Campaign published an editor’s letter on the dearth of diversity in adland titled, “New year, same old elephant in the room.” The headline should have qualified it as the same old White elephant. Of course, Cindy Gallop and Kat Gordon jumped all over it, advocating for more White women to be included too—ultimately herding the latest elephant into the room. At this point, the advertising industry is packed with more pachyderms than Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey meeting Joseph Merrick at a Dumbo convention. And minorities are left to clean up after the elephants.
Editor’s letter: New year, same old elephant in the room
By Douglas Quenqua
The visuals for Ad Age’s Agency A-List are a mostly white, mostly male reminder of the industry’s failure to adapt
When the Oscars once again nominated 20 white actors for performance of the year last week, Hollywood went ballistic. Black actors and directors called for a boycott, and social media rallied around #Oscarssowhite. To quell the outrage, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced it was rescinding lifetime voting rights, a move designed to increase diversity by forcing the old, white guard into retirement.
Yesterday, the ad industry dragged its own dirty secret into public once again. When Advertising Age revealed its 2016 Agency A-List, readers were greeted with a too-familiar site: a Top 10 picture of mostly white faces, belonging almost entirely to men.
Now we have to ask the question again: How long will we present this as the face of the industry elite?
There was very little outrage to greet yesterday’s imagery. Perhaps because Ad Age’s process isn’t solely discretionary — agencies must submit to be considered, and decisions are based in part on empirical data. Though there were certainly missed opportunities elsewhere in the package to feature non-white talent, it’s not Ad Age’s fault if the CEOs of the best-performing agencies are, to borrow a line from “30 Rock,” less diverse than a Wilco concert.
But as familiar as the image has become, it never gets any less embarrassing. The agency world is awash in chief diversity officers, diversity committees, diversity recruitment efforts, female leadership programs and perfectly well-meaning panel discussions. And the product in recent years has certainly become more diverse. Ads featuring people of color, LGBTQ people, empowered women (and girls), and non-traditional couples are not only common, they clean up awards shows and help clients sell more stuff.
But how many times must we see this same photo before somebody gets the picture? Advertising is a business built on connecting with the public. Yet every selfie we produce seems to send the same maddening message: Non-whites and females need not apply, particularly if you’re aiming for the top.
“The agencies on the A List are all greatly deserving of the honor,” said Nancy Hill, president and chief executive of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, via email. “The unfortunate reality for the industry is that the accompanying photos for the editorial show the complete lack of diversity that has become the norm in management levels of agencies.”
“While there has been some progress,” she added, “this photo array shows just how far we still have to go.”
Everyone who covers the ad industry has grappled with this problem. How do you compile a diverse awards jury or panel discussion when the industry’s exalted few are so very male and white? How do you encourage diverse points of view when the most celebrated players all look the same? Tokenism is never the answer, but neither is accepting the status quo, because that’s what got us here in the first place.
Yesterday’s picture is just the end result of a deeply ingrained dysfunction. Just as the Academy won’t solve anything by retiring older voters, adland won’t achieve diversity by taking better photos. But there is so much talent out there that doesn’t quite look like everyone else we keep celebrating. Both industries need to get better at getting them in front of the camera.
Trivia: Ad Age charges thousands of dollars to individual agencies just to consider them for their lists, which is why you see so few ethnic ones ever mentioned. There's a high fee, financially.
A few k to an IPG or Omnicom agency is NOTHING. A few k to a black or Latin or Asian agency represents extra work, because they had to scrounge and gather crumbs in the first place, and then still have to do tons of paperwork and case studies (manpower hours, etc.) to get considered by Ad Age.
Then they're STILL not guaranteed a mention, because they have to compete against holding companies with deep pockets who want their General Market agencies on the list at any cost.
Because God only knows there's only room for one ethnic/minority agency per year, max. So everyone laid down their money in the past only to be paying $$$ for that ONE spot that ONE agency gets.
And everyone else is white and "General Market".
I don't think it's intentional, I just think it's one of those things no one has ever pointed out to Ad Age.
In the ethnic ad community, everyone knows if you pay out hundreds or thousands of dollars in submission fees to be in consideration, you're all fighting against each other for that single "ethnic" position.
If you're a General Market (agency, director, production house, whatever) angling for a spot on the A-list, you have 10 times the opportunities to just be one of the crowd.
Meanwhile Ad Age is ranking in, what? $50,000 or so from all the agencies and companies combined paying submission fees, so why change things up? The collateral damage is ethnic nominees don't even bother applying, because we've all talked about how slim the chances are among ourselves.
With all due respect to my former colleagues in the advertising industry, this is the same old, same old, and although it is lamentable, it is not surprising.
After leaving Congress and the FCC, I served as senior vice president and legal counsel at the American Association of Advertising Agencies (the 4As) from 2000 to 2010. At the time, I was one of the few Black executives or attorneys in the industry. When the holding companies and several ad agencies were investigated by the New York Human Rights Civil Rights Commission (2004) and later sued for discrimination, I helped to develop the industry's effort to systematically address the diversity issue, testifying on behalf of the industry in NYC and in Congress. Heck, we even wrote a book -- roadmap really-- to help agency execs "do diversity right". While the initiative was not nearly sufficient to do away with decades of exclusion, it was a start with solid programs, timetables and recommendations. Like so many other well-meaning efforts, I suspect it just died on the vine.
You are correct to point out that there are more diversity officers, diversity events, diversity awards, diversity dinners, diversity discussions, diversity divas, diversity experts, and diversity seminars than anyone can digest. And yet there is no more diversity. Hmmm.
Maybe the answer lies in the simple fact that agency executives are not racist. They just are more comfortable with the illusion of inclusion rather than inclusion itself. That is why we can fill the room with diversity internships, but stumble to find one or two "qualified" account directors or whatever the top jobs are called these days. It's just easier to feel better about giving a disadvantaged, but deserving, young Latino or African American student a break than to push out a mediocre, middle aged white guy to give his slot to a hungry, equally (or more) talented minority professional.
The rules of convention die hard, so not much will change in the advertising industry despite all the chatter, outrage, shoulder shrugging and mealy-mouth platitudes from industry and association leaders about the need to do better. The handwriting is on the wall. If African Americans want parity, they will have to create a parallel universe where their work is smarter, better, and cannot be denied. Then they will get half as much. Good luck with that.
The more things change.... the more they stay the same.
How do you make a career, a livelihood, a life, on half the pay and budgets of General Market advertising work?
Hispanic market gets one quarter. Asian-American gets about a third. Native American gets nothing at all.
General Market agencies systematically say the work from anyone in those ethnic agencies is not good enough, never once recognizing that they're trying to create work from scraps and pennies.
Nothing has changed since the 1960s. Or the 1980s. Or, now that Mr. Hoffman has pointed it out (and thank you for your attempts, sir), the entirety of the 2000s either. Is it time for people of color to wave the flag and say OK, we get the picture, advertising is not the industry for us? Do we take the ball and go play somewhere else?
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