Ad Industry's Diversity Battle Takes Toll on the Soul

Ultimately, Blogging About It Will Have Little Effect

By Published on .

Derek Walker
Derek Walker
"I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever." -- Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce nation.

"My soul is tired and angry. This is my last blog on the issue of diversity. I am done. I will not write or comment on the Big Tent about diversity anymore." -- Derek Walker, black copywriter.

I'm serious, there are plenty of others who may want to write about this but after what I write here today, I am done. No more blogs about diversity. I will write about other stuff but not diversity. Talk amongst yourselves.

I have fought this battle for almost 20 years now, and looking back on my career, I can't help but tremble with rage at what I have had to go through to do what I love. I've counted the cost of what I've had to pay and endure, and I can't help but hold my head up high -- I never broke, never gave up.

I am not alone.

There is a list of individuals too long to name, who could not be broken by a system that is clearly designed to keep black people from being admitted in any real numbers or advancing. I am so proud of all of you who have prevailed despite the field being nowhere near level.

I'm not here to cry or complain.

I want to take a moment to explain something in the clearest and the simplest terms that I can: "Every contest or prize or award you have won is tainted."

Advertising today is much like baseball before Jackie Robinson: We have teams of white creatives walking around thumping their chest, claiming to be the best, while an entire group is being excluded from even getting a try-out to play in the game.

(At this point in the original draft I gave a voice to my rage, and said some things that needed to be said but every black person knows we should never say. So, use your imagination to think about what I really want to say here.) I need you to know that this is the watered down version.

Repeatedly, when the discussion of diversity is broached, folks throw out the tried and tired excuses:

EXCUSE: "It is only about the work." FACT: It is never about the work. It is always about more than the work. I have sat in on enough hiring meetings to know that it is seldom about the work and more about whether everyone will be comfortable working with each other. Creatives are a funny group; we want someone talented but not so talented that they will steal our glory. Interviewing for an agency position is unlike any other field I know. It has less to do with the work and more to do with the vibe or feelings everyone has about that candidate.

EXCUSE: "There aren't that many black folks interested in working in advertising." FACT: There are plenty of blacks interested in advertising. For a period of time, I was following the careers of some 200, give or take a few, black creative professionals that were at "general market" agencies. These folks were primarily in the creative field, but there were a couple of account-service and media folks I kept up with also. I delighted when they won awards or created work that got the industry talking. As of late, I have lost track of many, but if I can find and follow 200 working professionals, then tell me how anyone can claim that there are not that many blacks interested in advertising.

EXCUSE: "They don't have the skills or training to do the job." FACT: We have the experience and/or the training to do the job. The number of black-owned shops has grown amazingly in the last 10 years. There is no way a group of inexperienced or talentless people could convince so many clients to give them work. They had to be able to show that they knew what they were doing to get clients. And if they can successfully run black agencies under constraints and mandates that would crush general-market shops, then surely they possess the skills and talents that general market shops are looking for. We have lost several black agencies during these current hard times but the fact that many still exist with smaller budgets and less media dollars should speak volumes to the competency of the individuals running and working for them.

Screaming, "Lies, all lies!" in this space will not help. So I won't. But these are blatant lies.

You want to have a discussion about diversity? Fine, have a discussion but there can be no real discussion without the truth. And the ugly and unbearable truth is that this industry has a diversity problem because of prejudice, pure and simple. I'm not calling anyone a racist. What I am saying is that the preferences of those making the hiring decisions are affected by prejudice.

Webster defines "prejudice" as "(1) : preconceived judgment or opinion (2) : an adverse opinion or leaning formed without just grounds or before sufficient knowledge b : an instance of such judgment or opinion c : an irrational attitude of hostility directed against an individual, a group, a race, or their supposed characteristics."

No, the diversity issue is not an organized plot to keep black people out, it is a prejudice problem that can only be confronted when it is realized that the prejudice exists. Whites and blacks are going to have to be willing to be uncomfortable, to have their feelings hurt and to speak their hearts.

After recent events, I realize many of us are not ready for that level of a conversation -- we want to speak nice and soft to each other. We don't want to offend or upset folks. We want to sit around and talk like there are not raw emotions connected to this issue. That is insanity. This is personal for anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of this prejudice. How can it not be? That is why this is not going to be a nice discussion, but never the less; it is a talk we have to have. We can get upset but we cannot leave the table. We can be offended but not close off our ears to what each other are saying. We have to be willing to push past the hurt feelings and the anger, and have an honest to God conversation about diversity.

As much as it pains me, I see now that neither side is ready. I fear that nothing will change in my lifetime. I had held out hope that it would but I can't see it, not anymore.

And that has made my soul tired. And I am angry that I am made to feel this way. I always believed we, advertising folks, were a better people than this, courageous. That one day folks from both sides would step up to confront this issue head on. I was wrong. We are too busy worrying about our feelings to come together to right a wrong; too busy advancing our agendas and careers off the cottage industry that is diversity to try to make a real and measurable change.

I told Ken Wheaton that I was done with the issue of diversity as a blogger, and I am. I will write about advertising and agency life but not this diversity thing.

Let me be clear: I am not surrendering or quitting. I simply see no reason to try and resolve diversity through a blog.

The solution will only come through a real conversation.

I will wage this war no more.

Derek Walker is the janitor, secretary and mailroom person for his tiny agency, brown and browner advertising based in Columbia, S.C.
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