Has the dearth of diversity on Madison Avenue ever been properly framed as a human rights issue? Certainly not in recent years, despite the occasional intervention of the New York City Commission on Human Rights. Rather, today’s diversity discussions tend to dwell on the standard “it’s a good business decision” angle, emphasizing the importance of building staffs that reflect and relate to the U.S. audiences targeted by most major advertisers. Unfortunately, the popular, polite and passive route doesn’t succeed for a couple of reasons.
First of all, the standard “it’s a good business decision” angle has not been proven. In fact, Whites might argue that based on indicators like awards and account assignments, exclusivity works just fine. Because the advertising industry has been predominately Caucasian forever, it would be extraordinarily difficult to demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that a diverse company could produce better creative.
Secondly, in situations involving human rights, politeness has never led to dramatic progress. This has been proven time and again. Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stressed non-violence; however, they were not polite in their protests. Polite people are not typically thrown into jails or assassinated. On Madison Avenue, politeness will get you promoted to Chief Diversity Officer or elected to Diversity Advisory Committees—plus, you can win prizes like ADCOLOR® Awards and Pioneers of Diversity honors—but you won’t truly impact change.
The second point is particularly sobering and even offensive when considering the advertising field. The greater society usually comes around to showing respect to rabble-rousers such as Gandhi and Dr. King; conversely, adland has traditionally blacklisted (pun intended) revolutionaries while crowning Whites who essentially expressed the same opinions.
For example, Dan Wieden exclaimed the industry was fucked up in the area of inclusiveness, and he ultimately nabbed an ADCOLOR® trophy. Harry Webber pretty much said the same thing in 1969 and hasn’t been welcome in a White agency since. And although he’s made unprecedented contributions for diversity and equality, as well as produced award-winning campaigns, Webber has yet to be invited to an ADCOLOR® gala.
Jeff Goodby wondered, “Where Are All The Black People?”—and he received praise and accolades for asking. Sanford Moore has posed the question for decades and is still waiting to be thanked for his inquiries and groundbreaking achievements.
John Wren, Michael Roth, John Seifert and other advertising leaders have admitted there’s a lot of work to do in order to end the separate-but-unequal conditions. Lowell Thompson and Hadji Williams offered identical observations and suddenly found a lot less work.
Shunning the industry’s real heroes for human rights makes us look a little inhuman—and it definitely ain’t right.