Ad Industry Should Consider Trying NFL's Rooney Rule

An Ad Age Editorial

Published on .

As the ad industry tries to recover from yet more embarrassing diversity-related publicity, it's becoming increasingly clear the time for "dialogue" is over. It may be time for advertising to try its own version of the Rooney Rule.

The Rooney Rule, for those not obsessed with the National Football League, was the solution arrived at to solve one of the league's big issues: Despite hundreds of black players, there were few black coaches. After Johnnie Cochran and Cyrus Mehri published a study and threatened a lawsuit (sound familiar?), the league and the lawyers settled on the Rooney Rule, which stipulated that for every opening for a coaching position, at least one qualified African-American candidate had to be interviewed. The rule seemed too simple to work. But it has.

Ironically, the latest blow to the industry was directly related to football and came from one of the men who nudged the NFL toward the Rooney Rule. Two weeks ago, the Madison Avenue Project, helmed by Mr. Mehri and the NAACP, unveiled an analysis of this year's Super Bowl ads. They found that of the ads created for advertising's main event, 92% of the creative executives were white men, and 7% were white women.

Of course, one key difference between the NFL and advertising is that the NFL's player ranks are brimming with candidates. For adland, the rule would likely have to be enacted from the bottom up. (The NFL's version of the Rooney Rule might track better with women in advertising, i.e. plenty of women in the lower ranks of advertising, yet very few making it to the executive suites.)

There are likely to be other challenges as well. But we haven't seen many viable alternatives other than class-action lawsuits and the increasingly tiresome "dialogue." Holding dialogue about diversity in the ad industry at this point is about as useful as raising awareness about the need of oxygen to survive. Industry representatives need to stop talking to each other and start talking to Mr. Mehri and his group. That will undoubtedly rankle some.

After all, Mr. Mehri's style has been to publicly embarrass adland and not seek much by way of dialogue. Indeed, while the recent press conference was public, agency execs and industry groups weren't specifically invited. But it is what it is.

History has shown that those industries that don't enter into serious negotiations with Mr. Mehri end up defending themselves in court. Let's find an alternative that works.

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