Battling to Bounce Back

After a tough year in the advertising game, could a shake-up be ahead among African American agencies?

at the retail giant. After Wal-Mart ousted key ad executives and fired its new lead general-market creative agency after just one month on the job, it held a six-month agency review to find new blood. CEO Eugene Morris says while the split between his agency and Wal-Mart did not impact his bottom line for 2006, it could deliver a financial blow in 2007. “Wal-Mart had been our largest account, and we did a lot of great work for them. So when the agency review began, we really didn’t pursue any new business because we focused on retaining that account and taking care of the businesses that we had. Going into this year is going to be the real challenge,” Morris says.

Business as Usual
Although it’s been an issue for black ad shops for some time, the outcome of last year’s investigation into the minority hiring practices of 16 general-market firms on Madison Avenue could end up making the problem even worse. After a year-and-a-half investigation by the New York City Commission on Human Rights and subpoenas that threatened to shine an embarrassing spotlight on agency executives, each of the ad shops agreed to recruit more minorities, especially African Americans, and advance them to higher-ranking positions.

But Morris worries about where the talent will be pulled from. Pay inequities at the entry level and an industry that suffers from somewhat of an image problem have kept many African Americans from considering advertising as a viable care
er opportunity. “So what makes anybody think that suddenly because there is a mandate that you can just go out and create pools of talent where it didn’t exist before?” Morris asks. “You can get talent from African American agencies or you can get it from the clients, but general-market shops are less likely to raid their clients than they are to come after us.”

According to the 2006 American Advertising Federation Survey on Recruiting and Multicultural Advertising Trends, only 15% of the respondents said their companies were successful in recruiting and retaining minority talent. For the past decade, the federation’s Most Promising Minority Students Program has been working to link top advertising and media companies with minority students interested in pursuing a career in the industry. In fact, the program grew by 25% from 2005 to 2006. To help with recruitment efforts, Morris, also chairman of the Association of Black-owned Advertising Agencies, says the organization plans to work with the American Association of Advertising Agencies and Howard University to develop a plan to bring more minorities into the business.

According to Morris, the road to success for black ad agencies includes evolving into integrated marketing firms that can develop and deliver total programs that meet the needs of their clients. They also must demonstrate that they can create programs that resonate with all audiences–not just the African American consumer. “One of the things that I think last year showed was that there are those black agencies that are only going to focus in this one space and are

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