"Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one." - Charles Mackay
Saturday, December 22, 2007
Going Against the Tide
By George Alexander

Advertising has long been viewed as an almost impenetrable, exclusive world by many people of color. But the AdColor Industry Coalition, an association of advertising organizations, is hoping to improve the industry’s ethnic mix through concentrated diversity efforts and by highlighting the outstanding achievements of people of color in advertising.

AdColor comprises a powerhouse roster, including The Advertising Club of New York, Association of National Advertisers, American Advertising Federation, American Association of Advertising Agencies, and Arnold Worldwide. Its mission—in addition to celebrating the accomplishments of diverse industry professionals—is to leverage the stories of diverse achievers, to mine new data to shine a light on key challenges, and to uncover new ways of spurring diversity.

AdColor is the first of its kind: a cross-industry initiative covering the marketing, advertising, and media industries. "The industry must reflect the changing society," argues Tiffany Warren, vice president and director of multicultural programs and community outreach at advertising agency Arnold Worldwide. "As society changes demographically, not focusing on diversity begins to hit directly at the bottom line," adds Warren, an industry veteran who conceived the idea for AdColor six years ago and who frequently blogs on the topic for Advertising Age.

Last year, the New York City Human Rights Commission (HRC) found that the advertising industry had improved very little in 40 years with regard to the issue of diversity, particularly the hiring of African Americans. Its findings: only 2% of the upper ranks of the industry are African American. The result was agreements between the commission and several major advertising agencies including Arnold Worldwide, DDB, and BBDO with specific goals to increase workforce diversity in managerial, professional, and creative positions. The agencies must report their progress annually. The first report is due Jan. 1.

The findings of the HRC report are alarming given the amount of money blacks spend keeping the American economic engine going. According to a Target Market News report, The Buying Power of Black America, African American purchasing power is an estimated $744 billon. And that figure is expected to grow 34% over the next four years to more than $1.2 trillion in 2012, according to the Selig Center for Economic Growth.

Much of advertising's paucity of black representation is blamed on its exclusive nature and an overall lack of minority exposure to the field. "Advertising has traditionally been a very closed and close-knit community, and minorities have just not been a part of that," suggests McGhee Williams Osse, co-CEO of Chicago-based Burrell Communications (No. 4 on the BE ADVERTISING AGENCIES list with $203 million in billings).

Some contend that the industry's issues around inclusion have much to do with the nature of the work itself. "In certain professions there is a high degree of collective creativity and collaboration in groups. Those industries can be difficult to integrate," says David Campt, a diversity expert and visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkley. "When you're working with a group to create something new and innovative, you really have to be relaxed and able to let your guard down. People are extra nervous about being around people who are not like themselves; there is the fear that they never know what will come out of their mouths."

Ironically, a lack of media attention on advertising’s homogenous staffing patterns has been underscored as a reason for the industry’s slow movement toward inclusiveness. "Advertising is a cottage industry, and I don't think it has gotten the pressure from the press on the lack of diversity the way other industries have over the years," says Lauren R. Tucker, senior vice president and director of consumer forensics at Richmond, Virginia-based The Martin Agency. To enhance the profile of the industry with minority college students, Tucker frequently travels to colleges and universities across the country. "Young ethnic minorities want to see a track record of success," she says.

There is optimism that initiatives such as AdColor can have a long-term impact. Mike Hard, vice president of digital advertising sales at Microsoft is encouraged by the level of support displayed at the 2007 ADCOLOR Awards, held Nov. 4.

"In the room were some of the best agencies and the most influential marketers in the world, including Microsoft, McCann, Procter & Gamble, and Clorox," says Hard. "And they all wanted to shine a light on amazing people of color. They all wanted to learn how to help advertisers reach diverse communities and how to strengthen internally around diversity. When you have a number of people who share the same passion go to an event like that, it’s not only good for diversity, it’s good for business."

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