Tuesday, January 12, 2010

7443: A Civil Conversation With Cyrus Mehri.

Jim Edwards at BNET interviewed Cyrus Mehri regarding the state of affairs on Madison Avenue…

Q&A: Cyrus Mehri and Race Discrimination on Madison Avenue

By Jim Edwards

One year ago, civil rights lawyer Cyrus Mehri held a dramatic press conference and issued a weighty report on racism in the advertising business. The expectation was that he was building a class-action lawsuit that would force Madison Avenue to hire and promote more minorities.

Twelve months later, the suit has not materialized. But Mehri and the NAACP are still investigating the agency business. Mehri agreed to a Q&A with BNET on the progress of his efforts.

BNET: What’s happening with the lawsuit you threatened to file a year ago?

Mehri: A year ago we announced we were launching a project with the NAACP to investigate claims of race discrimination in the advertising industry. That series of investigations is well under way. We’ve interviewed dozens of employees inside and outside, current and former, and we’ve examined company policies and practices. We’ve been very busy … we’re not on the verge of filing a lawsuit because we’re very much in the investigation stage as we speak. Over the summer the NAACP, our partners, they sent letters to the top 25 advertising companies. That was very favorably received … the vast majority have responded in a positive way.

BNET: How many potential plaintiffs have contacted you?

Mehri: I can’t give you a precise number but I can tell you it’s been in the dozens.

BNET: Wouldn’t it be easier to file individual cases on behalf of individual plaintiffs?

Mehri: To some degree it would be easier but the impact would be tons smaller … the class action device, the whole purpose was to enforce civil rights laws and to bring about systemic change in organizations. So that’s why the class action device is so critical.

BNET: Ad agencies tend to be small companies with different offices and reporting structures. How can you get past the need to have lots of plaintiffs who are similarly situated to qualify for class action status?

Mehri: Companies could raise that as an argument. However if you want to curtail discrimination it requires leadership from the top and policies that are carried out in way that have checks and balances throughout the entire system. No one can deny that the companies are influenced by the holding companies.

BNET: Have you spoken to any holding company chiefs?

Mehri: I have not spoken to any of the chiefs of holding companies.

BNET: Have agencies made any progress in hiring and promoting minorities?

Mehri: I’m not in a position to say they’ve made a lot of progress. I think they’ve fallen short. The way I look at it they don’t have a lot of credibility right now.

BNET: How did all the layoffs during the recession change the scene? Did minorities get laid off more than whites?

Mehri: I think that creates some new challenges. But I don’t think it gives them a pass … what they’ve been doing now is inexcusable. They cant use the bad economy as an excuse … the numbers of African Americans have been so under-represented to begin with that the current economy just makes the situation more acute.

BNET: In your famous Texaco case, you had a recording of an executive joking that the “All the black jelly beans seem to be glued to the bottom of the bag.” Have there been any dramatic anecdotes like that about Madison Avenue?

Mehri: I think we have more evidence of purposeful discrimination in the advertising industry than you normally see in other cases. They’ve been on notice for years if not decades. At some point it becomes purposeful discovery … with or without an audiotape like we had in the Texaco case.

BNET: What’s the situation with minority agencies? In advertising, minorities tend to end up working on the minority-targeting accounts, which are often assigned to minority owned agencies.

Mehri: I think there’s an extraordinary amount of segregation in the industry and that’s why you see these entities addressing minority customers … whatever reforms or changes that take place we do not want to dilute the business of minority-owned companies. We want to enhance them. Second, we want minority employers to compete in mainstream parts of the business and not be segmented based on their race, which is what’s currently happening.


Anonymous said...

aint $hit changed!

Damn only dozens? WTF! And after a whole year their still in "investigation" stage? So much for diversity. This is a lost cause. The agencies aren't even taking cyrus seriously, damn that sucks.

KissMyBlackAds said...

Yup only dozens, but that should be plenty. You have to realize these people fear retaliation and are putting their livelihood at stake to speak with this man and his agency. Also most of these people probably have really good friends and co-workers they feel like they will be betraying or putting in jeopardy. After all not everyone in advertising is eville.

But it only takes one really good example to define the industry like the "black jelly bean" incident.

I'm still pushing for an advertising beer, um hand-crafted mico-brewed pilsner summit.

HighJive said...

MultiCultClassics pointed out last year that any such summit would probably feature malt liquor.

Anonymous said...

Here's a bright idea, why not link bonuses to recruiting diversity and how many minorities a person mentors, if anything it would stop the excuses and foster whites to recruit minorities & encourage some dialog. Whats embarrasing is this lawsuit only creates more tension. I dont understand why would he threaten to file a lawsuit, but then claim its still in investigation mode, and then Send letters to the top 25 advertising companies who probably call their holding companies, which they claim to not speak too? makes no sense. Why not send them to the holding companies themselves? He hasnt even spoken to any of the chiefs of any of the holding companies. And I bet not even one of the holding officers bothered to call him, they probably don't even consider him a threat. Where do diversity organizations like adcolor, mosiac, 4a's fall in all of this, I bet if this weak lawsuit goes forward they'll probablly call them forward as witnesses or use token black hires and use them as shields. This is all one big mess.

HighJive said...


Some organizations claim to link bonuses and pay to compliance with diversity initiatives. IPG is one such network. At the same time, no clear details regarding enforcement or effectiveness have been offered. Have heard of zero firings tied to failure to comply.

Does the lawsuit create tension, or does the lack of progress on this issue create tension? Keep in mind, there would be no grounds for a lawsuit if the industry were not so clearly negligent in promoting and executing diversity initiatives.

Sending letters to advertisers was obviously an attempt to see if the clients could help expedite progress. After all, the advertisers have more to lose from the situation. First, most of the advertisers have gone on record about diversity, insisting it is a goal they strive to achieve in their own organizations. There is clear hypocrisy and contradictions with embracing inclusive workplaces while partnering with advertising agencies where exclusivity is the norm. Additionally, if consumers learned that advertisers are working with agencies where diversity is so pathetic, it could definitely lead to public outcry, boycotts and worse. This is hardly the time for advertisers to risk losing sales and gaining negative publicity.

The holding company chiefs have allegedly insisted that their companies must act and come to compliance. But it appears to be more rhetoric. Do the network heads – most of whom live outside of the U.S. – really care about this issue? There is little evidence to indicate that they do.

Anonymous said...

10 years later...

Ain't shit changed.