Free the Work shines a light on the lack of Black directors in ad production
Free the Work, the organization founded by director Alma Har’el to help ensure more representation of female directors in the commercial industry, today shines a light on the lack of representation of Black directors in advertising—through data.
Free the Work analyzed the rosters of more than 100 production firms from the U.S. and the U.K. and found a glaringly low percentage of Black directors across that talent lineup. Moreover, it found many production company rosters had no Black directors at all in their talent pool.
The research, which Free the Work unveiled in a statement to the industry today, found that 34 out of 60 U.S. firms and 25 out of 45 U.K. companies have no Black directors on their benches. More broadly, out of the 1,204 directors in those 60 U.S. shops, only 4 percent are Black, while out of the 1,075 directors across 45 U.K. rosters, only 3 percent are Black.
The research also found that five of the eight most awarded production companies at the 2019 AICP Show had no Black directors; and that nine of of the 21 shops in Ad Age’s 2020 A-List had zero Black directors, while of the 572 directors at all those companies, only 28 are Black.
Even compared to female talents in the industry, the data on Black talent is startlingly low. Har’el founded Free the Bid after finding a lack of representation in female directors across companies on Ad Age and Creativity’s 2015 Production Company A-List—at the time, women comprised 9.7 percent of those rosters. Black directors, according to Free the Work, currently make up 4.9 percent of the rosters on this year’s list.
“Data is a fundamental tool in the fight to make people take accountability for inequalities that can be hidden with hollow statements,” a FTW representative tells Ad Age. “We wanted to lend support to the Black voices who are speaking out right now, providing data that can be used to empower their statements.”
According to Free the Work, its research focused on companies that were registered with the AICP or APA, the major industry production organizations in the U.S. and the U.K., as well as those awarded within the industry. FTW analyzed public-facing rosters that were available on production company websites.
Free the Work said that the majority of Black directors included in the study confirmed their ethnicity directly, while others who FTW was not able to contact were confirmed through bios or journalistic references. “We believe these findings represent an accurate cross-section of the racial makeup of this area within the advertising industry,” the organization said in a statement.
“Like many around the world, we were deeply enraged by the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery,” Free the Work tells Ad Age. “This study took on a greater urgency in the light of a global reckoning with structural racism.”
FTW’s predecessor Free the Bid had originally focused on female directors—it called on agencies and brands to ensure that at least one female director was included in the pool for any triple-bid commercial project. Last year, the organization rebranded to Free the Work as its mission has evolved across the production industry (including screenwriting, photography, editing, music and postproduction), and to support a broader group of underrepresented creators—those of color, those with disabilities, LGBTQIA+ and those who identify as gender non-binary.
“Our mission as a nonprofit initiative has always been dedicated to identifying systemic inequalities in hiring in film, television, advertising and media, and finding actionable solutions to expand access for underrepresented creators,” FTW says.
Free the Work was inspired to compile the data by two recent initiatives: the 15 Percent Pledge, from Aurora James, a Black creative director in Brooklyn who is asking retailers including Walmart, Target, Sephora and Whole Foods to devote 15 percent of their shelf-space to Black-owned businesses; as well as “600&Rising," the coalition of African-American industry professionals that recently called on agency leaders to take real action to tackle system racism in advertising.
With the new findings, Free the Work hopes “to draw attention to a major issue in the supply chain, one which production companies hold the responsibility for gatekeeping,” the organization says. “Once this data is made public, we hope that this becomes a time of reckoning and fresh commitment from production companies on an internal level.”
Since founding, Free the Work has long relied on the support of brand partners to further its cause. Today, those include Amazon Studios, AT&T, Facebook, Ford, P&G and Verizon, all of whom have been key to fostering agency engagement. “Just as agencies and brands need to take more responsibility for D&I, production companies need to take responsibility for nurturing more black talent,” Free the Work says.
The Free the Work platform currently features the reels of 2,387 vetted creators across production and more than 300 of those have self-identified as BIPOC. That said, the organization says that self-identification is up to each member. “We're aware that there are sensitivities associated with creators providing information on their identities—both within the context of our site and in general, to avoid tokenization in the world at large,” the organization says. “As we expand our network and continue the conversation with our creators, we've seen more and more creators providing this information, understanding the possibilities that it will be able to unlock and helping us better advocate for their talent.”
See the full statement from Free the Work below.