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August 27, 2003
Advertising or Diversity: Is What We're Doing Working?

It's no secret that the advertising industry doesn't look like America. It never has. When David Ogilvy famously said in 1971 "The consumer isn't a moron. She's your wife," he obviously wasn't talking to bullpens full of women. Things have changed, though; by 2000, women represent almost 60% of advertising agency personnel, and I can say with confidence that most of them weren't making coffee. (For that matter, most of them weren't making executive creative decisions, but progress is progress.)

Our industry has done less well on other measures. In a nation that is more and more ethnically diverse, the advertising business is consistently white. Ethnic minorities represent about thirty percent of the U.S. population, and since they are a younger and faster growing group than Caucasians, it's estimated that after 2050 "minorities" will become the majority. But according to Burtch Drake, President/CEO of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, speaking in 2001, "the percentage of multicultural employees working in" ad agencies both in total and in professional positions has plateaued at 16.3 percent." Sixteen vs. thirty, that's clearly under-representation.

Of course, people don't have to resemble their audience to sell effectively to them. Bill Bernbach sold a lot of vans to hippies, presumably without joining a commune or developing a penchant for tie-dye, and Charles Stone III's "Wassup?" has inspired countless numbers of pasty white boys to pop open a Bud.

But it is helpful to approach your audience with understanding and respect. And diversity in the agency business helps everyone to do that. Black people are less likely to talk down to white people, and vice versa, if they know a few of them. Not to mention that advertising, by its very nature, needs fresh voices and fresh thinking. The energy and vitality of the music and film businesses owe a lot to diverse, "multicultural" voices. Would that advertising were similarly blessed.

Here's my frustration: a walk out my door in New York City tells me my agency doesn't look like America, but it's not for lack of trying. After years of our own small company version of "Affirmative Action," hoping for a more diverse staff and interviewing and hiring accordingly, I'm still frustrated by how few people of color we see, and - heartbreakingly - how many we lose. Like all the best employees we lose, talented African-American and Hispanic-American employees leave for more money. But rather than going simply to bigger, wealthier shops, they mostly go to ethnic specialty shops. And, mostly, they're not that happy. My sample is small and statistically insignificant, but I've seen a pattern of people drawn by big money to specialist agencies that didn't do very good work.

It seems our industry has decided that the way to insure more ethnic representation in advertising is via agencies that specialize in "ethnic marketing." By "industry," of course, I mean clients. Big companies that know it's right to devote significant marketing resources to communicating with multicultural audiences are often most comfortable doing so through "minority agencies." It gets them off the hook for the quality of the work if the work is bona fide made-by-people-who-look-like-the-target-audience.

My company recently completed a study among Hispanic-Americans about their media habits, sponsored by Univision and handily demonstrating how vital and beloved Univision is to its viewers. That wasn't surprising, but we were surprised by how many respondents complained about the quality of Spanish-language advertising. "Boring!" Lower production values. Trying to say too much. Too often cheesy. "Not as clever."

It made me wonder if our current system—"ethnic" advertising to be executed by "ethnic" agencies - is actually doing the job of helping our industry approach its diverse audiences with understanding and respect. Perhaps the separation of the races on the agency level is not the answer. That separation has been encouraged by "Quota money," (to quote a friend in the business describing the Fortune 500's approach to advertising to ethnic audiences), the channeling of marketing dollars earmarked for ethnic marketing into specialist agencies. Among other unintended effects, it gives "mainstream" agencies an excuse not to address these audiences.

What if most agencies were expected to do a good job of speaking to diverse audiences? What if clients' creative standards were as tough for their multicultural efforts as for their "general market" efforts? What if "general market" didn't imply white people, but meant the real multi-hued market that drives our economy and our clients' businesses? What if talented African-American and Hispanic-American and other "minority" advertising people felt as welcome in mainstream agencies as they do in specialist agencies?

I applaud Y&R, and Ann Fudge, not just one of the most visible African-Americans in the ad business, but one of the few African-American women serving as CEO in America. I encourage other major players in our industry to tap their diverse talent, not just to man the specialist agencies in their networks, but to apply their talents to "general market" problems. I remind myself to keep trying. And I encourage talented individuals of every color to consider building careers in "mainstream" agencies. Or to at least look at the overall quality of the work that an agency is doing before leaving for more money. And to remember that we are all part of "the general market."

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Robin Hafitz  founded Open Mind Strategy in 2010 to provide marketers with strategic insights that provide a foundation for brand building. Recent assignments have included projects for Yahoo!, The Food Network, Travel Channel, VNSNY, PBM, USA, USA Today,  several non-profits and advertising agencies. Previously Robin was Managing Partner and Chief Strategic Officer at kb+p; Co-Chair, with Nick Cohen, of start-up Mad Dogs & Englishmen; with planning consultancy Mad Logic; and with Chiat/Day.
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