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In "Putney Swope," the classic '60s film send-up of the advertising business, an African-American agency executive suddenly finds himself CEO by default.

Today, if there's a minority in the executive suite, it's probably by design but just as unusual. The difference is that now a mortified Madison Avenue insists the industry is finally facing its failure to diversify.

"We've been distracted in an industry that has reduced its work force by 25% in the last seven or eight years," said Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide Chairman-CEO Ed Wax, who is also chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies. "But there's been no gentlemen's agreement to keep minorities out; it has been benign neglect more than anything else."

So, agency executives have decided that if African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians won't come to Madison Avenue, Madison Avenue will go to them.

And to get a more accurate reading of the current employment situation, the Four A's for the first time is asking members for breakdowns on percentages of minorities in their ranks.

According to federal statistics, minorities make up just 7% of the

284,000 people working in the advertising industry.

As Four A's chairman, Mr. Wax is crafting an industry plan on the education, recruitment and retention of minorities, to be presented in February. This month, Mr. Wax traveled to Howard University in Washington on behalf of the Advertising Educational Foundation to meet with students and faculty members and discuss career opportunities for minorities in marketing.

He was accompanied by Greg Johnson, 26, one of two African-American account executives at Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising, New York. Mr. Johnson is also spearheading Project 2000, a Saatchi effort geared toward recruiting and retaining more minorities. Saatchi's New York office says minorities make up 18% of its total 780-person staff. Among the minorities, 7% are professional staff, and the remainder are support personnel.

Ironically, Mr. Johnson was turned down for the Four A's internship program when he was an advertising student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"We're addressing the issue where we failed to address it 20 years ago-at the educational level," said Mr. Johnson.

Other minorities aren't so optimistic. Lowell Thompson, a creative consultant who heads the Chicago-based Partnership Against Racism, calls agency affirmative action claims "bullshit."

"White people in the business do not see lack of minorities as a problem," he said. "The only reason they're interested in the issue is because of pressure from people like me and from some clients. The only thing that has changed in the last several years is the public relations effort."

Mr. Thompson also dismisses industry executives' claims that there are no qualified or interested minorities available. To prove his point, he's plotting a spring sit-in at major Chicago agencies when African-American creatives will "sit in agency lobbies and say `We're not leaving until we get interviews and jobs."'

It's too late to attract some minorities. Peggy Beane, 32, a corporate account executive at Young Sisters & Brothers Magazine in Rosslyn, Va., said she gave up on getting an agency post after a series of discouraging interviews and two dead-end secretarial jobs on Madison Avenue.

Ms. Beane said she was repeatedly told she didn't have significant job experience, despite a marketing professor's prediction that she'd be an advertising "star" and two New York agency internships, including one in 1982 at now-defunct McCaffrey & McCall arranged through the Four A's minority internship program.

For its part, the Four A's last month hired Jacqueline Llewellyn as VP-diversity programs, a role that will include expanding the industry group's minority internship program. At the same time, large agencies assert that they're now taking tangible steps to reach out to minorities.

BBDO Worldwide, one of the more progressive mega-agencies (an estimated 18% of agency staffers are minorities), this year set up a $5,000 scholarship at Atlanta's Spelman College. The agency plans a similar program for Howard University. A $3,000 grant also has been given to the arts and advertising sequence at New York Technical College.

Even the agency holding companies claim to be getting involved.

"Our human resources group will be working through minority colleges to, over the next three years, hire some good trainees in the company and bring them up through the business," said Phil Geier Jr., chairman-CEO of Interpublic Group of Cos.

So far, however, several regional advertising clubs are outpacing agency efforts to reach young minorities.

An outreach arm of the Advertising Club of Greater Boston sponsors the 6-year-old Advertising Opportunities program through which 30 students from Boston's public high schools attend twice-weekly classes on advertising during their spring semester.

The program now draws more than 200 applicants a year and, according to Ad Club Executive Director Elizabeth Cook, about 90% of participants are minorities.

The Chicago Ad Federation, with the financial support of six local agencies and two media companies, has just begun Partnership for Success, the group's second effort to increase the diversity of the ad community's work force. Two people already have been placed in full-time jobs at agencies; each has been assigned a mentor to offer information and guidance, and to make introductions.

"You have to recruit minorities in inner city schools, then hand-carry them and give them a college scholarship," Chiat/Day Chairman Jay Chiat told colleagues at the Four A's annual meeting earlier this year. He since has contributed $100,000 from his own pocket and same amount from Chiat coffers toward an agency internship program for minorities in southern California.

"Scholarships?" replied Don Schultz, professor of integrated marketing communications at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism in Evanston, Ill. " ... Bright minority kids are going into medicine, law and engineering, fields they perceive to be more stable and lucrative employment areas. And they're probably right."

Contributing to this story: Alice Z. Cuneo, Andrew Cranin and Julie Liesse.

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