5 key takeaways from Ad Age's Town Hall on Racism
In the midst of a racial reckoning, Ad Age held its inaugural Town Hall on Addressing Racism In Advertising, the first of many such events to assess how far adland has come—and how far it still has to go—in working toward ending racial injustice, nearly three months after the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others touched off a summer of progress and protest in America.
After sifting through more than 200 questions submitted by viewers, Ad Age’s Jeanine Poggi and I-Hsien Sherwood spoke with a range of Black brand leaders, agency execs and anti-racism activists about steps to address and remedy discrimination in the advertising industry.
If you were unable to tune into Ad Age’s Town Hall on Racism, here are five key takeaways from yesterday’s virtual event. You can also rewatch the entire program here.
Elevate Black voices
It should go without saying, but one of the first steps in addressing racial inequality in advertising is to ensure that Black and POC peers are given the same platform to contribute as their white colleagues have long had the opportunity to do. So, where to start?
Agencies, particularly small- and medium-sized ones with more limited resources to implement sweeping D&I changes, can offer “speaker series; they can talk about a diversity calendar; celebrate cultural events; do a reading or a book club where people can self-educate,” suggested Monique Wilson, chair and CEO of UWG, a WPP affiliate that bills itself as the longest-standing multicultural agency in the U.S. And any changes made, Wilson said, should be structural and something your business really wants to do.
“Black lives are not a brief,” added Gabrielle Shirdan, VP-creative director at McCann New York. Black people don’t just watch Black-focused media and don’t only have Black friends, so when inauthentic narratives such as those surface in ads or media, Shirdan says she can spot “in 2 seconds” that they’re likely written by a team of white people. “Look around; are there Black people at the table? Make sure your table represents the world you’re trying to speak to.”
Rethink the term 'microaggressions'
The term “microaggression” was first coined in 1970 by Black Harvard professor Chester M. Pierce to distinguish commonplace racism, often embodied in systemic discrimination or careless insults, from the physical anti-Black violence that marred the previous decade. But now, 50 years later, it may be time to revisit the term and re-evaluate whether its usage is still appropriate to describe non-violent racism.
“We probably need to retire the idea that [microaggressions] are micro. By calling it micro, it makes it seem like the impact is not that large,” said Kai D. Wright, an author, media executive and lecturer at Columbia University. The advertising industry, and more widely the American public, Wright suggested, should consider broadening what constitutes a microaggressions by recognizing the different ways they can manifest, from a co-worker’s behavior to inequitable hiring policies. “The action may be micro, but the impact can be incredibly macro.”
Say what you mean
When addressing issues of equity and justice within an agency or brand, it’s critical to shift your thinking and be aware of the intent in your words, particularly when discussing racism, sexism or any other type of discrimination. “We’ll say things like ‘vulnerable communities,’ ‘Black people are vulnerable.’ We spend our time trying to fix those people, rather than fixing the structures that have hurt them,” said Rashad Robinson, president of civil rights nonprofit Color of Change.
For example, Robinson added, marketing folks might say, “Black people are less likely to be promoted in ad agencies,” when what they mean is, “Ad agencies are less likely to promote Black people.” Choosing your words conscientiously in this way puts the onus of change and responsibility on the institution, rather than talking about individuals from a “deficit perspective.”
Have a plan for calling out racism
As an agency, dealing with a client whose values don’t match your own is a challenge at any time; and it’s one that is only exacerbated in the financial crunch brought by COVID-19, when severing a partnership could spell layoffs or insolvency for an already-struggling creative shop.
For Angela Brown, a senior social strategist at GSD&M, a tried-and-true method of handling a client’s biases is confronting them in a polite but firm way that makes them reflect on their own opinion. “If a client says something like, ‘they don’t look like an engineer’ or ‘they don’t look like a family in America’” when using POC talent in creative, “you have to go flip it back on them and ask what about them doesn’t fit. Then their bias is back in their face,” Brown said. And, if insensitive or racism behavior persists, “agencies will also have to be willing to cut ties.”
Be patient, but persistent
There’s a long road ahead in the fight to end racism and social inequality in the advertising industry, and changes won't happen overnight. But the participants of Ad Age’s Town Hall on Racism agree: the goals set forth now and eventual rewards of the process are well worth the time put in.
“As an organization, don’t be afraid to start. You have to start somewhere. Small steps make big impacts,” said Elise James-DeCruise, the chief diversity and inclusion officer at Ohio-based media agency Marcus Thomas. And if you’re an agency taking steps toward achieving in-house racial equity, document the process publicly, she encouraged—other agencies wanting to make similar changes may look to you as a model.