Census basis for unkind cut

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I'm not quite sure when it began.

It might be five, maybe six years ago. Perhaps it was brewing a great deal longer, just under the surface, seeking an outlet, or awaiting a rationale, such as the 2000 U.S. census, to spring into action. But it is here: The displacement of marketing to African-Americans as a key facet of a brand's multicultural initiatives is in vogue.

Once a vibrant and viable segment of the advertising business, a leader in multicultural billings, clout and awareness, the African-American segment seems to have been unofficially relegated to "third-class citizen" status.

Some might say I am crazy, and may even attempt to challenge my statements with fact, figures and billing data. To them I say, "Have an off-the-record conversation with any principal at any African-American marketing organization, and they will surely echo my sentiments."

It is painfully ironic that the U.S. census data would be one of the "dragon killers" for African-American marketing-a double-edged sword, so to speak. African-American agencies and marketers have been quoting census data for at least 20 years as an indicator of demographic need for segmented ad spending. For this they were often rebuffed, the data considered unreliable and spurious at best. Sword cut No. 1.

Then the 2000 census arrived and proclaimed, so to speak, Hispanics as "flavor of the month." Now the census data seems to be gospel, and that gospel was saying to client marketing VPs: Seek thee thy Hispanic agency partner and spend, spend, spend, for, if you don't, ye shall miss out on thy fair share."

I know people who were almost trampled by the onslaught of marketing managers rushing to get a Hispanic agency in place. And with that came sword cut No. 2: the African-American marketing segment's precipitous slide in attention, perceived relevance and spending.

I know many will argue the language issue as the need/rationale/catalyst for the Hispanic explosion. And I will agree it was, and, in some cases, still is an important factor. But the cultural nuances are more important than just the language. Similarly, while language can be excluded, all African-Americans are not alike. The African-American market is a hodge-podge of cultures. Some impacted by geographic upbringing, origin of ancestors (domestic U.S., African and Caribbean) or, as it is often stated, "where we disembarked from the slave ships."

How convenient for the general market agency purveyors of "the word" to lump them all together. And if that was not enough, stating to their clients "there's nothing special about that; our messages are already reaching them." The net result being African-American agencies fighting among one another for a few leftover crumbs. Crumbs too often controlled by political and not business agendas or issues.

In no way am I dismissing the African-American agencies from sharing the blame in this situation. By and large, they have not done their best at cooperating with one another or taking unified stances on their relevance, consumer insights and research, etc. You can't even get many to attend trade association meetings and events.

hard to comprehend

All that said, I just find it hard to comprehend how many clients can, in essence, walk away from what has proved to be a loyal customer base, or at best take it for granted, leaving significant share unprotected.

Who among us can afford the luxury of leaving 10% to 50%, depending on the category, of our business "in play" for someone else to attack? Not many. I leave you all to provide your own answers. But consider this, too: After the dismal years 2001 and 2002, how many clients can afford not to make their 2003 projections? Shareholders and corporate boards are far less tolerant these days. If someone advised that you might have a good shot at success at a third of the investment risk, would you not at least want to explore the landscape?

I challenge all of you to forget that elusive/generic pipe dream known as the general market 18-to-49 demo and to get with the global program. Take a hard look at the domestic and world stages. Witness again who are the trendsetters, image-makers, early adopters and category influencers. Step up and apply what you learned in B-school: Fish wisely, and fish where the fish are!

The truth just might set you free.

Marc Stephenson Strachan is managing partner, S/R Communications Alliance, NewYork.

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