Resistance to Changing the Status Quo

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

“Because we’ve had such a narrow point of view in terms of what the right fit is for our clients, it has automatically  been said when you’re looking at a résumé, it needs to do this, this, this, and this and if they don’t, move on,” explains Nancy Hill, president and CEO of the American Association of Advertising Agencies. “That is what has eliminated a lot of minority candidates across the board. And by the way, not just African Americans but also Hispanics, Asian Pacifics, and women.”

Hill says agencies are starting to view résumés differently by rethinking “traditionally held ideas about staffing such as only women should work with clients/products aimed at moms or only African Americans should work on urban accounts.”  A problem bigger than recruiment, however, is retention. Advertising agencies are doing very little to support, train, and mentor diverse employees once they are hired.

Mehri is appalled at the way the industry has segmented the market by setting  up small boutique agencies with limited budgets to specifically market to the minority consumer while an all-white team at the parent company handles mainstream accounts.

African Americans wield $913 billion in buying power and that figure will grow to $1.2 trillion by 2013, according to data from the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia. However, African Americans are losing ground to Hispanics, the new consumer darlings. Their $951 billion in spending power in 2008 translates to a 349% increase since 1990 and easily surpasses the 187% jump for African Americans and 151% increase of all consumers. By 2013, Hispanics’ buying clout will leap to $1.4 trillion. This isn’t lost on advertisers. Nielsen figures show advertisers spent $1.8 billion, or 5.3% less, on African American media and $4.3 billion, or 2.7% more, on Spanish-language media through the first three quarters of 2008.

Challenging racial discrimination on Madison Avenue, however, dates back to the early 1960s. Every several years there’s outcry to no avail. New York City’s Human Rights Commission, under the direction of former prosecutor Patricia L. Gatling, helped bring it to light again in 2006.

She wielded her power and tenacity to get 16 of the city’s top agencies to sign a diversity agreement with the commission, thus pledging to meet self-set hiring goals to increase representation of minorities in professional and management positions. (The definition of “minority” is left to each agency.) Every January, for three years and ending in 2010, the agencies (now 15 after a merger) must report their upcoming minority hiring goals and actual hires for the previous year to the commission, which has the authority to fine, subpoena, and hold hearings. The 15 agencies met 24 of the 30 goals they set for themselves in 2007, the only year all numbers were available as of press time.

Each agency set two goals: one for hiring managers and one for hiring professionals such as copywriters. The agencies expected minorities to account for 18% of their combined 2007 hires but exceeded those hopes with 25%. The goal was a combined 19% for 2008. While some agencies met or exceeded their goals, others have fallen short. Arnold Worldwide expected to hire minorities for 30% of its management and professional hires and did just that in 2007. It pledged to do the same in 2008. Y&R exceeded its plans of 18% management and 30% professional after hiring 27% and 46%, respectively. It pledged 20% and 33% respectively for 2008.

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