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The rush to add multicultural ad agencies to large agencies' rosters may be too much too soon. The acquisition frenzy includes:

* True North Communications' September purchase of 49% of Don Coleman Advertising (African-American) after its 1998 acquisition of a minority stake in Stedman Graham & Partners (African-American) and earlier buy of Siboney USA (Hispanic);

* The June purchase by Publicis of a 49% stake in Burrell Advertising (African-American);

* Young & Rubicam's 1998 buy of Kang & Lee (Asian-American);

* WPP Group's June purchase of 49% of Market Segment Research & Consulting, which specializes in ethnic consumers;

* Leo Burnett USA's formation of Vigilante in 1997 to target urban consumers.

This drive to add a new skill to the arsenals of large agencies resembles the rush to bring direct marketing into "above the line" agencies during the 1970s and early '80s.

If agencies were truly embracing direct marketing, why did it take more than 15 years for them to coexist peacefully with this "below the line" discipline? Agencies in the above-the-line business environment of media commissions just did not truly understand the direct marketing business. Direct marketing is not only a different discipline with a different way of creating, executing, placing and evaluating advertising; it also makes money in a profoundly different way than general agencies did 20 years ago.

The integration of direct marketing took a long time not because it was a different marketing discipline but because the business was alien.


Enter multicultural marketing. The problems of integrating this emerging discipline are daunting. Multicultural agencies themselves are still grappling with the business of the business: how to make money.

For most marketers, multicultural marketing is not part of their business strategy. It is viewed as a tactical add-on to advertising efforts -- as direct marketing used to be. There are no revenue goals for multicultural segments' contribution to corporate profits. No metrics are set, so the effectiveness of multicultural efforts to the bottom line can't be gauged.


Clients' perception of the discipline is under-evolved. Asian-American and Hispanic efforts are still perceived to be "translations" of general market work. In-language advertising has not yet truly given way to in-culture advertising. This is why the African-American segment (English language) has had difficulties in establishing a distinct marketing discipline. In-culture marketing that resonates with the subtleties of the target segment's psychograpic eludes marketers wishing to gain access to the lucrative African-American market.

And, unlike direct marketing, there is still basic confusion about terminology. Is it "multicultural," "ethnic" or "special targets/segments"? This confusion is rooted in sociological and educational terms, such as diversity, bilingualism and affirmative action. The terms are emotionally charged and not what marketers normally have to tackle. White corporate America, reflecting society as a whole, is still struggling with these issues. Multicultural marketing remains vaguely defined.

Multicultural agencies have further mystified the discipline by blurring the distinction between marketing and social/political correctness. This only further obfuscates a potential business strategy for any multicultural initiative. Multicultural marketing is more than social responsibility.

These agencies, for the most part, are driven by high profile and strong personalities within the various communities. Once they cash out, what will be left of the business? What are mainstream agencies buying? Moreover, the traditional style of selling multicultural services (instilling fear and loathing of not being socially responsible) has resulted in business opportunities for the agencies -- but not necessarily for marketers.


Until multicultural advertising is demystified there will be no answer to the debate. Most importantly, there will be no visible contribution by the discipline to marketers' bottom lines.

But mainstream agencies will need to quickly find a way to make their investments pay out. News accounts have described how various agencies are still floundering about how to bring minority advertising to clients. Essentially, the question is: Do we keep the multicultural agency close (e.g., providing the offering to our existing clients), or do we keep them as separate and distinct agencies (e.g., allowing them to keep conflicting client accounts)?

Currently, agencies hedge their bets and answer the dilemma on a situational basis, client by client. But what are mainstream agencies buying? More business? Expertise? A discipline? Conflict shops?


Simply and profoundly, multicultural advertising is advertising that resonates with an individual's "cultural script." It's not a revolutionary concept. Agencies have always done this, whether it is the "cultural script" of a new mother or of a business traveler. Marketers are merely trying to keep pace with the changing face of consumers. The degree to which a marketer can meaningfully appeal to a cultural script is the degree to which multicultural advertising will be effective.

As with all advertising, multicultural efforts must have their genesis in a business strategy. Metrics for the success and level of business contribution must be established and achieved. Without these simple premises, multicultural advertising will continue to be an ad hoc activity confused with corporate foundation, diversity and affirmative action programs.

Ms. Leo is the founder of MosaicAmerica, New York, a multicultural marketing consultancy, and was most recently senior VP-group director and creator of Young

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