of casting non-Hispanics in roles written for Latinos (e.g., Armand Assante in "Mambo Kings"). How does this relate to African-Americans in advertising? (Or the lack thereof?) Like casting a role, whether we admit it or not, a person's physical look and his essence play a role in how we perceive him as wrong or right for a particular job. Enough studies have been done to confirm that even the most open-minded individuals have cultural biases that work on a deeply subconscious level. So African-American job applicants are often presumed to be candidates for multicultural marketing positions, both on the client and agency side.

Certainly, that might suit some people just fine. There are many professionals who are proud to or may even prefer to work as multicultural specialists. Then again, there are other African-Americans (or Latinos, etc.) who may simply want to work as marketers or advertising execs and leave their ethnic packaging out of the equation.

The industry should be able to accommodate both realities. Why doesn't it? Because there are still those who believe that while everyone, regardless of culture or ethnicity, will embrace so-called general-market advertising and messages, the same is not true in reverse. They believe that Anglo-Americans or Anglo clients won't relate to messages or strategies created by predominantly African-American creatives or planning teams. It has always seemed to me that those that do believe this sell Anglo consumers and clients somewhat short. The industry presumes that clients won't be as comfortable with creative or account teams that are too "ethnically" skewed, because client-agency relationships are not only about the work but also about the bonding that goes on because of commonalities and shared interests.

There is also a concern that Anglo audiences won't be as receptive to messages if they aren't reflective of a predominantly white America. Yet there is never really a concern about how English-dominant Hispanics, Asians or African-Americans will feel regarding advertising that is devoid of cultural markers in casting or concept. So-called minorities are still expected to understand that they are just that, minorities. They can play extras while those in the majority play the principals. They simply need to understand that those are the rules of the game.

And so it has been in advertising both in front of the camera and behind the scenes for decades. No more. Who is the minority? Who is the majority? Look around. Things have changed. Society has changed. Even the entertainment industry has changed. Consumers have changed. Clients are beginning to change.

Yet agencies still look like "Mad Men" (except with many more women thrown into the mix).

I applaud any efforts that are designed to bring advertising agency thinking into the 21st century insofar as staffing practices are concerned. Advertising is not a frivolous endeavor. It's not about being part of a clique or a country club. It's an important business model and a major contributor to how we view ourselves and how others view us, both individually and as a society. It's a contributor to our economic strengths (if we can still refer to them as such). And as such, it should be populated by the most diverse collective of qualified and committed creative thinkers we can possibly find, regardless of their race, gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation or other cultural characteristics. We'll never level the playing field if, as an industry, we don't truly start leveling with each other.
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