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Black ad professionals call on agency leaders to take urgent action on racism

Black ad professional demand action for ad industry's serious flaws

Hundreds of black advertising professionals have signed an open letter demanding urgent action from agency leadership to tackle "the systemic racism that is afflicting our industry".

Amid the deluge of advertisers and agencies declaring their support for Black Lives Matter following the death of George Floyd and subsequent mass protests, the letter from 600 black ad professionals say these words “ring hollow in the face of our daily lived experiences.”

Titled 'A call for change', the letter was spearheaded by Nathan Young, a group strategy director at Minneapolis agency Periscope, and Bennett D. Bennett, who runs independent consultancy Aerialist and formerly worked as a reporter at The Drum.

The list of signatories includes black professionals from some the US's biggest advertising agencies, including BBDO Worldwide, Droga5, Grey, GroupM, Havas, McCann New York, Leo Burnett, Publicis, Saatchi & Saatchi and Wieden + Kennedy.

It states that “agency leadership had been blind to the systemic racism and inequality that persists within our industry" and notes that "many gallons of ink have been spilled on op-eds and think pieces, but tangible progress has eluded this industry for too long."

While acknowledging that there have been decades of well-intentioned diversity and inclusion efforts, the letter claims the industry has "seen little progress in making black voices a more representative part of the creative process."

It calls out the ad industry's 'boy's club' mentality, stating "the same elitism and discrimination behaviour that has restricted women from advancing in the workplace, has resulted in an oppressive monoculture that stifles the growth of black agency professionals and restricts our ability to express our true selves."

Offering some key areas that need addressing, the letter includes 12 pointers on how to end systemic racism in advertising.

It firstly asks US advertising agencies to make a specific, measurable, and public commitment to improve black representation at all levels of agency staffing – especially senior and leadership positions.

It then asks leaders to track and publicly report workforce diversity data on an annual basis, audit agency policies, and culture to ensure the work environment is more equitable and inclusive to a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives and to provide extensive bias training to HR employees and all levels of management.

Further, it asks leadership teams to extend agency outreach to a more diverse representation of colleges, universities, and art schools, expand residencies and internship programs to candidates with transferable skills who may not have taken a traditional educational path toward advertising and to create, fund, and support employee resource groups for black employees.

The open letter joins similar efforts calling for industry change, but it is the first to come entirely from black advertising professionals' perspective.

Yesterday (9 June) the United Nations and the World Federation of Advertisers committed to establishing a series of measures that will hold brands to account when it comes to both the diversity of their workforces and how they’re tackling inequality through their advertising.

And, last week (3 June), advertising trade bodies and leaders from the UK’s largest agencies signed an open letter pledging solidarity with the black community. That letter was coordinated by Creative Equals – a body dedicated to promoting diversity in the workplace.

You can read the full open letter to the US ad industry, and see a complete list of signatories, below.

A Call for Change

Black professionals in advertising demand urgent action from agency leadership.

The recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery have shocked the nation and brought millions of Americans to the streets in righteous protest. As loud as these protests are, it is impossible to overstate the pain that has been felt by your black colleagues as the still-fresh wounds from Ferguson, Baltimore and countless other flashpoints of racial violence were once again re-opened. We hurt because we have seen this movie before. We hurt because we expect that, once again, when the streets have cleared and the hashtags have been retired, little will be done to address the systemic racism and economic injustice we face each and every day.

Over the past week, we have seen messages of solidarity sent out by several agencies and agency leaders. Though we are encouraged by these messages, their words ring hollow in the face of our daily lived experiences.

After decades of well-intentioned diversity & inclusion efforts, we have seen little progress in making black voices a more representative part of the creative process. We have seen even less progress in ensuring equitable representation of black professionals in senior and leadership positions. And because this industry does not release or track diversity numbers, it is impossible to tell what, if any, progress has been made.

Worse still, there is a “boys’ club” mentality that remains pervasive in this industry. The same elitism & discriminatory behavior that has restricted women from advancing in the workplace, has resulted in an oppressive mono-culture that stifles the growth of black agency professionals and restricts our ability to express our true selves.

We are asking all U.S. advertising agencies to take the following actions to address the systemic racism that is afflicting our industry:

  1. Make a specific, measurable, and public commitment to improve black representation at all levels of agency staffing, especially Senior and Leadership positions

  2. Track and publicly report workforce diversity data on an annual basis to create accountability for the agency and the industry

  3. Audit agency policies and culture to ensure the environment we work in is more equitable and inclusive to a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives

  4. Provide extensive bias training to HR employees and all levels of management

  5. Extend agency outreach to a more diverse representation of colleges, universities, and art schools

  6. Expand residencies and internship programs to candidates with transferable skills who may not have taken a traditional educational path toward advertising

  7. Create, fund, and support Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) for black employees

  8. Invest in management and leadership training, as well as mentorship, sponsorship, and other career development programs for black employees

  9. Require all leadership to be active participants in company Diversity & Inclusion initiatives and tie success in those initiatives to bonus compensation.

  10. Create a Diversity and Inclusion committee made up of black and NBPOC employees to help shape diversity & inclusion policy and monitor its progress

  11. Establish a diversity review panel to stem the spread of stereotypes in creative work and ensure offensive or culturally insensitive work is never published

  12. Introduce a wage equity plan to ensure that black women, black men and people of color are being compensated fairly

Though advertising agencies boast some of the most politically progressive business leaders in America, agency leadership has been blind to the systemic racism and inequity that persists within our industry. Many gallons of ink have been spilled on op-eds and think pieces, but tangible progress has eluded this industry for too long.

We, the signatories of this letter, are calling out for change in the form of direct action. We stand in solidarity with our women, non-binary, LGBT+, disabled and NBPOC colleagues who have made similar calls for change.

Show us you're listening. Take decisive action now.

Black lives matter.

List of Signatories

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