“Black Madison Ave” should be a wake-up call for all business leaders

When Walter Geer looks around he doesn’t see many people who look like him. As the black executive creative director of WPP-owned ad agency VMLY&R, Geer rarely sees another black face at his seniority level. In fact, when he began actively researching the number of black executive creative directors (ECDs) in holding company-owned agencies, he only needed two hands to count them.

So when New York festivals gave Geer a platform, he immediately knew what he wanted to do. He made a few calls and quickly brought together 7 of the roughly 10 Black ECDs in New York – to meet in person as a group for the first time – and have an open and candid conversation about their career paths, day-to-day jobs, and how the ad industry needs to evolve in its approach to black voices. The two-hour conversation was filmed and divided into three episodes. It’s called Black Madison Ave.

“My idea was to give people access, to allow them to be a fly on the wall,” Geer tells me. “Sitting in a conversation that, quite frankly, few people would have access to.”

It’s a conversation that will make you cringe. It will make you laugh. It will make you angry. It’s a conversation that should be mandatory not just for every ad agency executive, but for every business leader in America.

Perry Fair doesn’t mince words. As a black man who rose through the ranks of the American advertising agency and brand marketing ladder, including positions such as President and Chief Creative Officer of JWT Atlanta and ECD Global and Chief entertainment at McCann New York, he saw some stuff. “I had a boss who called me his minority hire in a room full of my peers,” Fair explains in the first part of the series. “I had a boss who said, ‘What up my ni**a? on my first day at work. I had to fly to another country to explain to a client that black people read books.

As absurd as this all sounds in 2022, as he lists these racist workplace encounters over the years, his fellow ECDs nod knowingly. VMLY&R ECD Sherman Winfield, Geer, Gray Group ECD Andre Gray, R/GA New York ECD and Chief Creative Officer Shannon Washington, Ogilvy global ECD Kaleeta McDade and Momentum Worldwide ECD Patrick Bennett: They’ve all seen it and experienced versions from the same stories themselves. Hearing them describe the challenges and obstacles they have faced both historically in their careers, but also in their day-to-day work, will be eye-opening for many and affirming for others. They’re not so outspoken and open just to sympathize, but also to use their shared experiences to illustrate that a year and a half after the murder of George Floyd has sparked a nationwide racial reckoning that has led many businesses to pledge money and resources to fight systemic discrimination. and racism, there is a lot of work to be done.

I will note that these seven ECDs represent only the bulk of holding agency ECDs in the United States. There are more than 13,000 American advertising agencies, and these include agencies with black founders and creative executives. However, the larger holding companies still employ the most people in the industry and have the most relationships with domestic and global brand customers. A quick look at holding company statistics reveals that their percentage of black employees is a far cry from the 13% of black Americans who make up the general population of the country. Last year, the industry trade publication Adage reported that 5.9% of Publicis’ 21,000 U.S. employees identify as black, and about 6.5% of WPP’s 100,000 global employees are black. Only 3.9% hold managerial and managerial positions. At Dentsu, black employees make up 6.7% of its total workforce and 3.8% of leadership positions. At Omnicom, 3.1% of senior executives are black.

These low numbers are not an accident, nor the result of the conscious racism of just a few individuals. It’s a systemic problem, combined with a serious lack of will to tackle it until very, very recently. Steve Stoute founded the award-winning agency Translation, sold it to holding company IPG in 2007 and eventually bought it out in 2011. I spoke to him in 2020, after he wrote an open letter to the Association of National Advertisers, calling on the advertising industry’s leading trade organization to set real, measurable goals and actions for its members around diversity, inclusion and its overall treatment of black people. What he said then still resonates with the Avenue Madison black conversation today. Read it again and remember that was almost two years ago. “They may have a diversity department, they tick boxes, but there’s no real commitment. Zero,” Stoute said. “Brands are not committed. Agencies are not engaged. And so the ecosystem is not engaged. It never was.

This matches Fair’s experience at a former holding company, as he explains in Avenue Madison black. “‘I’d go to global meetings, and out of 82 offices, I’m the only black motherfucker here from three levels up?’ said Fair. “CEO, CCO, CFO – how am I the only black face, when you have an office in fucking Cape Town? Are you serious? Don’t tell me you can’t find us, that’s the most big bullshit line from the fucking planet.

Representation at all levels is crucial in advertising because it is an industry that creates millions of images and media that we see every day; and it informs how we, as individuals and as a society, perceive ourselves. In his 2009 book Madison Avenue and the Color Line, Jason Chambers writes that if you think of commercials as documentaries, the 20th century was a time “when white people enjoyed the fruits of consumption, and black people, if visible at all, served them contentedly from the margins. , just slightly out of sight or focus. This reliance on the myth meant that the ads did not challenge socially constructed ideologies about race. On the contrary, they reproduced these ideologies and, in doing so, helped to reinforce them.

In 2020, I spoke to the creative directors of Goodby Silverstein & Partners, Anthony O’Neill and Rony Castor, about how being black in a position of leadership allows them to have a significant impact on the work of the big brand – and the images they broadcast to the world – in a meaningful way. “When people walk into the casting room, there aren’t usually a lot of people who look like Rony and me sitting there, especially together,” O’Neill told me. “As you attract more people like us, men and women, you will have a more diverse set of people. This is what is happening.

There are people committed to organizations such as Ad Color, Saturday Morning Co., and 600 & Rising, among others, who have been working on this issue for years. the Avenue Madison black The series complements that work as a focused, startling public record of the lived experience of black leadership — and how little has changed. Leaders in every industry need to watch this and reflect on the promises they made for diversity, equity and inclusion, and how it all fell through. Then get to work on what kind of equality and redistribution needs to happen.

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