Ad industry's newfound focus on minority-owned businesses must go beyond investment, experts say
While brands and advertisers are spending more than ever before to reach diverse, multicultural audiences, industry experts say the money often does not reach minority-owned and led businesses. To talk about these issues, Ad Age rounded up agency brand and media experts from across the industry. Here’s what our panelists had to say as the conversation around race, diversity and inclusion in advertising and marketing continues. (Scroll down to watch the complete discussion.)
1. Minorities still aren’t reaping the benefits of increased media buys
Shante Bacon, founder and CEO of One/35 Agency, says the ad industry’s financial commitments to diversity and minority investment often do not reach the intended groups, and is instead wasted on feel-good compliance. “If the 8 billion dollars that was spent in the diversity complex actually went out to people of color, and not just in checking boxes, you might be able to understand what’s going on,” she says.
Others in the industry point to systemic problems that feed a vicious cycle. “Believe it or not, we’re sometimes able to get more from white-owned agencies than Black-owned agencies because the Black-owned agencies fear they’re going to lose their budgets,” says L. Londell McMillan, executive publisher, The Source.
“The system isn’t broken, the system was built that way,” says Marc Pritchard, chief brand officer at Proctor & Gamble. “We have to disrupt and dismantle the system.” Pritchard also says media is oftentimes bought programmatically, and correcting the system can also mean reconsidering the “plumbing,” or how media systems are wired together.
2. Authenticity shines through ... but so does insincerity
Corporate America’s approach to BIPOC culture can sometimes be exploitive. “We are not a holiday, we are not a celebrity experience,” says Bacon. “There’s many layers to black culture and latinx culture, to any kind of culture, but you have to have that genuine curiosity.”Indeed, lip service to diversity can oftentimes backfire, turning audiences away from brands. “it’s been very clear sometimes that people didn’t have their motives in the right place,” says Linda Ong, CEO and founder of Cultique and founder of Protector Coalition. She says the moment can be used either as an opportunity to inform the client, or even educating the client by declining the opportunity altogether.
3. Investing in minorities means hiring minorities
The right hire not only has the potential to bring a fresh perspective to advertising and marketing, but can help tap into a wider network of minority-owned and operated companies throughout the industry. “It’s a very close-knit group,” says Ahmad Islam, CEO and co-founder, Ten35. Islam says the problem is not the visibility of talent, but the lack of commitment and follow-through. “A lot of times I feel more like Bigfoot than the Loch Ness monster,” says Islam, who adds that while the death of George Floyd sparked a wave of commitments from companies, without commitments, the promises often fell flat. “Companies should build internal diversity because that will give you access and a conduit into these organizations you may otherwise be having a hard time tapping into,” says Islam.
Coltrane Curtis, founder and managing partner, Team Epiphany, agrees. “It has to start from an HR perspective internally, and picking people who are right to engender change. Culture is making brands feel that pain now.”
4. 'Multicultural' work creates opportunities, but can also fuel dangerous assumptions around marketers and agencies
While companies scramble to deploy more inclusive work from creatives and agencies, these efforts can sometimes pigeonhole companies into only doing what’s considered “multicultural” work, shutting them out of general-market opportunities. Ten35’s Islam says his agency once impressed a client with minority-focused work and was asked whether they could do gen-market work. “It’s like asking a professional baker if they can make pancakes,” he says.
Team Epiphany’s Curtis agrees. “To ask if we can do gen-market is almost insulting,” he says. “But the insult, you can use it as fuel or use it to cripple you for so long. We want to use that Kryptonite as fuel.”
5. Accountability is more important than ever
2020 was a watershed year for calls to action from around the advertising industry, as well as from across the nation. But experts say often this has not always translated into action. “Every time a brand puts up a black square or Stop Asian Hate or “trans lives matter,” that gives me the right to say ‘well, what are you doing about it,’” says Rana Reeves, founder of RanaVerse.
Ten35’s Islam says there is an opportunity for a check-in, a report card of sorts. “There were a lot of commitments, a lot of promises made, and it would be great to just see where we are.”
“It’s not about putting people on blast, it’s about seeing if companies went beyond just posting a black square in June,” says Islam.