Why ad industry activism isn’t working

Well-meaning attempts by TimesUp Advertising and 600 & Rising were hampered by competing interests, infighting and resistance to change

By Lindsay Rittenhouse
Illustration by Tam Nguyen
Published on August 31, 2020

Why ad industry activism isn’t working

Well-meaning attempts by TimesUp Advertising and 600 & Rising were hampered by competing interests, infighting and resistance to change

By Lindsay Rittenhouse Illustration by Tam Nguyen. Published on August 31, 2020

“There’s a lot of urgency in this moment,” said Nathan Young in announcing the formation of 600 & Rising, the nonprofit dedicated to dismantling systemic racism in the industry. “This is something we’ve observed in past situations, where a group has raised an issue about inequality in the ad industry, there’s a brief news cycle, agencies weather through the storm and it ends up being swept up under the rug. We’re forming to ensure that doesn’t happen.”

In the three months since, Young has stepped down as president and the group said it was dissolving its structure and will rebuild after a 30-day assessment period that ends September 7. People close to the matter point to missteps along the way, such as Young breaking ranks with existing diversity initiatives by tweeting a criticism of Adcolor, sparking backlash. They also say that the movement’s leaders, Young and co-founder Bennett D. Bennett became figureheads, which they argue the industry does not need anymore.

In a recent interview with Ad Age, Young says he also stepped down from his role as group strategy director of Minneapolis agency Periscope out of concern for his and his family’s welfare. “I had to step down from everything and I’m honestly not sure I’m going to come back to advertising,” he says.

But Young was certainly right about one thing: this is an all-too familiar story. The current situation surrounding 600 & Rising brings to mind another industry initiative, Times Up Advertising, which was founded to fight sexual harassment and discrimination in the industry. Like 600 & Rising’s rapid rise amid the racial injustice movement fueled by Black Lives Matter, Times Up Advertising was also formed in a reckoning period, the MeToo movement, with a few select members leading the charge. Like 600 & Rising, Time’s Up Advertising’s original leaders were thrust quickly into the spotlight, experienced a public stumble, and then stepped back.

Times Up, of course, is still operating, and the hope is that 600 & Rising will recover. But their mutual experience indicates there is a larger, industry-wide issue at work. Consider the commonalities: People interviewed for this story said that both groups’ original founders underestimated the complicated process for building these types of organizations. They say groups like these are rarely equipped to tackle the systemic issues they set out to fight, because they structure themselves in the same red-tape heavy model that perpetuated the system, dependent on layers of consensus and approval. And some say both causes got caught in a tug-of-war between the industry’s old and new guard, stymying progress.

In short, the ad industry can’t seem to get out of its own way.

The irony, says one diversity and inclusion chief within a holding company agency, is that the goal of both organizations was to make the ad industry a more inclusive place, but they were actually not inclusive of all points of view.

“This is where I believe both of these initiatives went sideways: An emotional group of people, and emotional for all the right reasons, thought they could build a better mousetrap,” says a D&I exec, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Well-meaning people were looking at their set of experiences and they were making judgment calls about what it would take to prevent X and Y from happening and what it would take to change a situation.” The problem, the executive says: “These leaders were limited to their set of experiences.”

Powerful white women

Time’s Up Advertising found itself in hot water not long after its March 2018 founding. When the organization held its first open community meetings across 14 cities, many advertising professionals who were not current agency employees were turned away, such as freelancers. Some of the excluded women were those forced from the industry due to the pervasive sexual harassment that the organization was founded to fight. There were also criticisms lodged against the organization for not being inclusive enough of women of color. Omnicom Director of Diversity Christena Pyle later assumed the helm of Time’s Up Advertising but stepped down last week to become chief equity officer of the Americas at Dentsu Aegis Network. Her successor has not yet been named. She declined to be interviewed for this story.

But, in its early days, Time’s Up Advertising’s most public-facing executives were white women, including Wieden + Kennedy Global Chief Creative Officer Colleen DeCourcy and former DDB Worldwide CEO Wendy Clark, who was recently named global CEO of Dentsu Aegis Network.

The most damaging blow to Time’s Up Advertising came when Clark, while leading DDB, hired former Droga5 Chief Creative Officer Ted Royer to assist on a creative pitch for Volkswagen. Royer, one of several men accused of misconduct by the anonymous Diet Madison Avenue Instagram account, left Droga5 under an internal investigation, but the nature of the probe was never disclosed.

After hiring Royer, Clark was forced to step down from Time's Up Advertising, saying, “Regrettably, I fell into a traditional paradigm of business first and given the choice again I would do things differently. That was a mistake. The reckoning for past behavior is not just for survivors of sexual harassment, but for the whole industry, which needs systemic change.”

DeCourcy, who declined comment for this story, has also since stepped back from the spotlight.

The D&I executive says Time’s Up Advertising in its original form was led by “powerful white women” who decided “how we’re going” to fight sexual harassment and discrimination in the industry. And just as the Suffrage Movement of the 19th and 20th centuries left out Black women, the exec says many women of color who felt slighted by the Time’s Up Advertising movement were left asking: “What about us?”

She also criticized the “action plan” Time’s Up Advertising put forth in its early days, which asked women in senior leadership positions to pledge to “foster a workplace where people are challenged but still respected”; uphold that sexual harassment is “never” OK; and to challenge “old power dynamics.”

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, we got the most powerful women in the industry and that’s what they came up with? An HR program?’” says the D&I exec.

Another holding company-owned agency executive who requested anonymity notes that in moments of public reckoning, agencies and clients are desperate “to want to act fast to make up for the lack of time” but they “haven’t done the basics, the culture isn’t in place and you want your intention, in some cases so obviously [influenced] by HR and PR, to get you credit that you haven’t earned from an audience who does not know or trust you.”

Too many voices?

With 180 initial signatories, Times Up Advertising had many voices and many agendas to be heard. 600 & Rising, so named after its signatories, had more than triple that number at its original founding. Add to this the fact that most agencies already have established internal programs in place to address discrimination against people of color with well-paid D&I chief roles, longstanding industry-wide initiatives like Adcolor, and the 40-year-old 4A’s Multicultural Advertising Internship Program.

Bennett and Young seem to have inadvertently stepped on some well-shod toes when they penned their open letter to U.S. agencies outlining 12 actions necessary to achieve equity for people of color. The original letter quickly ballooned to 1,100 signatories as U.S. agencies and holding companies committed to the 12 actions, the first of which entailed releasing their staff diversity data.

The rapid positive response—as well as the significant amount of ink industry trade publications including Ad Age gave to the nonprofit and founders—gave the organization considerable clout. As the group’s notoriety grew, so did pressure to join. That didn’t sit well with some executives, part of an older guard who had dedicated their entire careers to diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in the industry, who felt the 600 & Rising’s solutions were simplistic and bordering on insulting.

“Releasing numbers doesn’t change anything,” says another D&I executive, whose agency nonetheless signed on to 600 & Rising. “It just makes a problem more well-known.” He cites its No. 4 call to action, asking shops to pledge to bias training for HR employees and management, as an example. “Pledge training? We’ve had training for decades,” the exec scoffs.

Despite their reservations, these D&I execs say they were ordered to sign on by agency leaders in a show of good faith.

Bennett declines comment for this story, citing the reassessment period the group is now undergoing. “We only existed as an organization for a little more than 60 days,” Young says. “Our first 60 days were about representing the people. Not the elites or the old guard, per se.”

He says 600 & Rising “had every intention” of working with the more established DE&I executives as the organization progressed, and notes that some of them were appointed to the advisory council and board.

Breaking ranks

On July 29, Young tweeted: "@ADCOLOR is an awards ceremony completely divorced from reality that sells the story that progress is being made on diversity in advertising and buys cover for holding companies."

To some, Young’s tweet felt like a slap. “Why should the people in power, who are white people, care about us if we use our power and stage to tear each other down?” the first D&I exec says. “Especially if there is a person of color in a position of power, the job should be to support that person, not use a public platform to disparage who that person is.”

The reference was to Adcolor founder and president Tiffany Warren, who also serves as senior VP and chief diversity officer of Omnicom Group. Warren declines to discuss with Ad Age the situation with 600 & Rising, but stresses that Adcolor was not specifically designed as a group to promote diversity in the industry. Instead it’s purpose is to bring visibility to marginalized creatives who were not getting the recognition they deserved from industry awards like The Clios and Cannes Lions.

“We didn’t set out to say ‘I’m going to fix the diversity, equity and inclusion problem in the industry,’” Warren says. “We say very clearly that we honor people in their achievements to create a blueprint for others to follow. ... People have to recognize that there are different forms to get to the racial equity finish line. There is no one way.”

She adds, “It’s not conducive to not be collaborative on that front.”

Some believe that it wasn’t so much Young’s comment, but the way it was made that was to blame. “Why do we do this to ourselves? It’s so messy. While I do agree organizations like Adcolor could be better for a number of reasons, for example cliqueyness [sic], overall they’re working for change,” one senior VP wrote on the anonymous industry app Fishbowl. “I feel like that’s an opinion that should’ve been voiced in the community/amongst friends. We need to be a united front if we want change.”

Young acknowledges this criticism and, in hindsight, agrees. He says he “regrets” the public comments he made about Adcolor. “Systemic racism is an enormous problem,” he says. “It does really require us all to work together. Organizations can disagree on tactics, but we shouldn’t resort to public criticisms. There needs to be more collaboration and less competition.”

Getting its sea legs

Kai D. Wright—founder and curator of blacklist100, global consulting partner for Ogilvy and Columbia University lecturer—believes 600 & Rising’s biggest problem is that it was too tied to its leaders. He says “there are many successful models for change that are not the traditional hierarchy of top-down with one leader, which helps prevent any single leader's missteps from distracting from the mission, message and movement of the broader community of supporters."

Wright points to Black Lives Matter as one such grassroots initiative. “The more voices and the bigger the coalition, the better,” he says, noting that he hopes to see that from 600 & Rising when it reemerges. “It’s incredibly important to give [600 & Rising] time to get their sea legs,” he says.

Young notes that he was unintentionally thrust into the spotlight to be the voice for “thousands” of Black industry professionals and that this was not something he “was prepared to do.” He says it was never his or Bennett’s intention to become so prominent in the organization. “That was an unintended consequence,” he says, of having tough conversations “in the open and not behind closed doors.”

Fighting ‘traditional structures’

There’s also a theory that both Time’s Up Advertising and 600 & Rising became too, well, organized.

Kai Deveraux Lawson, global director of community engagement and global culture at WPP, declines to comment specifically on either group, but says, generally, that the challenge with marketing and advertising executives starting community initiatives is that they try to build it in the way they know how: like a company. “You can’t fight against traditional structures by setting up the same structures,” which she says get mired in legal and administrative “bullshit.”

“When you get into larger organizations, you have stakeholders, shareholders, members,” Deveraux Lawson says. “Now you have 1,000 people you have to legally listen to. If your activism is in the name of gender advocacy, have you spoken to all the women? Or were you busy formulating contracts? If it’s racial injustice, have you spoken to all the people who experienced racism or were you busy filing documentation so you’re fine for the next tax season?”

One D&I exec who signed the 600 & Rising’s “Call to Action” letter argues that there’s been too much pressure on industry organizations to effect the change, when instead the onus should be on the executives within the companies that continue to uphold discriminatory structures.

“We have been demanding change for decades, internally and externally,” the exec says. “Adcolor cannot change an industry, neither can 600 & Rising, nor can Time’s Up. They can shed light on [issues], but the change has to start with the people who run these companies.”

So why hasn’t it happened? Says this exec: “They don’t truly want change.” Adage End Bug

Web production by Corey Holmes.