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June 6, 2002
Diversity in the Advertising Industry

As a first generation Puerto Rican in New York City, I never ever imagine that someday I would be working for the Fire Department and later at an advertising agency. But for the last five years, I have been recruiting firefighters and now advertising professionals as part of two separate efforts to bring diversity to these professions. A quick explanation is probably necessary.

In 1999, I was the Director of Employment Initiatives at the New York City Fire Department. Of the 11,000 firefighters, less than 5% of them were African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans, Native-Americans and/or women. In order to increase the diversity of the fire department, I recommended to my boss that we create a marketing campaign to reach more women and minorities who traditionally had not filed to take the tests to be firefighters in New York City. There were a number of reasons why they did not apply to become firefighters in the past and I will get into some of them later. But, one reason they didn't apply to take the test was that they often were not aware when a test was offered and that they were not aware of the application process. Given that there was only one test every five or so years and that you had to be less than 29 years old to apply to take the test, this was a problem.

So, I was given a budget and told to see a top executive at a major advertising agency that agreed to do some pro-bono work for us. After explaining what our target audience was, I was invited to come and meet the account team. To my big surprise, not one African-American, Hispanic-American, Asian-American, or Native-American was to be found on the account team. Instead, I found a group entirely made up of young Anglo-women who seem to all come from the same sorority at Vassar College. To make a long story shorter, the creative completely miss the boat and the media plan did not include a major local Caribbean radio station that was a well known community voice for the black and Caribbean community. In the end we settled on a compromise and the campaign went forward with mix results.

Despite this unfulfilling experience, I caught the advertising pug and I thought I could help bring diversity to the ad industry just as I tried to do in the fire department. After a little research, I came across a number of articles about a company called, True North Communications. True North was a holding company with a change agent as its CEO. David Bell was a leader in the industry and had served as Chairman of the industry trade organizations (the 4As and the AAF). He and others like former CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi, Ed Wax, could see that the industry would suffer if it did not attract and utilize the skills and talents of the increasingly multicultural world we lived and worked in particularly in the new global economy. By the summer of 1999, I was Manager of Diversity Initiatives for True North Communications working with agencies like Foote, Cone & Belding, Bozell Worldwide, and Temerlin McClain.

One thing I realized early in the Fire Department and in advertising was that people (and particularly young people) of color are not expose to careers in advertising or firefighting. In most big cities, people living in the inner-city are usually exposed to the dangers of firefighting and rarely expose to the benefits associated with being a firefighter. In advertising, people are exposed to the outcome of the creative process but rarely expose to the process or the people who are involved in the creative process. Most people I meet who are either firefighters or advertising professionals knew a family member, neighbor or a friend who worked in the profession. Moreover, the majority of the firefighters in NYC and many advertising professionals live in predominately white suburban communities.

Below, I have listed a couple of other reasons why we lack diversity in advertising:

  • We don't sell the professions as other industries do on a regular basis - Did you ever have an advertising professional visit your school?
  • The low starting salaries make it difficult to begin a career in advertising
  • We lack role models who can mentor people of color
  • There is little training and development
  • Agencies are reactive to client needs and not enough clients are proactive in ensuring that their account teams reflect the consumer base, and
  • Human resources and hiring managers rarely consider hiring someone with related skills and experience

This past Monday, June 3, 68 multicultural college students will begin their summer internships at 39 agencies in 11 cities as part of the American Association of Advertising Agencies? Multicultural Advertising Intern Program. The fact is that less than 300 students applied to be accepted into this program. This is only one of the many signs that the advertising industry is in trouble and that we are a long way off from creating an inclusive industry.

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If anyone is qualified to talk about the changing face of advertising, it's Angel Rivera. From a lengthy list of famous NYC mayors to an established senator to big brands to big agency networks, and 4A & AAF committees, Rivera has serious credentials. In addition to his credentials, Rivera has a mission: to fix the lack of diversity in the ad industry.
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