Why the Industry Is Dragging on Diversity

It's Not a Conspiracy, It's Fear & Self-Interest

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Karl Carter Karl Carter
You know, its funny when I think about the issue of diversity. Sometimes I wonder why we're still having this conversation. After the last census, I figured "OK, NOW the browning of America is undeniable! The sky has opened up and everyone will see the diverse utopian rainbow that is right in front of us. Life is great and the government is good for something after all." HAH!

Then previous reality continues to be the present reality. The reality is that while youth and young adults are growing up in a more and more diverse society, the ad and media industries are still massively lacking in diversity. Quite simply, because there is often little diversity around in their own agencies or lives, many react to the idea of reaching communities of color as a foreign and sometimes scary thought. Imagine if your whole life you're living in the comfort of total dominance, master of the marketing universe and then something like culture and birth rates upset the apple cart. WTF? I thought I had it made!

About a year ago, I was on an ad sales run, visiting a media buyer with a colleague. We were discussing the "death" of the 30-second spot and the advantages of user-generated content/ads, social networking etc. The media buyer said, "Hey I know it's dead, let's just hope no one fixes it before I retire." Then it hit me. That's it in a nutshell. It's not a conspiracy, it's something way more sinister -- a mortgage.

The biggest enemy of diversity is an existing economic power structure based upon a racial model that is simply being birthed and cultured away. There are a lot of college tuitions, vacation homes and second wives depending on that outmoded structure being maintained.

That's why we don't see any real change, there's just too much money involved in keeping it status quo. And who suffers in the meanwhile? Clients, consumers and a lot of minority-owned shops being forced to deal with budgets that are often laughable. Despite the well-documented trend-setting value of urban culture and hip-hop as a global cultural force, those with the most knowledge of this market are often shut out of the most lucrative business. (For evidence of this global influence, check out our trend trip to Amsterdam.)

Those of us who live and work in the urban space don't need a human-rights commission to explain that reality to us; we already know it's just business as usual. It's the natural order of the universe right? What happens when urban agencies start to go after general market business (and get it)? What happens when general-market agencies start to execute urban business (wait, they already do). OMG it's anarchy!

It's interesting to me, to be writing about diversity. This is something I feel passionately about, but yet have always realized as a black business owner, that we had to be as diverse as possible in our approach in order to be profitable and competitive. For us, that meant following an approach that wasn't race-based, but was based on subculture instead.

When we launched our shop seven years ago, times were already changing. From working in agencies and also being cultural creators, we saw the drastic difference between how the urban reality was painted in the ad world and what it meant in real life.

In the ad and media world, urban is a euphemism for Black, Latino, ghetto -- something foreign as hell basically. In reality, urban is a mindstate, a culture shared by people of every race, socio-economic status and sexual orientation. Street culture didn't fit the box; it actually has blown the box wide open. Subculture makes for more meaningful marketing, because it's more natural in the approach and more respectful. Now who wouldn't want to support that?

From day one at GTM, we executed general market business and spoke to everyone by appealing to and respecting subcultures. Thanks to the Truth campaign and great agency partners at Arnold and Burrell, we were given a chance to apply our subculture approach. But not every agency is so lucky. Often locked into the urban box, or the Black and Latino box, we see and know our trendsetting value, but getting what you're worth is always a battle.

Meanwhile, the consumer world chugs along, oblivious to all the BS and politics going on. They only see the end result, a mediocre caricature of a world they don't live in and companies they feel are insensitive or, maybe even worse, just don't get it. In the bottom-most of lines, diversity isn't a social cause, it's essential to our current and future success. It's simply smart business, but at this point our entire industry is playing catch-up.
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