More than 600 black agency professionals call for end to systemic racism in open letter to industry leaders
Nathan Young, a group strategy director at Minneapolis agency Periscope, lives four blocks away from where George Floyd was killed. Memorial Day was the first time he and his fiance left their home to attend a gathering at a friend’s house after isolating during the pandemic. “We had a great time,” he recalls. But on their way home, “we drove right into police tape.”
From the cordoning and flashing cop cars he observed, he assumed it was an incident in which police had discharged a weapon. “Having lived in big cities all my life, I know what police activity looks like. I assumed it was a police-involved shooting.”
But when he woke up the next morning, he saw the video of what really happened.
The deja vu of yet another horrific incident of police brutality inspired Young, who is African-American, to want to take action toward tackling systemic racism—namely, in the advertising industry. Young, along with Bennett D. Bennett, who runs independent consultancy Aerialist, have led the charge on writing an open letter to U.S. agencies outlining the list of action items they should take to achieve true equity for people of color in the industry. So far, it’s been signed by more than 600 black ad professionals across the U.S., from agencies including 360i, Anomaly, Burrell, Cashmere, Droga5, Goodby Silverstein & Partners, Wieden+Kennedy and many more.
When protestors gathered en masse across the country more than a week ago, “we watched collectively in horror as police continued to use excessive force while they knew people were protesting that very behavior, while they knew they were under the microscope and cameras were rolling,” Young recalls. “As much as I’m hopeful things are going to change, it’s very difficult to square that with what I was seeing at that moment. We have hoped for change, we have seen this play out time and time again, we’ve heard promises from leaders that change is coming and it has resulted in very little change that we can observe on a daily basis.”
From Monday of last week, he and Bennett have been reaching out to fellow ad professionals to compose the letter. To determine what would be included, they sent out a survey of what issues were most pressing.
The final letter includes a list of 12 actions agencies should take in order to work toward eradicating systemic racism at their organizations. They include making a commitment to improving black representation at all levels of the agency that is “specific, measurable, and public”; regular and consistent tracking of diversity data at agencies in order to provide a baseline for accountability; regular policy and culture audits to ensure an equitable work environment for employees of all backgrounds; broader outreach for talent to a diverse representation of schools; an expansion of internships and training programs to candidates with transferable skills, as well as leadership training for existing staff; a wage-equity plan to ensure fair compensation for women and people of color as well as a number of diversity and inclusion mandates spanning leadership and internal programs.
Young says he had looked to the 3% Movement as inspiration. “What we learned from them is that it is incredibly important that there is transparency, data and a specific, measurable goal.”
From the list, he says most critical is transparency on diversity data. “I have no idea how many black advertising professionals exist, or how many LatinX professionals exist,” he says. “Once we can see that data and understand the contest, then we can start to identify and address the systemic issues. We talk about bravery all the time, but why can’t we be brave when it comes to diversity?”
A representative from the 4As says the organization does not track diversity data. According to Ayanna Jackson, VP-Mosaic Center & Education Services at the American Advertising Federation, the AAF currently does not have such stats but "we hope to have have these insights as soon as possible."
Bennett, who had previously worked as a writer at industry publication The Drum and interned at agencies including BBDO, Y&R and Saatchi Wellness, and has been part of diversity programs including Adcolor Futures and BBDO/One Club’s diversity residency, says that such programs have had problem with follow-through and once they end, participants are left with the question of “what’s next?”
“It’s a cautionary tale for any big home-run swing,” he says. “You cannot throw money at a problem and think that solves all your issues. You have to go top down and see how the creative department is structured, see how talent is mentored.”
He also asserts that they wanted to make a broad group of voices heard in the letter. “We tried to encapsulate as much of the black experience as we could, through the microcosm of the ad world,” he says. “We tried to look out for our female peers, our queer peers, and I’d be remiss to not at least call attention to that, even though it’s not explicitly in the letter. All these people with dreams to see themselves represented, their ideas get killed in the pitch room or they get passed over for a white peer. We’re just trying our best to make sure they don’t have to struggle like that.”
As for next steps, the Young, Bennett and the signatories are looking to ensure that the letter leads to action. They will be looking to add definition and detail to the demands on the letter’s website and to form partnerships with agency leaders.
Young says that the letter should not be seen as a list for agency leaders to “tick off.” Rather, “they should look to it as a starting point of a conversation that’s long overdue.”
See the letter in its entirety below, and the full list of signatories here.
A CALL FOR CHANGE
Black professionals in advertising demand urgent action from agency leadership
The recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery have shocked the nation and brought millions of Americans to the streets in righteous protest. As loud as these protests are, it is impossible to overstate the pain that has been felt by your Black colleagues as the still-fresh wounds from Ferguson, Baltimore and countless other flashpoints of racial violence were once again re-opened. We hurt because we have seen this movie before. We hurt because we expect that, once again, when the streets have cleared and the hashtags have been retired, little will be done to address the systemic racism and economic injustice we face each and every day.
Over the past week, we have seen messages of solidarity sent out by several agencies and agency leaders. Though we are encouraged by these messages, their words ring hollow in the face of our daily lived experiences.
After decades of well-intentioned diversity & inclusion efforts, we have seen little progress in making Black voices a more representative part of the creative process. We have seen even less progress in ensuring equitable representation of Black professionals in senior and leadership positions. And because this industry does not release or track diversity numbers, it is impossible to tell what, if any, progress has been made.
Worse still, there is a “boys’ club” mentality that remains pervasive in this industry. The same elitism & discriminatory behavior that has restricted women from advancing in the workplace, has resulted in an oppressive mono-culture that stifles the growth of Black agency professionals and restricts our ability to express our true selves.
We are asking all U.S. advertising agencies to take the following actions to address the systemic racism that is afflicting our industry:
1. Make a specific, measurable, and public commitment to improve Black representation at all levels of agency staffing, especially Senior and Leadership positions
2. Track and publicly report workforce diversity data on an annual basis to create accountability for the agency and the industry
3. Audit agency policies and culture to ensure the environment we work in is more equitable and inclusive to a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives
4. Provide extensive bias training to HR employees and all levels of management
5. Extend agency outreach to a more diverse representation of colleges, universities, and art schools
6. Expand residencies and internship programs to candidates with transferable skills who may not have taken a traditional educational path toward advertising
7. Create, fund, and support Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) for Black employees
8. Invest in management and leadership training, as well as mentorship, sponsorship, and other career development programs for Black employees
9. Require all leadership to be active participants in company Diversity & Inclusion initiatives and tie success in those initiatives to bonus compensation.
10. Create a Diversity & Inclusion committee made up of Black and NBPOC employees to help shape diversity & inclusion policy and monitor its progress
11. Establish a diversity review panel to stem the spread of stereotypes in creative work and ensure offensive or culturally insensitive work is never published
12. Introduce a wage equity plan to ensure that Black women, Black men and people of color are being compensated fairly
Though advertising agencies boast some of the most politically progressive business leaders in America, agency leadership has been blind to the systemic racism and inequity that persists within our industry. Many gallons of ink have been spilled on op-eds and think pieces, but tangible progress has eluded this industry for too long.
We, the signatories of this letter, are calling out for change in the form of direct action. We stand in solidarity with our women, non-binary, LGBTQ+, disabled and NBPOC colleagues who have made similar calls for change.
Show us you're listening. Take decisive action now.
Black lives matter.