Are Advertising Agencies Serious about Hiring African-Americans?

By O'Connor, Brian Wright | Black Enterprise, March 1993 | Go to article overview

Are Advertising Agencies Serious about Hiring African-Americans?


O'Connor, Brian Wright, Black Enterprise


After several false starts in trying to diversify the industry, blacks are still woefully few in number.

The sounds and images of American advertising reflect the rhythms of black life.

Aaron Neville extols the virtues of cotton fabrics in his trademark New Orleans falsetto. Line-dancing California Raisins croon Motown take-offs. Bill Cosby, America's favorite Dad, shills for Jell-O with a repertoire of voices from the streets of Philadelphia. And Chicago Bulls star "Air" Jordan reaps millions from marketers who gamble that Nike-wearing, Gatorade-drinking American youth want to be like Mike.

But the picture behind the pictures shows an industry with far less color than the palette of its products. The boardrooms and executive suites of general-market advertising agencies nationwide resemble percale sheets washed by the latest detergent--whiter than white.

"The contributions that African-Americans have made in the cultural arena--from music and dance to clothing and slang--have had a major impact on advertising," says Charlie Rice, associate creative director with the black-owned Caroline Jones Advertising Inc. in New York. "Although advertising continues to borrow from African-American culture, ad executives have not expressed the same enthusiasm about working with black creative people."

Rice, who joined the Caroline Jones shop in 1990 after 20 years with top general-market firms, directs creative efforts for such clients as Prudential, Bankers Trust and Western Union. To illustrate the challenge of working in a general market, Rice comments: "Sometimes when you walk into the conference room with a terrific storyboard, eyebrows go up for a half second. Although they try to mask their surprise, the discomfort comes through anyway. What most white ad execs and clients see isn't just a creative director, but rather a black creative director. There's always this little inference that although we let you into the group, don't expect to be treated quite on the same level. In fact, I've had people say to me in so many words--'Wow! You can think like a white man!'"

Rice also speaks with some bitterness about the paucity of advertising business won by black agencies--an estimated 1% of the industry total. Despite their successful track records, black ad agencies still primarily handle ethnic-targeted advertising. "It's a tough, competitive business, and I'm sorry to say that I've found my white brothers very selfish when it comes to sharing the power," Rice says.

Ken Gilbert, a black senior executive with New York-based Messner, Vitere, Berger, McNamee Schmetterer, is one of the highest-ranking African-Americans in advertising. He believes that competition for power is only a small part of the problem. "The larger issue is the racism that exists throughout the industry and the unwillingness to recruit and train African-Americans," says Gilbert, whose 16 years in the business have included stints at both black and general-market agencies. "At the top levels you'll find some of the most sincere racists anywhere."

Gilbert expresses as much puzzlement as distress over the fact that he has met no blacks holding similar management responsibilities at general-market agencies. For example, finding an African-American senior vice president, media director (the person responsible for placing advertising) or creative director is virtually impossible in general-market agencies. "Since African-Americans set the tone for creativity as defined by pop culture, then you'd think most ad agencies would get smart and hire more blacks to create ads and direct campaigns," says Gilbert, who manages accounts for A&W soft drink brands and cable television's USA Network. "Today's advertising has no soul. And I don't mean that ethnically. It's just that commercials have no substance. I think African-Americans can change that--if given a chance. Unfortunately, this is not happening. …

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