Resistance to Changing the Status Quo

After decades of discrimination protests, will a civil rights attorney finally force change in the advertising industry?

bleak-auto-dealersWhile the new face of Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., reflects today’s multicultural society, the business community of Madison Avenue bares almost no resemblance to its immediate environment— considered one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse cities in the U.S.—according to a damning report that charges racial discrimination throughout the U.S. advertising industry, laying the groundwork for litigation.

Racial discrimination in advertising is 38% worse than in the country’s overall labor market and the divergence between racial equality in this industry and the rest of the labor market is more than twice as large today as 30 years ago, according to the Research Perspective on Race and Employment in the Advertising Industry. The 104-page study, released in January, was compiled by Washington, D.C.-based Bendick and Egan Economic Consultants Inc., an independent research firm that provides research, policy analysis, training, and consulting to government, business, multinational organizations, and the nonprofit sector. It was commissioned by a coalition of legal, civil rights, and industry leaders who created the Madison Avenue Project, formed by the NAACP and Mehri & Skalet P.L.L.C. law firm in Washington, D.C., in 2008 to address advertising’s deep-rooted racial bias.

Among the findings:

–Based on national demographic data, 9.6% of advertising managers and professionals should be African American. The actual percentage in 2008 was 5.3%, representing a difference of 7,200 executive-level jobs.

–About 16% of large advertising firms employ no black managers or professionals, a rate 60% higher than in the overall labor market.

–Blacks are only 62% as likely as their white counterparts to work in the powerful “creative” and “client contact” functions in advertising agencies.

The data “blew me away,” exclaimed Project leader Cyrus Mehri, a prominent civil rights attorney who has won several huge discrimination settlements against corporations, including Coca-Cola ($192.5 million), Texaco Inc. ($176 million), and Morgan Stanley ($46 million).

The $31 billion-a-year industry presents numerous challenges and barriers to entry for African Americans, including low starting salaries, poor recruitment, worse retention, and lack of mentors. There is also the long-adhered-to experience requirement. This last challenge demands experience at a celebrated agency, specific category experience (i.e., automotive, pharmaceutical, beauty), impressive industry relationships, television production skills, and the ability to hit the ground running, which is repeatedly mentioned as a hurdle for the mid- and senior-level talent.
“There is always a demand for top talent,” says Carol Watson, president of Tangerine-Watson, a multicultural talent management firm in New York City that specializes in advertising, communications, and marketing. “But the hot agency, award-winning work, in-demand categories, and hard-to-find digital skills agency hiring managers require is very specific and significantly reduces the vast majority of candidates agencies consider qualified.”

Often agencies are not only looking for candidates with very specific experience in specific sectors, such as brand management in automotive, they are also seeking candidates whom they feel will be a good personality match for the agency as well as the client. The “casting” process often eliminates blacks.

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