Opinion: Time’s up, ad industry. Black Talent Matters
The death of George Floyd and the ensuing unrest have forced Americans of all stripes into difficult conversations about racial discrimination, police brutality and economic inequality. Racial injustice has reached a tipping point in this country, the Black community is demanding change—and the advertising industry is not exempt.
The downfall of several high-profile men for sexual misconduct against women was a critical moment for gender equality, sparking the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements. Now, time’s up for the advertising industry to confront its long history of bias toward the hiring of Black talent and its failure to make real systemic change for inclusion.
During the infancy of advertising in the Mad Men era, white women were viewed as sexual objects and relegated to the secretarial pool. Hiring Blacks was not even a consideration.
Today, the industry is still dominated by white male culture, but white women have advanced through affirmative action and made significant progress.
Furthermore, several high-profile discrimination lawsuits involving the sexual misconduct of agency leaders have pushed sexism in the advertising industry to the forefront.
The industry responded and change came swiftly with the number of women in top executive roles increasing dramatically as advocacy groups, including Time’s Up Advertising, the 3% Movement and countless D&I initiatives and task forces at agencies, marketers and media companies were launched.
But what will be the advertising industry’s response to the demands for racial and economic equality of the Black Lives Matter movement?
The lack of Black talent in the advertising industry is not breaking news. The industry has been aware of the issue for decades, but has not made good on promises to recruit, hire and retain Black talent. In 2003, Ann Fudge made history when she became the first African American chairman and CEO of a major ad agency. That was 17 years ago—and we have not seen more success stories of Blacks heading major mass-market agencies.
The industry routinely appropriates Black culture to sell products and services for clients without having Black talent in the room. Too often, this results in tone-deaf and culturally insensitive marketing campaigns. The handful of black employees at mass market agencies are forced to cope and survive in an agency culture where they experience microaggressions, limited opportunity for advancement and feelings of isolation.
Common microaggressions include designating a Black person to educate white colleagues on all things Black, regardless of context, in addition to doing their job. Another: When one of the few Black employees is invited to sit in at a new-business pitch as window dressing to demonstrate to a potential client that the agency has a diverse culture.
It’s this type of culture and microaggression that drives the few Blacks in advertising to look for career opportunities in other industries. Agencies and brands alike are now allying and supporting Black Lives Matter. But honestly, does the advertising industry have a real desire to change? Will the industry make the same changes to increase the inclusion of Black talent they were forced to make for women with Time’s Up Advertising and #MeToo?
If so, here are a few suggestions the industry can consider:
Commitment from agency leadership
Begin with agency leadership and ask critical questions. Are they committed to making an agency-wide effort to hire, retain and promote Black talent and make this? It’s not just a responsibility that rests on the shoulders of chief diversity officers.
Are we living our core values? Have we made an honest assessment of Black talent at our agency and noticed: where they are, where they are not, and are they are in a position of decision-making power and influence?
Develop a pipeline
Time’s up for the excuses that you can’t find Black talent. Double down on efforts to develop a pipeline of talent and establish recruiting relationships and scholarship programs with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
Mentor and nurture Black talent
Focus on retaining Black talent by providing clear pathways for development and growth opportunities. Identify promising Black talent and provide senior-level mentors with power and influence who can nurture, guide and advocate for their careers.
A holistic effort
Clients holding the purse strings must insist that agencies share their strategies and tactics for diversity and inclusion of Black talent. Agency compensation should be tied to their explicit expectations for metrics of success in that regard.
Accountability and transparency
Agencies should state their goals regarding the hiring, retaining and promotion of Black talent, and develop scorecards, share their best practices and build a solid case for results.
Be comfortable being uncomfortable
Transform the agency culture by dismantling white privilege. Create a culture that recognizes commonality, but that explores and celebrates the differences. By doing so, agencies will create a culture where the best ideas are born that will be relevant to the diversity of America.
Time’s up, advertising industry. It is time to prioritize and take action to demonstrate that Black Talent Matters.