On Diversity Front, Adland Is Actually Reflective of American Society

Author of 'Some of My Best Friends Are Black' Talks About Industry Diversity Problem

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Tanner Colby's "Some of My Best Friends Are Black" should interest any reader who cares about race in America in the 21st Century. But the book should be of particular concern to anyone who has wondered why the ad business, for all its recent efforts to get more diverse, remains so lily white.

Mr. Colby, whose previous two books were about John Belushi and Chris Farley, spent nine years working as an ad copywriter before becoming an author. Now, no longer covering what he terms the "dead, fat comedian" beat, he's asking a central question: "I wanted to write a book about why I didn't know any black people," he writes in the book's preface.

Even as he looks at macro issues like education, politics, and religion, Mr. Colby makes time to return to Madison Avenue, casting a reportorial eye to the history of race relations in the advertising business. Through interviews with UniWorld founder Byron Lewis and prominent black creatives like Geoff Edwards and Vann Graves, Mr. Colby arrives at complex criticisms not only of the current state of the diversity effort but also the very concept of African-American agencies.

Ad Age : Was the lack of diversity noticeable back when you were working in the ad business? Or was it something that dawned on you after the fact?

Tanner Colby: The only time it was really noticeable was when I was at Ogilvy and we had the Office of National Drug Control Policy account. The government contract said that you have to diversify everything, and so all the traditional media everything got broken up based on ethnicity. The fallacy of minority contracting model was laid bare by ONDCP because it was the first government campaign that had a huge interactive component and none of the minority agencies were up on interactive as much as Ogilvy. So Ogilvy got the whole ethnic pie.

We were supposed to create a campaign across racial lines but the net result of having balkanized minority agencies for 40 years was that all the people are spread out in these different agencies based on race and ethnicity, but the internet called for one comprehensive campaign, which meant that all the people should be working under the same roof.

Guess what? We didn't have any black people at Ogilvy, so it got really weird and uncomfortable and bad. I'd get a brief for writing an ad that was supposed to appeal to urban teens and I'd be like, "What? Why are you doing this to me?" The answer was because there were no black copywriters on the account. I'd be told, "Oh, just go down and get some of the hip-hop magazines from the newsstand and get the lingo or whatever." It was cringe-inducing. We had a black traffic person or producer on the account, but there were no black creatives.

Ad Age : Was there a scramble to try and get some black people in the agency?

Mr. Colby: I think there was on the general side, but we were interactive. I think at the higher levels they brought in some black media strategists. But down on the creative level, not really.

Ad Age : Is there a sense at all that there's been any improvement made over the past few years compared to where things were in the '80s or the '90s?

Mr. Colby: Everything is getting a little bit better. One thing that I found fascinating was the 4A's put together that film a couple years ago, "Pursuit of Passion: Diversity in Advertising," about the power of diversity in advertising. They talk to all these people of different ethnicities about how we need diversity in advertising and every single person in the interview or in the film, whether they were black, white, Asian or Hispanic, fit the cultural stereotype of an ad person -- like very stylish, with the Buddy Holly glasses and the $200 T-shirt and the perfect sneakers.

But there's no diversity in this video at all. They all come from different racial backgrounds, but they are all of a cultural bearing. The fallacy of the diversity movement is that they say we're going to capture all this new diversity, but the only diversity that really works are people who are already acculturated into the industry. I didn't fit into that culture very well, even though I'd like to think I was a pretty talented copywriter. I wasn't an ad guy. So I didn't stay.

The Bendick and Egan report said that the industry not only discriminates against blacks but it has a long list of everyone who's discriminated against, from disabled women, Hispanic, Asians -- and they included white men who do not fit the cultural type of the industry.

Are we calling that discrimination now? I certainly don't feel like I was discriminated against. I didn't go very far in advertising because I didn't have the personality of the person who's successful in advertising. I don't know that you'd call that discrimination. …

And so that struck me as what's futile about much of what the diversity effort and the NAACP and Madison Avenue Project was trying to do. They said you have X number of black Americans with this type of college degree and this type of qualification, but they are socially excluded from the culture of the industry, therefore that 's discrimination and therefore we have to put a program in place to bridge that divide.

In fact that 's the inverse of what is true in reality, which is that the social acculturation into that group of people is the qualification. It's a relationship business, and if you don't have the cultural skills to navigate that business then you are lacking the qualifications, and so the NAACP tried to say because these people don't have enough white friends it's discrimination to say they're not qualified for the job. It sounds bad, and you're not supposed to say it, but having white friends is kind of the qualification. If you read the rest of my book, you come away with the conclusion that the problem for the advertising industry doesn't exist inside the advertising industry. … If you want more black people in advertising, you fix housing and transit policies to get more access to jobs.

Ad Age : At lot of HR types will say they don't have enough black candidates period, let alone whether they're desirable or not. There's the chicken-and-egg question -- maybe they don't want to go into advertising because it's a historically really white profession.

Mr. Colby: That's also always been part of it. ... After a lot of conversations I'd have with black creatives, I realized that one of the things that makes things inherently unfair is that I only have to like advertising. They have to love it.

That's an unfairness that has nothing to do with an HR policy. I can tolerate it and make money and hang out and figure out what I'm going to do, but for black people to want to be a cultural ambassador in an all-white world, it's a cultural business, you're going to run into those difficult questions of who do we cast in this commercial and why. Unless you like being the black person who is comfortable tackling those issues then you're not going to stay, whereas I don't have to deal with that as much.

I asked one creative director how many portfolios you see from black candidates and they said 1 in 40, and so even if you had a program that could double that it would still be 1 in 20. So it's really more about, as Byron Lewis told me, the problem is we just need an industry that attracts better people and we'll attract more people of all races.

Ad Age : You have an interesting thesis on what the rise of the internet as a cultural and marketing channel has kind of meant for the African-American agency. Do you want to summarize that a bit?

Mr. Colby: Your race can still be one factor of how you're marketed to, but it's no longer the predominant factor. Behavior matters much more. You have a lot of white kids who love hip-hop and urban culture and you have a lot of black kids who are into Anime and Japanese cartoons or Marvel comic books or whatever.

We started advertising now to people more like individuals, which is scary in privacy sort of way. But this whole idea that black people market better to black people and white people market better to white people has really been obliterated because people are people and their cultural tastes are unique and individual. The internet is scrambling everything up. It's fractured the cultural pipeline into a million little pieces, but at the same time it's all in one pipeline whereby I can be on BuzzFeed and the link will take me to a white site or it could take me an urban site. It's all tied into the same web, so the idea of a separate business model doesn't make any sense anymore.

Yet we have all these minority set-asides in place saying X percent of every business has to go into a minority agency. One of the things that 's totally disingenuous about the holding companies and the CEOs who say they care about diversity is that never once have I heard someone step up and say that before we can have an integrated advertising industry we have to eliminate set-asides. They'll say we care about diversity inside the agency and we care about promoting diversity among all the agencies, but no one will say that that 's a fundamental contradiction in terms, and those two incentives cancel each other out.

Some people told me that privately, just as people who have retired have told me that . But you'll never hear any of the diversity coordinators … saying we'll have to eliminate minority set-asides. The short-term financial incentive for a young black creative is they can always do better and feel like they're making more progress at a minority agency, even if that 's to the long term detriment of blacks in the industry overall.

Ad Age : You point out in the book that , looked in a certain way, that can also perhaps be a detriment to their career. They'll do well financially, but their work isn't going to be looked at in the same way that general-market agency creative is going to be looked at. It's going to be looked at as niche and it's not going to get the same kind of awards consideration probably.

Mr. Colby: Right and that 's why you have to follow Geoff Edwards' model with Dojo, which is to have a great agency that is owned by a black person as opposed to being a black agency. You have to go into the mainstream core of the business, make all your contacts, get all your leverage and then you can be a black entrepreneur who works in the advertising industry.

Ad Age : Do you think African-American agencies or other dedicated multicultural shops would exist but for the set asides?

Mr. Colby: I honestly don't know. It's a counterfactual, what if. We'd have a better sense of whether the market actually demands it. The problem is that the minority set asides were set up to keep blacks out of the main industry. It was a short-term payout to not challenge the corporate structure, and that 's the net effect of what happened. What would have happened if we had never had it? Maybe the old boys' network would have continued to exclude black people completely and the industry wouldn't be any better off than it is . I don't know. I do know that by siphoning off all the pressure from the Ogilvy's and the Y&R's by taking all the black talent to the minority agencies, we know what did happen.

Ad Age : Did you compare any other industry's racial history and situation to advertising?

Mr. Colby: I did look at other industries. Architecture is another creative industry that 's completely white. That's sort of the opposite problem. Where advertising doesn't have any credentials determining who can walk in the door, the apprenticeship and credentialing in architecture is very long and very costly, and to do large-scale architecture you need lots of capital. That's been a particularly difficult deal for black people to crack. Advertising gets a big knock for being so much worse, but I don't know that it's that much worse.

Ad Age : You did a really interesting experiment where you looked at the Facebook networks of people you know and their networks to see how diverse it was….

Mr. Colby: It was all people I went to high school with and it was all really white. On that note, a couple years ago I told a black friend I was writing a book about why I didn't know any black people. He laughed and said, "Our numbers have been greatly exaggerated." That's somewhat true. We talk about black and white almost as if it's a one-to-one issue. Blacks are only 12% of the population and a full third of the black population has been hobbled by poverty and the War on Drugs and those things that prevent any kind of social mobility at all. Then you've got 20% of all black bachelor's degrees coming out of [historically black universities], which is going to take that percentage out of the circulation with white people and getting into relationship businesses. Then you have black-owned business and the large incentive for blacks to work in government positions because that was always the most fair hiring system.

By the time you boil it all down, of course advertising is only going to be 2% black. That's what I said at the end of the chapter, advertising does look like America. That's what the general population looks like in terms of the number of black Americans who are socially integrated into the cultural mindset of an industry like advertising.

It's not to say that it shouldn't be bigger but it has more to do with the kind of society we build around advertising than what we do within the industry, because the industry is always going to look like the social universe that surrounds it.

Ad Age : Let's talk about Mad Men and race for a minute. This spring, you wrote a piece for Slate defending Mad Men's approach to race up until that point, before the fifth season. You expected to see more about race in the fifth season. What was your take on that ? Race was kind of there in one of the characters in particular, but it didn't feel it was front and center.

Mr. Colby: I was excited at the beginning. The first episode was kind of all about race, then it didn't go anywhere. They brought that character, [Don Draper's receptionist, Dawn] in and then didn't use her for anything. I thought that was kind of disappointing, that they introduced that plot line and didn't take it anywhere. One thing I was off on was [the chronology of the show]. I thought he'd bring it back in the winter of 1967, and he brought it back in the early summer of 1966. It wasn't really until 1967-68 that the industry really started taking the issue seriously and it wasn't until Martin Luther King was assassinated that things really blew up. So my prediction, which I caveated in the article, was that whether it's this season or next season, it's coming.

Ad Age : What's the feedback on your book?

Mr. Colby: The feedback I've gotten from all the black creatives that I spoke to has been very positive and they've all thought that I really hit the nail on the head in terms of a) what their experiences have been and b) what the solution is . So that 's been very positive and then all of my white friends just have thought wow, you really nailed it. The reaction has been positive.

Ad Age : Have you got any pushback at all?

Mr. Colby: I haven't. Byron Lewis wrote me that he thought the book was excellent and so I think anyone who is being honest about the minority agencies would be frank to admit that they have to evolve. I'm not saying that you can't take one of these shops and innovate. But something is going to have to change. I haven't gotten any pushback from the minority agencies or anyone yet.

Ad Age : Wait until we have the headline that reads "White Man Says Black Agencies Need to Go." Kidding! I think I am, anyway.

Mr. Colby: The general reaction I've gotten has been either one or two things in all the reviews, either, a) this book is bleak and hopeless or b) this book is incredibly joyful and hopeful.

If you look at all the structural obstacles that are in the way of integration and all these roadblocks that we put in place, then you come away thinking this is really, really bleak and nothing has changed.

But if you read more to the individual story of what people like Geoff Edwards have done and even the other chapters [about] the neighbors and the schools and the churches, you see that integration is much more about your personal choices and anyone can, as long as you have some measure of mobility, you can make that effort to reach out and try and understand other people tomorrow. You can start educating yourself as a human being right now, so I think the book is kind of a Rorschach test for what you believe.

If you believe that race is an individual human-level problem that we need to take steps with people to try and deal with, then I think you come away with the idea the book is very hopeful. If you are more of an institutional-racism and structural-solutions person, then you're going to come away with the feeling that the book is very bleak.

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This interview has been edited and condensed.

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