Review: Madison Avenue and the Color Line

Book Offers a Back to the Future Feeling

By Published on .

Carol Watson Carol Watson
The avalanche of response and debate last week in the wake of Tiffany Warren's post about the travails of black creative talent really struck an emotional chord with many. Adding some historical perspective on African Americans in the advertising industry through the release of a new book by Jason Chambers, Madison Avenue and the Color Line: African Americans in the Advertising Industry, during Black History Month seems like perfect timing. The frustration, emotion and lack of trust and ambivalence by some blacks in the industry are the result of a history that many are unaware of. In fact, in some regards, that history isn't really history quite yet. And while history cannot restrain us, it does provide a framework of better understanding to guide us as we move into the future.

Mr. Chambers does an excellent job of tracing a story that dates back to the 1920s and the early racial pioneers in the advertising industry. From there, he guides the reader through the 1950s, looking at the effects of the post-war period and the civil rights movement on efforts to bring about change and diversity in ads as well as in the offices of advertising agencies. Also explored is the effort to get marketers to see the black media as a legitimate place to advertise. Of course, a look at these topics wouldn't be complete without a list of its main characters: resistant marketers and foot-dragging agencies; civic groups and consumers using the government to apply pressure; governmental agencies that force such changes; and, yes, those marketers who pressured their agency partners to change (and vice-versa).

The book offers perspective for those entering the industry as well as those that don't understand what all of the fuss is about. The return of the Human Rights Commission 40 years after its first apperance is a testament to the continuous struggle between the most vocal civil rights organizations to make a case for change and ad industry efforts to maintain a status quo of white males in charge at agencies trying to "protect" those clients who were nervous about a backlash by white consumers seeing more inclusion in advertising. It looks like we are turning a corner but not without some scars and bruises that have yet to heal.

What is also fascinating is seeing how the different perspectives on some thorny issues has stuck with us. The varying points of view, for example, amongst talented black advertising professionals on the role they should play at ad agencies--whether they should be black consumer market experts and consultants or general market professionals able to contribute to any effort or campaign.

And where are we now?

You don't have to look much further than the debate surrounding Steve Stoute's Translation. Though Stoute's positioned his services in a way attractive to marketers (as well as top black agency talent) anxious to tap the black market, traditional black agencies continue to struggle to keep business. This one story encapsulates a number of the issues still facing us today.

Meanwhile, major marketers such as General Mills, Pepsi, P&G, Toyota and Verizon hold their agency partners accountable for the diversity in client-facing roles as well as increasing the diversity in the vendors the agencies use. It was valuable to see some of these same marketers participating in the AAF's Most Promising Students events held last week and upping the pressure on their agencies to sell the advertising industry as a career option and compete for top diverse talent.

On the other hand, we still hear stories of agencies hiring white males over diverse talent to supposedly "please clients" and of creatives that don't have a "colorblind" experience

History has shown that there is no one answer or single perspective on the topic of inclusion in the ad industry. The evolution will continue as will the external pressure to change, whether it's from an increasingly diverse consumer population or clients trying to market to them. Most importantly the increased need for innovation, creativity and great ideas requires that agencies aggressively and strategically invest in inclusion.
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