For all the talk of the ad industry reckoning with its relationship with racism in 2020, there’s little evidence it will if the last 40 years are anything to go by. In 1978, 5% of the advertising workforce was black. Fast forward 40 years and only 6% are black, according to the 4As.
It’s why one creative strategist has decided to sue an agency network for racial discrimination and wants others to do the same. In the latest edition of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor, the creative strategist explains why there’s no other option but to take a class action race discrimination lawsuit.
This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed.
Why are you taking a class-action lawsuit against the agency?
I am not taking a class action lawsuit against anyone agency in particular, but rather a group of agencies. We’ve heard generations of “we can do better” talk” and nothing changes. According to the 4A’s, in 1978, 5% of the advertising workforce was black despite being 13% of the population. Forty years later, it’s 6%. At that rate, it will be the year 2300 before black people achieve parity. This is unacceptable. And yet, there is no wave for change across the major advertising networks. This cannot continue in the “Land of the Free.” It’s time for action.
In 1999, Coca-Cola filed a federal lawsuit that accused their employer of racial discrimination. A year later the company agreed to pay more than $156 million to resolve the case and made sweeping changes to how Coca-Cola pays and promotes minority workers and women. Are you hopeful that the lawsuit will force the agencies to make similar concessions?
I hope the industry will change as Coca-Cola did, but it will take a strong external push to get whites in advertising to let go of their power. History has shown that power gives up nothing without a demand. True change will take a catalyst that can disrupt the status quo like how divestment movements helped dismantle apartheid in South Africa and finally got the Washington Football team to remove their racist name.
Should other people follow your example if they feel they’ve been a victim of discrimination?
Yes. I am calling all black talent that has been harmed by the advertising industry to pull up and speak out for justice. Not just for themselves, but also for future generations. Justice delayed is justice denied and waiting is no longer an option. I have seen your tears, I have heard your frustration and anguish. It’s time for the courageous few to step forward and tell your stories so we can speak truth to power and bring about justice for all.
Without going into details that might reveal who you are, can you explain the discrimination you’ve endured?
I have worked in advertising for over 11 years on three continents, but it was only when I came to the U.S. that I saw race be such a stubborn obstacle for black talent. When I started working at my first agency in America, it was immediately clear that I was not welcome. From day one, my new colleagues acted as though they were afraid of me. I was avoided, not given important assignments, and generally shunned. I soon found out that I was not alone. blacks in advertising are suffering from micro-aggressions of racist comments and social isolation to professional penalties like being forced to sign draconian NDAs, getting passed over for promotions, or being sanctioned with unwarranted performance improvement plans designed to get them fired.
Did you ever raise these issues with the HR teams at the agencies you worked at?
Let’s be clear. HR works for the company. And most diversity and inclusion officers play a similar role along with more public-facing functions like going to conferences, sitting on industry panels, and calling for change while helping their companies cover up their numbers. They give token gestures of employment to a few people to calm the nerves of agitated and neglected people with the lowest representation in the industry but have failed to create structural change for blacks. The numbers speak for themselves. So, yes I’ve contacted them and either get no response or offers to continue conversations. But the talk is cheap. The moment calls for action. This is not unique to my own story but most people of color have horrific stories to tell about how their D&I rep was disconnected from the problems they faced at their firm. As we saw with Breonna Taylor and Daniel Cameron, all skinfolk ain’t kinfolk.
What will it take for things to change — it feels like this issue goes through cycles in terms of publicity but progress has been very slow
The only way real change will happen is when there is an eight-figure problem when the agencies are on the verge of losing business, or when clients are willing to fire agencies for failing to diversify their workforce. In the weeks to come, a #blacktalentpullup campaign will be launched. This is for black voices to tell their stories of facing discrimination inside advertising. Their stories will be anonymous but will show the American people that racism is alive and well on Madison Avenue.
Why are agencies so adept at cultural appropriation but so bad at respecting those same cultures?
Black culture sells. Some people like tacos, but hate Mexicans, some love “the feel of hip hop’ but can’t stand black people. This is the same reason why black athletes can play and get applauded, but people get angry when they kneel to protest for their own lives and that of their children. It’s comfortable to enjoy what black people have to offer but less comfortable to actually grant them power. That’s why you get an all-white male creative team trying to create ads for a black audience which results in a disconnection with the black consumer. They believe they can do secondary research and create an effective strategy for a black audience but not all black people want to see ads of themselves dancing, singing, or protesting. The solution is to bring black talent to the table to devise the strategy and execute the creative. But the business case hasn’t worked. It’s time to force advertising to do the right thing for their clients and consumers.