Why Media Agencies Need Diversity

Eugene Morris: Understanding Your Audience Helps You Sell, Not Just Reach

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Eugene Morris, founder of E. Morris Communications, a Chicago marketing-communications agency, has worked in advertising for nearly two decades. He began his career in media research at Foote, Cone & Belding before moving into account management. He then jumped to Chicago's Burrell Advertising, where he both managed accounts and oversaw media. In 1987, he opened his own business; current and former clients include Wal-Mart, Tyson and American Family Insurance.
Gene Morris, founder of E. Morris Communications: 'Reaching ain't selling. The environment in which an ad appears is extremely important. It is the message, the content and the environment.'
Gene Morris, founder of E. Morris Communications: 'Reaching ain't selling. The environment in which an ad appears is extremely important. It is the message, the content and the environment.' Credit: Victor Powell

Here, he talks about trends in multicultural advertising and lays out the case for diversity in the media business.

MediaWorks: One of the trends in the multicultural market is for general-market media agencies to set up in-house units to handle multicultural media buys. MindShare recently announced plans to launch such a unit; Zenith created one last year. Is this a good development or a bad one?

Gene Morris: I'm sure it is good for the general market agencies. Is it good for the multicultural agencies? I think not. It remains to see how effective general-market agencies will be. Some clients are looking for one-stop shopping, so to speak, reasoning that it could save time to deal with one entity rather than two or three. These units also might make the claim that they can deliver lower CPMs, but I'm not sure that's the case. From a qualitative perspective, I think that we can certainly do a better job. But it is up to us to sell our abilities. We operate in a world of getting the best for your dollar. It will continue until it is proven that it doesn't work.

MediaWorks: How can having a diverse staff change the way a media plan is conceived and executed? Any examples of campaigns that illustrate the benefit?

Mr. Morris: I always say that we are all the sum total of our experiences. In that, if you haven't experienced certain things, then you very often have a difficult time relating to those things, even if you try. As an African-American male in this country, my experiences are very different from those of my white-male counterparts. That applies to people in all cultures. Our analyses of everything, including media, will be different. If everyone on your staff is from the same group -- ethnicity, social class, whatever -- then they'll see the world pretty much the same way. Not that they see necessarily in lockstep, but the overall lens will be narrower. When we got the Wal-Mart business, the first thing the client thought about for the African-American market was BET for TV and the typical magazines, such as Ebony or Essence. When we would try to introduce a new media vehicle, initially very often we'd get resistance because it often went beyond their knowledge base and comfort zone. Finally we succeeded in convincing them that while Ebony or Essence deliver great reach, you can also get a good return on investment with smaller books or TV shows that are popular with subgroups of African-Americans.

Here in Chicago, we've got a cable show hosted by Munir Muhammad. He's a Muslim, but his show is not based on his religion. He deals with issues that are important to the African-American community, and is a force in the market well beyond the ratings his program generates. The average buyer at a general-market agency would not even know he exists. And if they do know him, they may assume he's a religious fanatic and avoid buying his program. Or, WVON, the only African-American talk radio station in Chicago, is an another great example: It doesn't show up with great numbers, but it is not to be ignored.

MediaWorks: Has the advertising industry been hampered by having separate units or agencies for different cultures or ethnicities?

Mr. Morris: No, I think these agencies have brought great value. A lot of talent resides in them. Very often the presence of multicultural agencies forces general-market agencies to be better. We bring a level of competition which they may not always feel good about, and that's why a lot of them wish we'd go away. We bring a different perspective. As an African-American in this country, I have to be bi-cultural; in order to survive, I have to understand white people. But white people don't have to understand black people in order to survive. I see and understand things in general that white people, looking into our world, totally miss.

For instance, an alcoholic-beverage client of ours some years ago had a pretty strong African-American franchise. The client's general-market agency had built a media plan for the brand that included TV Guide. In discussing the plan with them, I questioned why they didn't have a vehicle that did a better job of reaching the African-American segment. Their response was that, in fact, they did have one in TV Guide. I said, "Huh? Why?" They said research showed black people read TV Guide. I looked at the verbatims and I laughed. What happened: responding to questions, the marketer misinterpreted black people's use of the words "TV guide" as a specific choice when they were actually using TV guide in a generic sense. That may sound ridiculous. But you really have to have people who understand the segment they're trying to reach.

MediaWorks: How can minority-owned media outlets compete with the "efficient-buy" argument -- that buying a mass audience program or publication will be a better bang for the buck, because minority readers or viewers will be part of the audience in a mass-market buy?

Mr. Morris: Again, it comes down to the point that it isn't simply the buy. Reaching ain't selling. The environment in which an ad appears is extremely important. It is the message, the content and the environment. The mere fact that you run an ad in a publication that is seen by blacks or Hispanics doesn't mean that it is relevant. Toyota's "Red Car, White Knuckles" campaign meant nothing to me; I don't get white knuckles. What I find so interesting is that marketers often try to reach African Americans by buying one vehicle they think reaches all of us, and then feel that their job is done. Yet when it comes to the mass market, they understand the need for special-interest media vehicles. The fact is that very often black people don't trust a medium. They see it, but they don't trust it. Black people are more likely to trust a message in Jet than in a Time or a Newsweek.

MediaWorks: What's the best way to recruit more minorities into the advertising community? Are different approaches necessary at the junior, middle and senior levels?

Mr. Morris: It isn't a problem that can be solved overnight. For the general-market agencies, it is not so simple as just raiding E. Morris or Lopez Negrete, because that's not a net gain for the business. Yes, different strategies are required to hire at each level. At the middle and senior levels, the recruitment strategy must include a plan to go out to other industries and bring in those who have transferable skill sets. At the same time, we've got to raise the image of the industry and also increase the pay scales. We are at a competitive disadvantage with other industries that pay more.
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