advertising and other stuff. no, really.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Diversity hearings and the real Mad Men.

And women. (Fantastic late-night infomercials later, right now, it’s time to bug you. ) The NYC Human Rights Commission held a hearing last night on the three-year agreement it signed with New York ad agencies. Commission chair Patricia Gatling wanted to see if they’re having a positive effect on the recruitment and retention of minorities in the industry. I went with the intent of just listening to what would be said and seeing where the conversation would lead.

A full room of 22 industry people, mostly African American and from all areas, juniors, seniors, former agency heads, producers and agency watchdog Sanford Moore, as well as a few from the media, (with the rest being rounded out by board members and legal reps), gathered to vent. Ken Wheaton from Ad Age has a take worth reading on how things went as well.

Looking over the make-up in the room, my first impression was that there was more ‘diversity’ present than the last three NYC shops I freelanced at combined.

The agenda quickly broadened from hiring agreements to everything wrong in the business relative to minority participation and hiring practices—not to mention Patricia’s particular fondness for the ad above.

While all the agencies on the list weren’t required to attend, they were still welcome to. Two out of 16 did. (Ironic that nobody can catch a subway downtown, but Cannes for a week? No problem.) It’s an understatement to say that it would’ve been good for all of them to make it and at least get a sense of the frustration and anger out there.

As Ken points out, advocates like Mr. Moore who have long-carried the torch for the issue were on hand to remind the young guns what they don’t know about what they don’t know. In talking with the ‘kids these days’ after, they get what’s up though. And after hearing more than a few stories from both junior and senior creatives, well, take the title Mad Men literally because there’s a lot of frustration out there.

A sentiment echoed by more than a few was that many things have to be done, rather than just one or two: Minority students need to see advertising and marketing as a career choice earlier in the process. Brands need to be accountable for making sure multicultural agencies are working on their business. Agency execs need to do more than just pay a fine and agree to hire minorities. Agencies must also be held accountable for stereotypes in ads and of not perpetuating them, etc.

The problem needs to be addressed on all fronts.

In fairness to the 16 however, the problem goes beyond them, beyond Manhattan to the entire industry. Yes, it’s about hiring the best talent. But, with the way ad schools have proliferated in the past decade, there’s even more of a stranglehold on the channels from which that talent is chosen—how are minorities supposed to break in? Or senior creatives move up to exec positions when they get passed over for cheaper talent?

The days of agency mentoring are over, so there’s even less time to bring someone up to speed. People are expected to hit the ground running. When a major shop brings in 25 summer interns, most of which are project assistants on the account side who could care less about an ad career, how’s a creative supposed to get any playing time?

Ad schools are supposed to provide some of that training, but when it comes to minorities, the junior creatives in attendance all said the same thing: Not everyone can afford to be in a Creative Circus or a Miami Ad School.

Also mentioned was a lack of awareness about an ad career in high school, with a few basically having fallen into the business by accident. Nobody was there on career day talking about being a writer or art director. More apathy irony: an agency can afford a plane ticket and a week of downtime for creatives to fly to the aforementioned Cannes, but not a driver to take some of that talent to career days in the area?

The topic then came around to making brands accountable, not just for the agencies they hire but for the work they approve. It’s also ironic that several agencies which signed this agreement also produce work with questionable racist overtones. If Six Flags runs a spot with a depiction of loud, obnoxious Asian Americans speaking in choppy sentences, call them on it. If Stride does the same thing, call them on it. After all, when it comes to color, brands know which one matters most: green.

Boycotts = less of it.

Otherwise, the cultural ignorance on the creative side will continue. An embedded culture of racist attitudes in many agencies can start to be changed if someone would at least run things like that past, well, someone who’s Asian maybe?

Again, it bears repeating, each one of these things by itself won’t make a difference unless they’re all done as part of a larger effort. The commission has less than a year remaining on the agreement to make further recommendations. It would have been valuable to pass a video around to agencies of the session so that maybe they can get an idea of how bad things are, and just maybe make the commission’s job a little easier.

As if you needed even more irony: In a year when the industry goes insane for a TV show about the Golden Age of the business, and additionally, pays tribute to them in a retrospective, they had a chance to show up and see this era’s mad men—and passed.

(Image via Copyranter.)



stealingsand said...

THANK you - that Six Flags spot is the worst, and the kicker is - the guy resembles my husband to the average American. yay anti-Asian stereotyping. and the appalling shouting. gah.

Kenji Summers said...

I was in attendance at the hearing and I must say synergies must be created between creative, account management, and strategic planning for change to happen. Also some input from the client would not hurt. The word of the evening was accountability, and rightfully so. Hopefully the "old guard" will help the younger generation see the light (or maybe it's the other way around).


HustleKnocker said...

well put, bill. this is good stuff. hope something good comes of it.

Ben Kunz said...

The ad industry may have more difficulty than others in rethinking diversity, in part because of its fragmentation. Large corporations such as GE often succeed in diversifying employees, because they can marshal resources to do so. Times Mirror in the early 1990s actively recruited minorities, with a clear promotion chain up the ladder. But Times Mirror was a vast network of thousands of employees and had the resources to do something about it.

But the structure of ad shops -- with most having a few dozen or hundred employees, and many having uncertain futures that cannot see hiring more than 12 months out -- makes it tough for anyone to challenge the inertia in the system.

Maybe the schools themselves can do it. Someone has to try, but changing this momentum will take a big push.

Nice call on the Six Flags ad, also. Egad.

raafi said...

It's good to hear your take on the thing. I'm thinking that some of the intransigence on the issue is based on the structure of the businesses themselves. But enough about hurt and frustration... was there food? How long did the proceedings go?

Anonymous said...

@raafi—Diversity that night ran on Dunkin’ Donuts.