Resistance to Changing the Status Quo

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

Neither DDB Worldwide nor Merkley + Partners, each with a 10% goal for management and both part of Omnicom Group, the largest holding company by revenue, hired any minorities in that category in 2007. Merkley’s 14% professional hire was also lower than its 22% pledge, making it the only agency to miss each of its 2007 marks. Both set identical goals of 10% and 22% for 2008.

Over the last three years agencies have hired diversity officers, launched diversity internship programs, and tied the attainment of corporate diversity goals to senior execs’ performance reviews. The American Association of Advertising Agencies committed $250,000 to begin planning an ad center at Howard University. And in a $1.25 million deal with New York City Council member Larry Seabrook, Omnicom Group, which also includes BBDO Worldwide, agreed to establish an advertising, marketing, and media readiness curriculum at Medgar Evers College.

“The problem is right now, even if they are doing good things they have no credibility,” says Mehri. “They’ve gotten away with it, [but] that is going to stop now. They act like they’ve heard the warning signs and they’re going to do something about it and then they initiate an internship program, and then people back off. They keep doing that same routine over and over again.”
Gatling criticizes the minorities in the industry for letting this problem exacerbate. She says the post-1964 civil rights babies were too worried about being blackballed to say anything.
“Silence breeds this culture of fear. I spoke to a lot of people who left the industry, something they really wanted to do, because they just couldn’t navigate it.”

Meanwhile Mehri is contemplating his strategy. He’s yet to decide whether to pursue litigation, a complicated matter because it would likely involve suing agencies individually. The first step is for the NAACP to send letters to advertising’s major clients, who can pressure the agencies.

This story originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Black Enterprise.

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