Adversity and Diversity in the Advertising Business

By Smikle, Ken | Diversity Employers, October 1996 | Go to article overview

Adversity and Diversity in the Advertising Business


Smikle, Ken, Diversity Employers


It appears that Madison Avenue has an image problem. The advertising industry often gives the appearance that it is at the forefront of cultural and social trends, and it uses that awareness to persuade us to buy the next "gotta have it" product But at a time when other industries and institutions are embracing diversity, inclusion, and the American ethnic mosaic, ad agencies are not standing by their commitments to recruit, hire, and promote more African Americans.

While their corporate clients are aggressively seeking diversity as an advantage for success in the 21st century, ad agencies seem headed for retreat into the past by ignoring the fact that they are alienating prospective employees, customers, and profits.

Indeed, the facts would make one wonder exactly how the industry will face up to the challenges of the next millennium with its poor record of hiring of Black, Hispanic, and Asian workers. Last year, according to figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, African-American workers made up only 3.8% of the advertising industry. Ten years ago the percentage of Blacks in the business was exactly the same. Among managers in marketing, advertising, and public relations, the percentage that was African American was only 2.2% in 1995.

The figures, however, should not suggest that African-American students should not consider a career in advertising. On the contrary, the industry's long-held attitude of benign neglect seems poised for a turnaround as clients begin to question what ad agencies will have to offer in the near future.

African Americans, despite their low representation within the industry, have long been employed in all aspects of advertising as artists, copywriters, jingle composers, researchers, media planners, account executives, and managers of all types, to name just a few areas of responsibility. However, because there are few schools that offer advertising as a course of study, many people working in the business first started careers in other industries.

Don Richards, senior vice president at Leo Burnett in Chicago, has been working for some of the nation's largest agencies for the past thirty years. He graduated from the University of Chicago and was a system engineer at IBM before switching careers. Over the years he has watched the industry struggle with trying to improve its record on minority hiring, and he thinks it has a lot to do with the origins of the advertising business.

Don Richards says, "This is not just an advertising agency problem. I think that Corporate America still has to solve this problem." He thinks that the history and the culture of business are also parts of why change has come so slowly. The advertising agency business is small. The industry started out as a rich boy's industry concentrated in New York, and those in it catered to people whom they knew and who looked like themselves.

"Today, ad agencies realize that we are people who are sending out messages to the general public and that consumer constituency is changing dramatically. We're finally understanding that because it is a business of ideas it's best to get as many ideas from as many sources as you can. And one source that has been under tapped and under-represented is that minority segment. It just behooves us to get more of those ideas into the agency so that we can better understand, communicate, and sell to our consumer constituency."

A crusader for change

Procter & Gamble is the nation's largest advertiser, spending more than 41 billion annually to advertise and market hundreds of individual brand products. By virtue of its size, P&G has more advertising and marketing executives on its payroll than any other company. Overseeing those areas is Ross Love, Vice President of Advertising for P&G Worldwide. Ross Love is the highest ranking African-American corporate advertising executive in the country.

For all he has accomplished as a highly-respected professional in the ad business, Love's 28-year career at P&G began not by design but by accident. …

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