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Employment Discrimination in Advertising: Realities and Perceptions

On September 7, 2006, the New York City Human Rights Commission (NYCHR) issued a report indicating that hiring black employees in advertising agencies had barely improved since the Commission conducted a similar inquiry in the 1960s. A front page article in the New York Times reported that among 8,000 employees working for sixteen advertising agencies, about 22 percent make more than $100,000 a year, but only 2.5 percent of these are black. Subsequently, nearly a dozen ad agencies promised to set numerical goals for increasing black representation of their creative and managerial staffs (Cardwell and Elliott 2006). These agencies agreed to be monitored by the city for three years, and regularly report hiring, promotion, and retention figures. Failure to meet the goals could result in further legal action and fines up to $250,000 (Melillo 2006).

Why are so few minority executives employed in advertising today? According to advertising executives interviewed in Advertising Age in June 2006, there are several forces at work: (1) institutional racism, (2) advertising’s inability to compete with better-paying industries for the most qualified candidates, and (3) government regulations (Sanders 2006). Some executives “cite a rule intended to fuel diversity—government mandates that minority contracts be afforded only to minority-owned agencies—as hampering it, leaving general-market agencies to decide if it’s in their best interests to work with minority-staffed agencies rather [than] staff up with nonwhites themselves.” Furthermore, according to Lisa Sanders, author of the article, while there may be varying opinions, one thing seems clear. Were there no pressure on agencies by a government authority, agencies would be unlikely to take action:

“There’s not a lot of desire by [general-market] agencies to become more integrated,” admitted Don Richards, senior VP-agency diversity at the American Association of Advertising Agencies. “There are more pressing issues: profit margins, compensation, and an overall talent drain from the industry. I don’t believe that agencies shy away from trying to get minority employees. But it is more in the middle of things that keep agencies awake at night than a top priority.”

Another executive interviewed, Sheldon Fischer, chairman of the Four A’s diversity advisory board recruitment subcommittee, pointed directly to a more explicit, overt form of racism:

“They aren’t wanted. Though these agencies are enormous in terms of their global impact, they are small shops politically. They appear to be close-knit families. They hire from among their own: there is nepotism and politics.” What’s more, clients aren’t pushing for change. “Absolutely, if a client asked for more African-Americans on their accounts, agencies would respond,” said Mr. Richards, ... “They’d devote resources to it and make an effort.”

These comments echo remarks made since the 1960s, without significant changes in employment ratios of African Americans. In Madison Avenue and the Color Line (2008), Jason Chambers explores why minorities have been historically underrepresented in advertising agencies. Of course, overt discrimination has al?ways played a role. But Chambers additionally points to the fact that many advertising executives since the 1960s have complained, justifiably or not, about the lack of a “pipeline,” that few young African Americans seek careers in advertising. Today, when so many agencies have signed binding agreements mandating ethnic diversity, agencies are hungrily seeking minority candidates. However, there is still a lack of awareness among young, educated African Americans that advertising is a creative, lucrative, minority-welcoming profession, with a clear career path that follows directly on the completion of a college education. Chambers writes

If asked, many Americans could name their favorite commercial or trade character, but

not the name of the individual or agency behind its creation. Thus the advertising industry may be the most visible, yet most hidden industry in the United States... . [I] n contrast to aspirants to other professions such as accounting, law, or medicine, Blacks were not able to look to the educational system for a guaranteed path into advertising

(2008: 2).

Other advertising executives concurred. Several respondents to a March 2006 poll reported that in college classes few African Americans enrolled in advertising courses. Jack Lindgren, who teaches advertising at the University of Virginia, says that of the forty students in his classes per year, “only a few” are African American: “If have one or two, I’m very lucky” (Sanders 2006).

Another reason cited for the low numbers is high demand for a small pool of qualified candidates. “’There’s a certain percentage of African-Americans in the general population, and those that have graduated from college are a small part of that. Competition for them is strong,’ said Richards, of the 4As. ‘They’ve got options’.” In addition to the wide diversity of reasons listed above, the reality remains clear. Overt discrimination in advertising has always existed:

The industry has a history of segregation by race and gender. Harold Levine, founder of now-defunct Levine, Huntley, Schmidt & Beaver, recalls that when he interviewed at agencies after World War II, he was told to limit his job search to those agencies known as Jewish only. “It was only in the late ‘60s, in the midst of the creative revolution, and small agencies were hiring Jews and women. It was only then that the giant agencies started to talk about diversity. The history of the agency business is one of white male Christians.

The culture is very white and masculine” (Sanders 2006).

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