Mass-Market Agencies Suffer From Long Learning Curve

General Market Agencies Will Get It Together -- Some Day

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Bill Imada Bill Imada
As chairman of an ethnic marketing agency, I am often asked: Will the mass-market (aka general-market) agencies ever get their act together and do multicultural advertising in-house? My answer has been the same for the past 20 years. Yes. Sooner or later. But sometimes I wonder, how much later?

It seems like every agency across the country is talking about diversity and inclusion, multicultural marketing, the new salad bowl, and that ubiquitous color wheel that makes up today's mosaic of cultures, ethnicities, languages and viewpoints. Most of the larger (and even some of the smaller) mass-market agencies are now claiming to be full-service providers of in-language and/or in-culture African-American, Latino, Asian-American and even LGBT advertising and communications. And why shouldn't they be experts? The multicultural markets, in the aggregate, are estimated to be worth more than $1.5 trillion dollars per annum. And every marketer seems to be saying repeatedly that the best opportunities for incremental growth are indeed the multicultural markets.

Yet in their efforts to be jacks of all trades, most of these mass-market ad agencies have failed in their broad-stroke attempts to touch the ethnic consumers they are so desperately trying to reach. Why? Because they continue to repeat many of the same mistakes from the past. Sound familiar?

Consider for a moment Taco Bell's re-entry into the Mexican market -- an area of the world that served as the inspiration for various types of tacos and burritos that look nothing like the ones that are made by the quick-service eatery. Taco Bell's early attempt in the market failed miserably. Yet despite their failure in Mexico, Taco Bell is at it again. However, this time the quick-service eatery has added some new items to their menu. I now believe that Taco Bell has a better chance at succeeding in Mexico than some of the mass-market agencies who are attempting to enter into the multicultural markets, for one important reason: Taco Bell wants to make sure that it doesn't repeat the same mistakes it made before.

The primary issues with mass-market agencies aren't quite so simple, yet they continually repeat the same tired mistakes that include, but are not limited to, inappropriate or inaccurate translations, miscast talent, and/or messaging that perpetuates negative or insensitive stereotypes about consumers from various ethnicities, backgrounds, cultures, sexual orientation and/or disabilities.

One of the main reasons why so many mass-market agencies fail in the Asian-American market is because they continue to look at and approach the Asian segment in the same strategic manner as they look at and approach the mass market. Or, worse, they think that the best solutions are to add a few staffers who happen to be of Asian heritage and flaunt them to clients as their in-house Asian experts.

If I could advise the mass-market ad agencies on how they can get it right, I'd tell them to recognize two important things.

First, it takes more than walking the walk and talking the talk (a very old adage) to master the multicultural markets. Instead, mass-market agencies should taste the street and get the true flavor on how to connect with multicultural consumers. Before marketing to them, they need to discover how multicultural (and specifically ethnic) consumers live; where they work; how they consume information; how they make purchases; how they interact; and how they experience their slice of America. Yeah, it's Marketing 101 but with a twist. To truly succeed, marketers and agency folks need to position brands so that they capture the nuances of each multicultural segment and make that all-so-important emotional connection with consumers who are often marginalized in so many aspects of their lives.

Second, mass-market agencies need to devote the time and resources to fully succeed in the marketplace and really work to learn from of all of their previous mistakes. Most make a few attempts here and there, and then quickly retreat when the going gets tough. A few months or years later, they're back at it again -- usually using the same miserable business model. At least Taco Bell is revamping its model and trying something new. The mass-market agencies, unfortunately, never seem to learn.

It is rare to see any of the multicultural agencies surrender to downturns in the market and close shop when the going gets tough. We, as multicultural agency leaders, just get tougher. And in many cases, louder. If mass-market advertising agencies truly hope to succeed, they will give multicultural marketing the investment, staff resources and leadership that are required in order to have a sustainable business platform. So far, no one among the top advertising and marketing holding companies has done an exceptional job.

I hope I don't have to wait another 20 years.
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