NY Advertising Agencies Facing Discrimination Charges

In a staggering blow to Madison Avenue’s predominately white establishment, the New York City Commission on Human Rights issued subpoenas to CEOs of 16 New York advertising agencies. Spearheaded by Human Rights Commissioner Patricia Gatling, who worked in conjunction with the City Council’s Civil Rights Committee, the subpoenas are the culmination of a year-and-a-half-long investigation. The Commission seeks to hold advertising executives, and their clients, accountable for the values and hiring practices that have systematically blocked African Americans and other minorities from entering the rarified world of the advertising industry. The Sept. 25 hearing will place the diversity efforts of preeminent agencies including — Ogilvy & Mather, the WPP Group, Saatchi & Saatchi, and BBDO Worldwide — under a microscope.

The ramifications of the hearings were discussed during a BLACK ENTERPRISE Diversity symposium in June at a panel discussion titled “Diversity on Madison Avenue: Myth, Reality, or Illusion?” Moderated by National Public Radio host Ed Gordon, the symposium provided a forum to discuss challenges facing African Americans within the advertising industry. Another point of contention was the paucity of advertising dollars allocated to minority-owned media and businesses.

The panel included Rev. Al Sharpton, president of National Action Network; Ken Smikle, founder and president of Target Market News; New York City Councilman Larry Seabrook; Monica Emmerson, executive director of DaimlerChrysler’s corporate diversity office; and Allen Pugh, executive vice president and director of Client Services at GlobalHue. All agreed that increasing diversity on all fronts begins with holding agency executives responsible for modifying hiring practices. Sharpton maintained that African Americans must be vocal with their dissatisfaction with a company’s performance to precipitate change.

Smikle, however, said that consumers are largely oblivious to the goings-on within the advertising industry. “Until information on what is happening with advertising agencies, and their failure to invest in the black community, is disseminated through the black media … the consumer will not know how to make noise.”

Seabrook concurred, adding that it is important to promote a connection between the African American community and the advertising industry.

“Then, we must reach out to unresponsive corporations,” said Seabrook.Yet, the onus for instituting change does not lie solely with companies resistant to change. African Americans must patronize companies that foster and maintain a positive relationship with the community, said Emmerson. “We must determine which companies are working on our behalf and support those companies,” she said.

At the conclusion of the symposium, Smikle charged all in attendance with making their voices heard by pulling their favorite product off the shelf and calling the 800-number on the package.

“I want you to ask them when was the last time they spent money with an African American nonprofit or spent advertising dollars with an African American media outlet. Then ask when you can expect a response.”

Emmerson added, “If you do not get the response you are looking for, allow your spending with that company to reflect that.”