Deconstruction:Stop the Madness
"Ruthless" and "competitive?" No problem. "Ego-driven?" Sure, comes with the territory. Set in the 1960s? Stop the presses. For me, the 1960s elicits images of segregated bathrooms, sit-ins, angry mobs and unleashed attack dogs. When I think of the 1960s and the advertising industry, the picture gets bleaker. No female power players, like Starcom MediaVest Group execs Laura Desmond and Nancy Mullahy. No people of color outside the "hired help." No place for someone like me.
So I silently protested by refusing to watch the show. This was about principle. I could only think of the harsh realities my advertising heroes faced. Doors slammed on UniWorld founder Byron Lewis as he unsuccessfully attempted to integrate New York's advertising scene. In Chicago, trailblazer Tom Burrell faced a similar fate, but was fortunate that Wade Advertising's management took a chance and hired a "colored" to work in the mailroom.
But after reading an article in The New York Times Magazine, I finally decided to watch just one episode. The idea of "unsuspecting sexists and bigots sitting on the brink of their doom" was appealing. I stumbled upon a Mad Men marathon and found myself sucked into the drama. No doubt, Mad Men is a lovely show. I now watch, but with mixed emotions.
I'm intrigued by the show's depiction of Peggy Olson, the lone female advertising professional trying to make it in a man's world. Pimped for her talent, she is often left out of social gatherings, preventing her from building career-making relationships. She relies on others to speak for her, and never complains about her mistreatment. Unfortunately, the barriers standing in her way still exist for many minorities trying to make it in the industry.
Four decades later, agencies claim to be colorblind, but in reality, many are near colorless - African Americans, Asian Americans and Hispanics combined make up only 16 percent of the advertising work force. A recent Adweek report found that only 3.2 percent of advertising's upper management is African American, compared to 7.2 percent in similar professions. Can you believe this country would see its first African-American president before an integrated advertising industry? Madness? No, it's insanity.
Somehow, like Peggy, I beat the odds. I am very proud of my professional accomplishments and the contributions I've made during my 14-year stint in the industry. But let's be clear - this is not rocket science or open-heart surgery. While I have an advanced degree, it is not required for most advertising positions. If we truly wanted a more diverse workforce, we absolutely could do it. Civil rights lawyer Cyrus Mehri says it best, "I've yet to see an industry that has such a consistent record of indifference to minority involvement."
Diversity isn't just the right thing to do. It's a sound business decision that impacts the bottom line. If that isn't enough, diversity is simply the smart thing to do. But in 2009, don't we know this already?
I guess that's why I empathize with Peggy - an agency outsider. Like her, I always wanted "it," started off a bit naïve to the game, but learned a few lessons from my failures along the way.
As the Beastie Boys say, "You have to fight for your right to party." This industry certainly ain't for the weak at heart, but those who persevere understand rule No. 1 is to fake it until you make it.
Second, with the many networking tools out there today, connecting with colleagues, mentors and sponsors has never been easier. Leverage these relationships.
And don't be afraid to experiment. Some of the best ideas come not from the people with the biggest iq, but from those who keep thinking outside the box, challenging their teams to think differently.
For all the work left to be done in this industry, it's still one I'm absolutely proud to work in. And maybe we have come farther than the days portrayed by Mad Men, but let's do better to make the show what it's intended to be - just good TV.