The multicultural/mainstream debate spotlights a decades-long undercurrent of separatism, exclusionism and discrimination that rages to this day. It's time for the industry to become one advertising nation, indivisible.
Multicultural shops toil in mainstream's shadow. The mainstream largely perpetuates the status quo. Mainstream agencies target the American race, while multicultural agencies handle what's left. The time for that inequity is past. It is time for a single industry aimed at the human race.
Thirty-five years ago, a young couple fled the Soviet Union for America. The two of us worked in television. We launched a New York agency called Euramerica, when the term "multicultural" was barely a whisper. By the time Ogilvy acquired us, our efforts had reached 100 countries in 80 languages.
"Multicultural" was just gaining currency when we formed, in the early '90s, a second agency, YAR Communications. We continued to do global work. The long-distance phone wars were heating up. AT&T needed an agency to corral America's ethnic communities. Mainstream shops were neither equipped or especially interested. With some 40 nationalities on our team, we won the business. We created thousands of executions aimed at 15 different ethnic markets simultaneously.
How do you define such an agency? Global? Mainstream? Multicultural?
The question underscores the heinous inequalities the multicultural ad business has faced for decades at the hands of the mainstream, agency and client alike.
Our current agency, with all those years of domestic and global experience behind it, is considered a hybrid. Because we are neither wholly multicultural or mainstream, we have never been asked to join a search. We are not, as the consultants say, "a pure play."
Thankfully, to some clients, talent is talent, no matter what the label, and we share a good number of mainstream and multicultural advertisers that are interested only in our work, not our color, culture or category.
Agency "purity" sounds like a concept from an era we'd all like to forget. Yet many searches today -- in a kind of reverse discrimination -- insist only multicultural shops need apply, or that agencies be owned solely by a minority. So you wind up winning business on the basis of race, or on what you are not, a mainstream agency.
Instead of being an equal-opportunity client, advertisers appear to believe less in the universal merit of creativity and more in a segregated view of who should handle the business.
Let's kill the myth that prevents some of the brightest lights in the industry from working on -- and having an equal shot at -- business, regardless of what part of the marketplace it represents.
The divide between multicultural and mainstream must disappear. For the good of the industry and its long-term growth, talent and results should be the single most common denominator for winning and holding business.
May we, in a moment of self-indulgence, offer up our current agency as a model of peaceful coexistence amid the multicultural/mainstream wars?
Perhaps it stems from the neutrality of our global experience, where everything outside the U.S. was mainstream and America was "the other." Perhaps it is our approach, where the minds of dozens of cultures are brought to bear on a single advertising challenge.
To us, advertising is advertising. We have a global footprint and an American one. We see America as a single marketplace of many cultures. For some clients, we work entirely in English. For others, it may be Spanish or even Chinese. Six years of work for a telecommunications giant has demonstrated how "multicultural" campaigns can work equally well in the "mainstream" -- if given a chance.
Our agency, which operates under a single roof, is as polyglot as the Web. Thus we find ourselves in demand, not only to create multilingual sites, but to globalize the brand presence of others.
Every agency, it seems, claims to be the agency of the future. We're no exception. From a single creative hub, we can reach the world. Long before it ever became fashionable, we had a global cloud of hundreds of consumer-culture experts feeding us market intelligence from around the world. How do we, finally, define ourselves in the connected world?
Neither multicultural or mainstream. Just an agency for its time.