Commentary

Real-Time On A Real Issue: Industry Responses To The Murder Of George Floyd, Racial Injustice And Inequity

Full disclosure -- I am white.

I’m also a male. I’ve also lived what many would consider a privileged life. If you feel those attributes disqualify me from reporting on the protests and discussion surrounding racial injustice that followed the murder of George Floyd on the streets by police officers on the streets of Minneapolis on May 25, I’m sorry. I feel compelled to do it anyway, because I’m a professional and it’s my job to cover when important things happen that could impact our readers.

I’m disclosing this because our editorial team had a heated debate about whether and how we should cover the ad industry’s reaction to these events, with some saying it would be inappropriate for a trade publication with no persons of color on its staff to cover the subject.

We even discussed hiring a freelance person of color to write an industry round-up, and even reached out to some, including a former MediaPost staffer. But in the end, I felt this would also look like tokenism and our job is cover news that is important and relevant to our readers, regardless of race, color, creed, gender, or life privileges.

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This column, and the round-up of industry reactions to the events of the past couple of weeks, was inspired by an offer I received from Simulmedia Founder-CEO Dave Morgan to republish a blog he authored on his company’s website outlining his organization’s reaction, and some concrete steps it was taking to address racial inequity and injustice.

I explained to Dave that we have a policy against republishing company blogs, but suggested that he write some version of it for his regular MediaPost column this week, and that we would instead use his outreach to reach out to others to see how they were moved, and what, if anything they feel they, or what their organizations should do about it.

Because that’s what we do.

What follows is a staff-reported round-up of industry reactions and responses. Beyond that, I’d like to offer anyone who would like to weigh in on it -- especially persons of color who work in the industry -- to contact me directly at joe@mediapost.com, because we would like to be a forum for your points of view on what the advertising and media industry can do to help address racial injustice and inequity.

MediaPost: How were you impacted or moved by George Floyd's death?

John Wren, Chairman-CEO, Omnicom Group: The death of George Floyd was tragic. You can feel the weight of it throughout the country and around the world. The heaviness comes not only from his death, but from what his death symbolized -- the inequities and injustices that Black Americans have endured for centuries. As a leader, I’m pained to know that so many Black employees throughout the Omnicom community are hurting right now as recent events intensify the realities they have known their entire lives.

MediaPost: Do you feel compelled to do anything about it personally or professionally?

Wren: My empathy has been paired with a sense of urgency to effect change.

At Omnicom we have been committed to diversity and inclusion formally for more than decade when we hired our first Chief Diversity Officer, Tiffany R. Warren. Under Tiffany’s leadership, we now have more than a dozen diversity champions and directors working across our organization.

They have been instrumental in the past couple of weeks leading discussions on what else we can do to support our Black community. We are grateful for their guidance, leadership, and advice during this difficult period.

One of the outcomes of these discussions was loud and clear -- there is still more work to be done.

Across Omnicom in the U.S. 22% of U.S. officials and managers are multicultural which is a 29% increase over the past five years with improvement among each of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's Hispanic/Latino, Black/African American and Asian designations. While we have come a long way, it’s still not enough. We are currently mapping out additional programming to increase diversity within our organization by focusing on recruitment, talent development, retention, culture and community, pay equity and more.

Externally, we are reaffirming our D&I efforts by supporting industry programs that provide educational and career opportunities for Black Americans and other diverse communities. These programs are critical to helping our agencies, and our industry, increase Black representation on teams, and they include AAF Most Promising Multicultural Students, 4A’s Multicultural Advertising Intern Program, ADCOLOR, GLAAD, Ghetto Film School and The Brotherhood/Sister SOL. 

MediaPost: What, if anything can -- or should -- the ad industry do about it?

Wren: The ad industry has a unique role in the world. We create messages and images that people everywhere consume on a daily basis. This is an enormous responsibility, but one we are proud to have. As my peers can attest, we understand that we -- as an industry -- must use this responsibility to continue promoting messages of equality and inclusion. 

To do that, we must have teams that mirror the diversity messages we’re professing, and that requires increasing representation of these communities in our talent and leadership. It’s something we’ve been committed to improving for decades, but it’s no secret more work needs to be done.

It’s also important that we as an industry hold each other accountable for change. The question of “What else can we do to improve?” is ringing louder than ever. And while we don’t have all the answers at this exact moment, it’s evident that we’re ready to work as an industry to move things forward.

Mark Penn, CEO, MDC Partners (from an internal memo sent to all network team members last week):
1) I am outraged by the continued killings and violence against Black people in America. The recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Sean Reed, Tony McDade, and countless others are unspeakable tragedies that further highlight the open wound of racism in the United States -- a wound we must all work to address.
 
We stand together with our Black colleagues feeling and fighting against injustice, today and always.

As individuals, we cannot all share the same experiences, but we ALL have a job to do to address the injustice and the pain our communities are feeling across America. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “darkness cannot drive out darkness” and so it is incumbent upon us all to be a part of the light that brings more light.

2) I urge you to at a minimum:
  • Have uncomfortable conversations -- We will not be perfect as we work toward getting better.
  • Give your Black colleagues your support and your empathy, and show up for them, every day -- Listen, knowing that it is not their job to fix the state of race in America right now. It is all of ours.
  • Seek out and learn from leaders and voices that don’t share your experience or your perspective -- Those that don’t naturally show up in your feed.
  • Educate yourselves -- We’ve started our own list of resources here, in what will be an evolving post, and invite you to contribute literature that you have found useful in furthering conversations or understanding around race. 
3) individually and as agencies, we are finding concrete ways to help in the coming days, and our agencies have already made contributions to stand against police brutality and to help rebuild affected neighborhoods. We recognize that the work we must do is deep and enduring, and will require real -- sometimes uncomfortable -- change.

MediaPost: How were you impacted or moved by George Floyd's death?

Arthur Sadoun, Chairman, CEO, Publicis Groupe: It was the tipping point after years of systemic racism and senseless violence in this country. Our people are in pain. As they mourn the senseless deaths of black victims like George Floyd and others that have come before him, they are outraged, distressed, shaken, fearful, anxious and deeply saddened. We need to be there for our people, stand and take this journey forward together. 

MediaPost: Do you feel compelled to do anything because of it?
Sadoun: The desire and compulsion to act, to drive change for the better is bursting out of all of our employees and leaders within all our agencies. While there have been many efforts over the years, clearly there is much more work to be done.

The first thing we need to do is listen and provide support. We came together last week -- 2,100 colleagues across the Groupe in the U.S. -- for Brave Spaces and numerous smaller agency forums since then. That is only the first step in our journey. We also need to provide the resources needed from an education and allyship standpoint as well as critical mental health support. Importantly, we must take actions that we know can drive positive change and impact.

MediaPost: What, if anything can -- or should -- the ad industry do about it?
Sadoun: We should first turn our efforts and actions inside the walls of our agencies to create real opportunities, growth and a truly equitable environment for the black community that we can be proud of.
Michael Hubbard, CEO, Media Two Interactive:
1) I realize now for 47 years of my white, privileged life, I’ve done nothing to help the cause. By doing nothing but empathizing silently makes me no better than those who put a hood on.

I cannot imagine fearing for my life if the police pulled me over for speeding. I could not imagine being hunted down for going for a jog. I could not imagine having to overcome every stereotype in the world just to be considered for a job. I could not imagine not being able to speak up for myself. Yet, if we do nothing today -- then in a week we will all go back to our “normal” routine, and be forced to relive this event over and over again, with a new person’s name and likeness on a t-shirt.

2) I do not want to go another 400 seconds without change, let alone 400 more years. I have met so many smart people over the years, I have to believe that someone has ideas that we can rally around if our leadership at the top is unwilling to see the pain we have inflicted upon the human race  I’ve seen there is a list of demands from the black community on change that are powerful. What about more ideas? What about mandating K-12 curriculum around being a better human? Why is Math, Science and English more important than someone’s life?

If racism is learned, then surely proper education is the answer? What about an appointed official in the government who sets guidelines? What about reparations? What about making affirmative action mean something? What about community service penalties or fines for racist remarks, actions, etc.? What about when you apply for a city business permit you immediately are required to attend quarterly leadership meetings where things like racism and intolerance are discussed? Would mandating our city business leaders to be leaders of the change be so wrong?

3.) I know that our windows being broken hurt a lot less than my heart being broken. Chances are -- if you read this far, you share similar sentiments -- so please reach out!  Comment, text, email or call. Maybe this is the call that should have been made 400 years ago? 
Bill Koenigsberg, President-CEO, Horizon Media:
Horizon Media is proud of our diverse and inclusive culture. All of us have been engulfed in the emotional Tsunami that has gripped the Horizon community and the world at large as a result of the barbaric killing of George Floyd and all the injustices that have come before this. 
We have held numerous internal town halls to listen, learn and lean in for our community to share their emotions, sentiment, fears, and anger to continue to raise awareness and provide louder voices with hope of action and change. We intend to hold another all agency town hall next week with outside influential voices connected to the black community who can share additional perspective and insight to the Horizon family. 
We are providing counseling and have held sessions with social workers addressing emotional and mental well being. We are providing time off to observe George Floyd’s memorial service and funeral. We will make financial contributions to various causes that support the eradication of racial injustice and bias against diverse communities. 
This is a time that the Ad industry must make exceptional strides in understanding the plight of underrepresented communities so our industry can be more inclusive and ensure advancement and equality for all.

MediaPost: How have you been personally moved by the killing of George Floyd, and the movement that it has sparked?

David Angelo, Founder-Creative Chairman, David&Goliath: We are certainly living in one of the most challenging times in our history. From the global pandemic to the systemic racial injustice, violence, and hatred that have plagued our nation for nearly 250 years.

The killing of George Floyd was horrifying. My heart and soul go out to George and his family, as well as the countless others who have been abused and brutally murdered without any recourse. 

Throughout my life, I’ve always aspired to do whatever I can to be part of the change as opposed to part of the problem. And through my journey, I’ve found that the only way to truly address this deep-rooted problem is to go within. To truly understand what it’s like to be a person of color. What it’s like to carry the burden of decades of injustice. When we do so, we unlock our empathy, and the next course is action.  

MediaPost: What industry change do you want to see come from these events?

Angelo: The irony is that almost 30 years ago, when Los Angeles took to the streets in protest and riots when the Rodney King verdict was announced, I was working for an ad agency in NYC. I was so disheartened and outraged by the injustice, that my partner and I created an ad campaign which we had hoped could provide much-needed unity and awareness of racism. As provocative and piercing as the message was, sadly, the ad is still relevant today.

And even more pertinent is the realization that while the intent of the message was genuine, without action and follow-through it was meaningless. Do ads play an important role in generating awareness? Yes. However, in order to affect real, sustainable, systemic change, brands and agencies must step into action.

And the only way to get to meaningful action is from empathy. Empathy fuels the action. From this, all of our responses will be genuine and sustainable. This holds true for agencies, brands, organizations, and people.

Going inward and viewing everything through the lens of empathy is laying the groundwork for change. This is my hope for our industry. That we can come together through empathy and address this problem head-on. 

So what would I like to see from our industry? A shift that is rooted in:

1) Self-reflection -- we need to go inward to get to the root of the problem. From this, we discover our empathy for each other. All of our action needs to come from here. 

2) Action -- talking about the issue or sympathizing doesn't yield anything. We need to feel into the pain ourselves, take time to listen, learn, have those uncomfortable conversations, then create a new process and action plan that ensures everyone’s voice is heard. We need to take this beyond the walls of  our respective companies so it becomes a way of life. We need to lead with action.

3) Accountability – let’s be relentless about our commitment and never give up our belief. Let’s hold ourselves accountable through our actions. Let’s use this pivotal moment to come together and truly embrace empathy so we can start the process of eradicating racism for good. And begin the healing our world so desperately needs. 

MediaPost: What are you doing to affect these changes, or what do you hope to do?

Angelo: For 20 years, our agency has been marching to our brand truth and inspiring our people and brands to do the same. We are who we are, both in good times and challenging times, and that comes from a mindset, not a market position. And it has manifested in many of the initiatives we’ve been a part of, including helping one of our brands provide funds and awareness for America’s homeless youth, to shining a light on creators doing good in the world with the Conscious Creative Movement, to inspiring bravery amongst millions through our global nonprofit, Today, I’m Brave, starting with 63 orphans in Sierra Leone who lost their families to Ebola.

Whether it’s the pandemic or public outcry over systemic racism, our truth is front and center and we are committed to act from our truth from the inside of our agency out.

Our goal has always been to inspire each other to take on the biggest “Goliaths” in business and life. We also know that we can do more and put an even stronger stake in the ground by implementing action and teaming up with others to be an even greater agent for change -- one that is tangible and sustainable.

We see this time as one of the greatest opportunities for transformation and to strengthen our commitment towards making the world a more equal, just, and inclusive place for all.  

Jason Xenopoulos, North America CCO and NY CEO, VMLY&R: As someone who grew up in South Africa under Apartheid, what we are seeing on the streets now is an echo of my childhood. It is heartbreaking that racism remains such a divisive aspect of our society, and it is incumbent upon all of us to do something about it. 

While it isn’t always easy to know exactly what to do, I believe the right answer always starts with empathy. By listening and understanding and respecting one another despite our differences. 

This is something that we can and must all strive to do every day of our lives -- for our colleagues, our clients, and most importantly for ourselves. It is easy to say these things, but it is much harder to do them for real. If the actions we take do not make us uncomfortable -- if they don’t push us beyond our limits of understanding, acceptance, and inclusion -- then we are not doing enough. After the events of the past week, I am more committed than ever to do things that make me uncomfortable.

I hope that the anger of this moment will mark the beginning of a new era of understanding, one in which justice will replace injustice, in which compassion will replace cruelty, and in which love will replace hate.

John Godsey, North America CCO, VMLY&R: For years, we’ve recognized the lack of diversity in our industry. We knew we were missing perspective from the Black community and many of us tried to hire talent and strategized about how to change things, but frankly, we didn’t do enough. So many of us are guilty of not doing enough.

 This is our chance to do things differently. We have to find ways to make advertising more inclusive for talent in the Black community. This means expanding where we recruit, changing how we mentor and creating programs that will bring in enough talent to bring about real change. It is our responsibility to build teams that truly represent the world. 

Like others, I have been watching news, listening to people speak, trying to expand my thinking and remove my white blinders. But that isn’t anything special. It’s what anyone with a conscience is doing right now. I think the biggest thing we can do is act. Having been a mentor, I have seen firsthand the impact mentorship can have. Mentoring is one of the most impactful actions we can take in effecting long-term change. 

Co-statement from Dipti Bramhandkar, Executive Planning Director for North America and Maktuno Suit, Global Transformation Director, at Iris Worldwide: Though the temptation is to look outside, at Iris we recognize that the first step is cleaning up your own house.

As a global agency we have taken initial action across our network, we held all agency sessions to enable everyone to listen to the experiences of black employees and people of color, not only out in the world but in their daily work lives at Iris. The second act we will be taking is responding to these experiences through a transformation agenda around diversity and inclusion. 

We look forward to doing the deep work required to address systematic racism in our industry, starting at our front door.

MediaPost: How have you been personally moved by the killing of George Floyd, and the movement that it has sparked?

Katie Kern, Partner, Media Frenzy Global: I wasn’t personally moved by George Floyd’s murder. I was outraged. Police brutality and the murdering of black men and women only sparked the current movement because it was caught on video for the world to see. Violence and death at the hands of the police is nothing new to the black community. It took this video to open the eyes of most white people in the US and around the world. 

MediaPost: What industry change do you want to see come from these events?

Kern: Black lives should really matter in all areas of the industry. I want to see us leading at the highest level, from the boardroom to executive-level positions. You truly can’t be what you can’t see. If we are at every level of the decision-making process, we get to tell our own stories in a respectful and dignified way. 

MediaPost: What are you doing to affect these changes, or what do you hope to do?

Kern: I’m doing what I have always done prior to George Floyd’s death. I mentor young black professionals and give them personal and professional career guidance and resources with my Mentor Monday series. I speak and write on various topics surrounding Diversity, Inclusion and Equity. And as an agency partner, I have made it my mission to employee Black people who are often times overlooked, giving them safe place to shine and prosper.

Steve McClellan, Larissa Faw and Gavin O'Malley contributed to this round-up.

2 comments about "Real-Time On A Real Issue: Industry Responses To The Murder Of George Floyd, Racial Injustice And Inequity".
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  1. Robert Williams from Mediapost, June 8, 2020 at 12:05 p.m.

    Great post, Joe!

  2. Michael Hubbard from Media Two Interactive, June 8, 2020 at 1:28 p.m.

    I appreciate the post Joe - and thanks for including my thoughts as well.  Whatever we can do to keep the conversation going - I'm all for it!

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