Advertising Week's Main Attraction: The Minority Hearings

by , , Jul 21, 2006, 10:45 AM
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Now that we're past the riveting (serious sarcasm here) Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival, we can begin thinking about what the rest of the year will bring in media, marketing and advertising.

I have no doubt that disruptive forces will continue to challenge our legacies and outdated media models. I'm sure we'll continue to debate the meaning of engagement, and hopefully come to the conclusion that it's all about marketing's embracement of customer-centricity, not media. The consumer-generated media revolution also will continue, leaving carnage among brands that continue to neglect customer experience, customer service and, most importantly, consumer respect.

While these forces are what get me motivated and excited about working in media and marketing at this juncture, there's one troubling trend this industry must deal with more swiftly: low minority representation in the advertising industry, particularly at the agencies. The remainder of 2006 will see greater emphasis on this issue. As The New York Times and Ad Age reported a few weeks ago, the New York City Commission on Human Rights has scheduled hearings on how the advertising industry hires, retains and promotes minority employees.

By no coincidence, these hearings will be held in New York from Sept. 25-29, right smack in the middle of Advertising Week the ad industry's annual celebration of itself.

I think the timing of the hearings is terribly appropriate--not because the subpoenaed execs will be in town anyway, but because there really is no better time for this industry to do some sobering soul searching. A healthy, responsible industry is one that 'fesses up to deficiencies and problems and corrects them, if any are to be found. The parade, parties and reminiscing of iconic brands means nothing in comparison.

But these hearings shouldn't just be an act starring the big chiefs. They should be a call for reflection among everyone remotely involved in media, marketing and advertising, at all levels and sub-disciplines. While the chiefs at the top set the tone for their agencies, the reality is that most of the hiring decisions are made among layers of management underneath. We all should think about our own experiences, where we're headed and how we can make a difference.

My reflection? While I've been out of the agency business for several years, the Commission's investigation takes me back to my very first day in that world, immediately after graduating from Syracuse University. I started my career as an intern and then junior account exec at a major New York City public relations agency, Burson-Marsteller, a unit of Young & Rubicam. This was an awesome experience that left me with fond memories, a great education, some early gray hair, and a few mentors in high places.

One of my dearest and closest colleagues was an administrative assistant who was promoted to junior account executive around the time I started. She was a six-foot-tall black woman, from a very modest background, and she completely broke the mold of all other account executives at the agency and industry. As of her promotion, she ranked alongside numerous entry-level junior account staffers, most of whom were white, and often had well-to-do parents to subsidize their relatively low salaries. She shared with me many of her challenges of being black in a mostly white organization. She described being left out of office cliques, or having new clients assume at first impression that she was a career administrative assistant and nothing more.

Being a white guy, I'll never be able to truly understand my colleague's experience. But she sure did convince me, through several subtle examples, that being a minority in the agency world can mean many additional hurdles to overcome. My colleague was promoted once again, but soon left the business for more lucrative and parent-friendly work after becoming a mom. Her example has stuck in my brain, and it's made me sensitive to similar ones throughout my career.

So as we approach the big celebration called Advertising Week, where thousands of agency execs will beat their chests and tout their relevance (and smoke a few cigars), we should all pay close attention to these hearings and emerging findings. More importantly, we should pay close attention to how well the barons of Madison Avenue handle themselves. And we must reflect on ourselves and our immediate work environments, where we all can make a difference.

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