Friday, January 09, 2009

Still Afraid of the Dark? Madison Avenue Gets an 'F' for Diversity in New Report

A January 8th Adweek article rips into the the advertising industry for it's dismal record of hiring minorities and a culture which discourages hiring or promoting people of color.

In a story that ran on the Media & Advertising page of the New York Times Stuart Elliot focused on the collaborative efforts of attorney Cyrus Mehri and the NAACP to bring attention to the advertising industry's dismal record of creating a racially diverse workplace.

On Thursday Mehri and representatives from the NAACP held a press conference in New York to announce the initiative Mehri's firm Mehri & Skalet calls 'The Madison Avenue Project'. They released a 100-page report, 'Research Perspectives on Race and Employment in the Advertising Industry' that outlines their conclusions.

The Times' piece quotes Mehri as saying: “Forty-five years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it’s still a closed society,” he added, where “favoritism rules and merit is cast aside.”

For anyone familiar with the media industry, this does not come as earth-shattering news by any means. For years Madison Avenue has taken heat for keeping it's ranks essentially closed to people of color and today it remains the most segregated professional sector in the United States.

They were talking about the same thing 30 years ago.

For example, the report released Thursday (click the link above for a PDF of the report) cites in part: "In 1978 the New York City Human Rights Commission found that limited minority employment (in the advertising industry) was 'not simply the result of neutral forces, but emanated directly from discriminatory practices.'"

It wouldn't be accurate to malign everyone in the advertising business for bearing responsibility for the entrenched culture of hierarchy quietly linked through connections through school, family or professional association; and skin color.

To be fair, a number of professionals from the industry have made calls over the years for the industry to improve it's track record of minority hiring and recruitment. The advertising organization known as the 4A's (American Association of Advertising Agencies) has made efforts, such as their 2005 Diversity Career Fair pictured above.

But the industry has yet to undertake a serious effort to back up the scattered rhetoric usually bandied about during Adweek or in February during Black History Month.

Mehri, who has a proven track record of successfully bringing suits against large corporations including the NFL, is leading what seems the most concrete initiative to encourage changes within the industry.

I for one hope it takes root, I used to temp for ad agencies in the mid 90's when I moved to Manhattan and let me tell you as a black man I felt like an alien walking around a new landscape.

But it's so much more than any one group of people feeling anger at restrictions built into the structure of the industry they are excluded from.

Through a constantly-evolving media merger of images, text, colors, sounds, shapes, words and music delivered to Americans across a range of media platforms, advertising wields enormous power and influence in shaping the ideas and concepts we have about ourselves and the society we live in.

By all rights it makes sense that the industry should be comprised of a collective workforce that mirrors the fabric of the nation.

But unfortunately, as Cryus Mehri reminded the attendees during Thursday's press conference, entertainer Nat King Cole once shrewdly observed;

"The advertising industry is afraid of the dark."

Cyrus Mehri accuses the industry of non compliance.

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