Tavis Smiley led a panel discussion on the decline of Black advertising agencies. The event starred Burrell Communications Group Co-CEO McGhee Osse, Carol H. Williams Advertising President and CEO Carol H. Williams and EMorris Communications Founder Eugene Morris (ironically, Morris recently shuttered his shop, underscoring the theme of the panel). There seem to be a few perpetual problems with these examinations that beg for commentary.
First, no one—particularly anyone at a White advertising agency—is listening. The talkfest doesn’t even warrant a post at The Big Tent. It didn’t help that the participants offered nothing new, regurgitating the familiar gripes. For example, Black advertising agencies have been stressing that Black culture innovates and influences popular culture since the 1950s or earlier. Too bad Black advertising agencies have failed to capitalize on this truth—at least in terms of gaining respect and fair billings from clients. Regardless, a productive conversation about the decline of Black advertising agencies must also include White adpeople and clients.
Second, Black advertising agencies are partly responsible for their own predicament. Accepting second-class citizenship—and the crumbs that come with it—is a self-defeating position. Granted, White advertising agencies and clients have co-conspired to prevent minority shops from moving beyond District 9 conditions. Yet Black advertising agencies have contributed to the separate-but-unequal mess by enjoying the political benefits, assuming a lesser role and contentedly swallowing smaller slices of the proverbial marketing pie.
Third, Black advertising agencies appear to be stuck in a rut. When was the last time a Black advertising agency produced consistently outstanding creative work? Even when a shop like Translation manages to win major brand assignments, the resulting ads are not great. The industry is driven by breakthrough campaigns. If you don’t deliver, you won’t leap forward. Unless you establish and secure an identity rooted in conservative mediocrity such as mcgarrybowen or Zimmerman. Unfortunately, Black advertising agencies will never succeed with such a privileged tactic. (On a semi-related note, the Smiley forum took a pathetic turn when participants whined about young White people allegedly running things, as the remarks made the agency leaders sound old and outdated.)
A fourth problem involves the continued debates featuring Total Market mumbo-jumbo. Osse insisted that minority advertising agencies are actually best qualified to lead Total Market efforts. Bwahahaha! The naïve notion provides a natural segue to a fifth dilemma: namely, the industry power structure fueled by holding companies. For Black advertising agencies, holding companies are Death Stars. If you’re tied to a holding company, as Burrell is tied to Publicis Groupe, expect to be pigeonholed and shackled to minority status. Publicis Groupe CEO Maurice Lévy will see to that. No way will even Omnicom CEO and Pioneer of Diversity John Wren permit a non-White agency to chase billings earmarked for White agencies within the network. And if you’re independent, expect to be completely shut out from opportunities to compete for White billings—or non-White billings. In short, holding companies keep minorities and minority agencies in their place.
But again, Black advertising agencies have historically seemed satisfied to stay in their place. Sadly, the leaders at these shops only tend to speak out when their very existences are threatened by extermination. Hell, the decline of Black advertising agencies probably started minutes after the niche was invented. The descent has been happening forever, and it is arguably connected to the industry’s global failure with diversity. It’s tough to stage a revolution when you don’t have the numbers—or a majority support of the ruling White class. And you ultimately wind up presenting your case to Tavis Smiley in the sucky vacuum of minority media.
According to research conducted by the Nielsen Company, African Americans will have collective buying power of $1.1 trillion by next year. Yet, over the past decade, an increasing number of companies have cut budgets for advertising aimed at Black consumers. The trend is directly reflected in the decline of advertising agencies owned and operated by African Americans. Advertising executives McGhee Osse, co-CEO of Burrell Communications Group, Carol H. Williams, president and CEO of Carol H. Williams Advertising, and Eugene Morris, founder of the recently shuttered EMorris Communications, join us for an extensive discussion of the trend.