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Imagine eavesdropping on the world's most honest cocktail chat-with the owner of a top minority-owned ad agency, a talented Latino copywriter at a white agency, the head of a large multinational agency and an executive from a top 100 advertiser.

No press or microphones. Just straight talk spurred by "truth serum" in their drinks. I think it would go something like this:

"I'd still be working at an Hispanic shop if I could get the work I get at a white agency," the Latino copywriter would say with complete candor. "The minority shops aren't really in the ad business. They're in the advocacy business. White agencies are where the real opportunity is."

"That might be true," says the black ad agency president. "But we have to keep putting pressure on the white boys to include us in the ad game or we wouldn't be in the business. Heck, if it were't for the Rev. Jesse Jackson beating up on advertisers, I wouldn't have an agency. And if I were't running an agency, I probably couldn't get a senior job with a large agency. The few black executives at general agencies don't have real power. They're in human resources or minority advertising issues."

"Let's face it," pipes up the multinational agency chief: "Clients have the ultimate ability to open the playing field. There just aren't enough blacks or Hispanics with control over ad budgets. When was the last time a minority agency got to pitch a piece of general-market business? The racism starts on the client side."

"I don't get it," says the advertiser. "My product has universal appeal. I don't need ethnic ads, just effective ads. That's what my agency of record is supposed to provide. I'm not in the affirmative-action business. That stuff just gets in the way," he complains. "Besides, most of the work I see at ethnic shops is just crap. I just want great ads."

"I'll tell you the real problem," says the black agency president. "White people want their advertising and their agency to look like them. There's mountains of proof ethnic ads work. But until decisions are made by people of color, nothing's going to change."

"Things are changing," challenges the multinational agency head. "I just hired two account execs: a black and an Hispanic. I'm looking for a black planner. Diversity is changing the business."

"Yeah, it is," warns the black agency president. "In the end, your new hires will come from minority agencies. With all this diversity and affirmative-action stuff, I'll be run out of business."

That would be some conversation. In it, we could examine a few key facts that are changing the way agencies do business.

Ethnic advertising's basic problem is people think it's different from general-market stuff. They think the people who do it are different, too. Until that changes, anyone who builds a career doing ethnic work is stigmatized-especially creatives and account planners. Even account people.

Those who break out of the ethnic trap do so because they're capable of doing great advertising-pure and simple. But the vast majority of men and women who build careers in ethnic agencies can't get senior jobs in general-market agencies. It makes young, gifted talent at ethnic firms yearn for whiter pastures. If they make it there, it's good for advertising.


In the final analysis, unless more people of color become a part of the mainstream, the curtain that keeps minorities out of senior positions at most multinational agencies will stay in place.

Rev. Jackson and his Rainbow Coalition helped foster the growth of minority ad agencies. In 1997, he still can make minority ad budgets fall from the sky. He's a real friend of equal opportunity. Often, diversifying how a corporation does advertising is a legitimate negotiating tactic.

The fact is carving out millions of dollars from a general ad budget is virtually impossible without strong political pressure. There are exceptions, but for the most part minority advertising, especially black advertising, has become a political issue instead of a marketing issue.

Rev. Jackson can make change happen. But it's business leaders such as John Johnson, Dennis Holt, Clarence Smith, Hector Orci and Tom Burell that take social change and make good business sense out of it. But unless we agencies continue to serve the client's marketing mission, the change may not be lasting.

Not every client needs an ethnic campaign. And proving such campaigns work is just as hard as proving any advertising works.

Research companies are becoming far more sophisticated in illuminating the purchase and viewing habits of ethnic consumers and what motivates them. Without quantitative data that separate people by race, language and by specific product category usage, building a case for ethnic advertising is tough.


To some degree, ethnic agencies fight this battle well. When the numbers speak clearly, the case for ethnic advertising is almost always justified.

One of the best things about this new trend towards diversity in advertising is general-market agencies will become culturally smarter. And their work should get better. That will, however, hurt business for ethnic agencies.

But ethnic agencies must compete not just for talent but for accounts as well.

What doesn't kill us will make us stronger.

One solution to the competitive dilemma for ethnic agencies is greater collaboration with multinational agency networks such as Interpublic Group of Cos., Omnicom Group and WPP Group. Joint ventures, mergers and acquisitions should help diversify our industry in a meaningful way.

In the end, clients will receive the best work and advertising agencies will become stronger. And that's just good business.

Mr. Muse is chairman-executive creative director, Muse Cordero Chen, Los Angeles.

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