In 40 years not much has changed, says author of 'Black on Madison Avenue'
“We don’t hire Negroes in account management. Our clients would simply not accept it.”
That was an actual encounter experienced by Mark Robinson, author of “Black on Madison Avenue,” who went on to have a successful 40-year career in account management at agencies including the now-defunct Lintas, Grey, Uniworld, Carol H. Williams and Spike/DDB. Robinson, a guest on this week’s Ad Lib Podcast, says he walked out of that interview at now-shuttered Dancer Fitzgerald Sample after being instead offered an entry-level job in the media department.
“I was surprised I had the courage to actually turn her down,” recalls Robinson, noting that his interviewer told him, “‘You’ll find the same answer wherever you go.’ That was very much the way it was back then.”
But then and now aren’t all that different. Robinson says not enough has changed in the ensuing decades. “We have not made substantial progress,” especially when it comes to Black representation at mainstream agencies, he says. Places like “McCann, Y&R and BBDO have more or less the same number of minorities working for them as they did 20 or 30 years ago.”
But it wasn’t just at general market agencies that he encountered racial bias. Robinson, who is light-skinned, says that in his initial interview at Uniworld with a director of client services he was turned down because “you are really not Black enough.” Robinson says he was told, “‘You spent too long at general market agencies. You are going to come into Uniworld and want to do things the white agency way.’”
He stewed over this for a year before writing to the director of account services asking to be reconsidered. This time, he was met by Byron Lewis, the agency’s founder, who had the letter on his desk. Lewis told him he had fired the person who originally interviewed Robinson, and hired him that day. Of Uniworld, he says, “I loved going to work every single day, it was tremendously fulfilling. It gave me an understanding of what my place in the professional world was really about.”
Robinson has some strong opinions on general agencies claiming to be able to do multicultural work. “I have not in my years in this business found a general-market agency that has done even a passable job at multicultural marketing. They could do it, but none have,” he says. “The condition is that you have to be committed, make a full-throttled commitment that this is what I do and invest in the business. I have not witnessed a general-market agency making that commitment. They do it as a diversion, a way to claw back dollars for their clients they lost to minority agencies, and they do it with a level of cynicism and disingenuousness.”
Very much a raconteur, Robinson also talks about riding in a car behind Ed Meyer on the New Jersey Turnpike as the Grey founder chucked pitch materials out of a limousine window; being interviewed for a job by Spike Lee’s father-in-law; and how he once got sued by Zsa Zsa Gabor for $4 million.