Long, long ago at ad agencies 2 – 3,000 miles away, I was part of a Black creative team for 10 years. We were young, talented and Black. And a surprise anomaly at the various agencies we worked at in New York and Chicago. Why? We were a Black team that was able to create “general market advertising” successfully. In other words, we could talk to white folks. Not that others couldn’t.
But we had somehow squeezed through like that one seed when you’re making fresh orange juice or lemonade.
It wasn’t easy to prove ourselves. We had to “fight the power” as Chuck D would sing over and over and over and over again. By the time we would actually prove ourselves and sell a spot, we were tired. Like, really effin exhausted. That’s what happens when you’re forced to jump through more hoops and sprint over more hurdles than your white counterparts ever had to do.
At an unnamed agency, we were a part of a major beer group. Of the first group of spots sold to that beer, we sold the most. Seven spots. Seven, fun, creative spots. The Magnificent Seven.
And we watched with disbelief how each one of those spots died and were replaced by another white team’s spots. 0. Nada. Zilch. Nothiiiiiiiiing.
Year after year, round after round, we presented our ideas, but none were ever good enough. We watched as teams would ceremoniously head off to LA for months to shoot their Super Bowl spots. We were left behind. But we weren’t alone. There was a female team. They were white for the record. And a junior team.
We did end up eventually shooting one spot for that beer – a PSA for historically Black colleges.
So, we quit and went to another ad agency in Chicago – to work on a sports drink. We just knew things would be different.
At that agency, our first assignment was for — “A Black targeted brand.” We were told Blacks prefer a “heavier, sweeter drink.” Being Black, we of course were automatic experts on selling it.
But a funny thing happened working on that “Black product.” We decided to just create advertising that spoke to the audience. But more importantly, we made advertising that we liked. It was successful, meaning white folks loved it. Thus, we got to work on even more and more and more “White spots.”
But that’s advertising in Chicago and New York. I don’t want to use the words victims, we weren’t. We had great times and made names for ourselves.
Our stories are not unique. Ask a Black creative at a general market shop and see how they are doing? They will have similar stories. Guaranteed.
But yeah, the shit was racist. Not blatant racism. Systematic. Meaning, a system designed to have certain people succeed and others stay home.
Welcome to systematic racism.
It is a virus that has permeated advertising long before I came along. There have been articles written time and time again every year. But now… maybe now… things are going to change.
A Real Call for Change
Led by Nathan Young, Group Strategy Director at Minneapolis-based Periscope, over 600 Black advertising professionals have released a letter to ad agencies demanding a real elimination of systematic racism.
Young lives four blocks away from where George Floyd was asphyxiated and murdered by police officer Derek Chauvin
“The recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery have shocked the nation and brought millions of Americans to the streets in righteous protest. As loud as these protests are, it is impossible to overstate the pain that has been felt by your Black colleagues as the still-fresh wounds from Ferguson, Baltimore and countless other flashpoints of racial violence were once again re-opened,” the powerful letter begins.
The letter then cautiously recognizes the message of solidarity posted by ad agencies a week ago during #BlackOutTuesday. While encouraging, the letter says, “their words ring hollow in the face of our daily lived experiences.”
“We hurt because we have seen this movie before. We hurt because we expect that, once again, when the streets have cleared and the hashtags have been retired, little will be done to address the systemic racism and economic injustice we face each and every day.”
The letter describes an all-too-familiar scenario for Black advertising creatives – little to no progress being made to make Black voices a more integral part of the creative process.
“After decades of well-intentioned diversity & inclusion efforts, we have seen little progress in making Black voices a more representative part of the creative process. We have seen even less progress in ensuring equitable representation of Black professionals in senior and leadership positions. And because this industry does not release or track diversity numbers, it is impossible to tell what, if any, progress has been made.”
It also calls out the “Boys Club” mentality. “The same elitism & discriminatory behavior that has restricted women from advancing in the workplace, has resulted in an oppressive mono-culture that stifles the growth of Black agency professionals and restricts our ability to express our true selves.”
Read the letter in full here.
The letter also lists these 12 recommendations that agencies can take:
- Make a specific, measurable, and public commitment to improve Black representation at all levels of agency staffing, especially Senior and Leadership positions
- Track and publicly report workforce diversity data on an annual basis to create accountability for the agency and the industry
- Audit agency policies and culture to ensure the environment we work in is more equitable and inclusive to a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives
- Provide extensive bias training to HR employees and all levels of management
- Extend agency outreach to a more diverse representation of colleges, universities, and art schools
- Expand residencies and internship programs to candidates with transferable skills who may not have taken a traditional educational path toward advertising
- Create, fund, and support Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) for Black employees
- Invest in management and leadership training, as well as mentorship, sponsorship, and other career development programs for Black employees
- Require all leadership to be active participants in company Diversity & Inclusion initiatives and tie success in those initiatives to bonus compensation.
- Create a Diversity & Inclusion committee made up of Black and NBPOC employees to help shape diversity & inclusion policy and monitor its progress
- Establish a diversity review panel to stem the spread of stereotypes in creative work and ensure offensive or culturally insensitive work is never published
- Introduce a wage equity plan to ensure that Black women, Black men and people of color are being compensated fairly.
Read all of the signatures here.
I don’t hold animosity toward anyone back at those agencies. In fact, I have great affection for many of them. That said, they were a part of a system that was designed for white men to succeed and others not so much.
But ad agencies cannot be held solely accountable. The clients must have their feet held to the fire as well. Agencies do what their clients want. Fact. That means clients must also demand a more diverse environment from their agencies. And agencies must demand that from the production companies and post-houses they hire. And so on.
In other words, we just want a fair shot.
Black lives matter. Not just on the streets. But in the conference rooms as well.