AAF Hall of Famers Grapple With Diversity in Ad, Media Industries

Insight From Advertising Hall of Fame Inductees

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When Johnathan Rodgers was a writer for Sports Illustrated, in the late 1960s, he wrote a piece titled "The Plight of the Black Athlete." At the time he joined SI as the magazine's first African-American reporter, black athletes played a major role in sports.

Johnathan Rodgers was often a 'first' in his field.
Johnathan Rodgers was often a 'first' in his field.

"But in a way we didn't," he added.

"There were no black managers. There were no black coaches. And there existed this awful quota system by position and by roster. ... So when you talk about the plight of the black athlete, yeah, we were getting paid, and yes, we were performing, but it really was a system that , unfortunately, reflected the values of our country at the time."

These days, Johnathan told me during an interview for his induction into the Advertising Hall of Fame , things "have changed significantly. I wouldn't be surprised if we have more African-American coaches in the NBA than white coaches."

"We clearly have black managers and Hispanic managers all throughout baseball; we've had them in football." In one Super Bowl, he said, both coaches were black. "Now I think we should get more progress in the ownership area. And Michael Jordan, if you're listening, we need better managers in the management area as well, so thank you for doing all you can, and let's win."

The veteran TV executive, who's held major positions at CBS, Discovery and TV One, noted the same conditions exist in that industry. There have been "great advances" in black actors appearing on the TV screen, he said, but the black executive positions are as equally rare in the TV business as black professional sports.

"I love the fact that I may have been the first African-American to be the president of a network television division or executive producer. But the dilemma becomes what I still am at this late point -- the only one to have ever been."

Another Hall of Fame inductee this year, Rick Boyko, doesn't see much progress anywhere in the advertising business. Mr. Boyko, who headed the VCU Brandcenter for 10 years, believes that to promote greater diversity in advertising the industry needs to focus on high school. He says there's too much emphasis on college, "but we don't do enough to get high-school students to really understand who we are, to talk to high-school counselors and to have minority parents understand that this is a good business."

The problem, Mr. Boyko said, is that the industry is insulated. "We ... think that we're really perceived to be a terrific career."

To most people, though, "we're not too far off from used-car salesmen and senators. And if we don't change that perception, we can't change parents' minds," Mr. Boyko said, noting that he came from a family in which nobody went to college. (Mr. Boyko went from high school to the Air Force before attending college -- but never graduated.) Lots of minority parents are in the same place, having "never gotten to higher learning, so they want their children to go to higher learning. It's not going to be to go for advertising, when the perception is that it's a charlatan business. So we, as an industry, have to change that perception."

Newly installed Hall of Famer David Kennedy is co-founder of Weiden & Kennedy, and although he's been retired since 1995, he still keeps busy at the agency, working pro bono on the American Indian College Fund. Mr. Kennedy told me "it's pretty much a full-time job. It's more of a commitment than a job."

What was his connection to Native American culture? "I grew up in Oklahoma, Colorado, states that were surrounded by a lot of reservations and I grew up immersed in native culture as a child. And it had a terrific influence on my life."

But when he got into the "real world" he was separated from that connection. "Strangely enough, in 1990, December 19, I got a letter from the director of the American Indian College Fund, wondering if we could take them on as our pro bono account.

"It was absolutely perfect timing. I was upset with being stuck in meetings all day. I wouldn't get any work done. I couldn't create. ... So it was a chance for me to work on something that I really believed in and had been disconnected with for many years."

Mr. Kennedy thinks that "when an agency like ours reaches a point where we have established strong relationships with creative forces in our business, if we can't draw upon that relationship for the good of mankind then what's the use? I think that my career in advertising means nothing if I can't do something good with it."

It's been hundreds of years since the first Europeans set foot on this continent, and Mr. Kennedy said "the indigenous people of this part of the world have been trod upon and we need to pay back."

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