‘Everybody likes it, but nobody wants to pay’: Derek Walker on diversity in ad land

Derek Walker, founder of Brown and Browner Advertising, been a leading voice for African Americans and Black professionals in ad land for decades. Right now, he’s surviving, not thriving. He reflects on whether the surge of the Black Lives Matter movement will open the ad industry’s eyes, though history suggests otherwise.

The outspoken creative director recalls that over the last half a century, adland's got better at talking about diversity and inclusion – but only because the issue is getting worse, not better.

Walker says: “In the early 1970s, some of the major shops had Black vice presidents and creative directors. We don’t see those anymore. Something happened in the 80s and 90s. We haven’t figured out what it was yet.”

Based in the city of Columbia, running a “tiny agency”, Walker has worked 30 years in advertising.

“I’m more than a creative. I’m a group creative director or an executive creative director. I’m a vice-president creative director. I may even be a CEO or president. I am not a copywriter anymore. There are roughly 30 or 40 of us who could step in and run a creative team today.”

Walker talks of an invisible force that has stymied his, and his peers’, development – an informal blacklist of names of people who take public stances on race and inclusion.

Some ask him to “tone down” his posts, others say he is "too political”. In fairness, his writing is powerful and unyielding. It deals with ugly subjects. An opinion piece published in 2018 [Advertising has no stomach for a fair fight] recently attracted five thousand views after the death of George Floyd, suggesting that people have been searching for and consuming his ugly truth. Whether readers are being swayed by his arguments or are populating ’dangerous to work with’ lists, is unclear.

“I’m a little gray [haired]. I'm closer to meeting my God than I am anything else. So I’m gonna keep writing and talking about what’s important to me. It might do me a favor when I finally meet him that I said something of worth.”

So where does this leave Walker?

Black Lives Matter has been adopted by corporate machines like never before. It’s a huge move – Premier League footballers returned to action after a long lockdown with it emblazoned on their shirts, also taking a knee in memory of George Floyd. Even the NFL, where the movement kicked off around Colin Kaepernick appears to be softening its stance. Sport appears to be where the main battles will be won. But in ad land, as well as other walks of life, practical measures are needed.

Walker believes there is too much lip-service paid to diversity. “Businesses say that they support diversity and inclusion but the reality of it is their actions don't bear that out.

“Some agencies purport to be champions – but have no African Americans or Black staff. Publicly, people know what to say. Privately, they let me know how they really feel about me.”

Walker says it’s not all bad news. He sees positive movements and is giving the holding companies a “bit of time” to follow through on their promises. He’s all too aware how long movement of any kind takes in these structures.

But there’s a gaping hole in these plans. Black business has no way to contact the huge networks or brands they’d like to work with. “There's no mechanism for this,” says Walker.

“All these companies talk about is how much money they're pumping in. But when you go to the website and try to figure out how to reach them the walls are still up. You shall not pass.”

Until the dialogue starts, he sees huge corporate groups continuing to “cherry-picking” select organisations to “dump money into”. “Everybody likes it [diversity], but nobody wants to pay for it. I've got to make money just like everyone else.”

He’ll push on.

“I was born to parents who couldn't legally vote in the United States until I was one year old. I will take this ass whooping, excuse me for cursing, so that my sons can enter the industry if they want to.”

He’s been long writing on the subject, in fact, he’d rather be talking about his trade than issues of race and diversity. He also offered his views on the future of the industry which in an ideal world would have been the main thrust of the discussion.

As an outsider who’s been scrambling for survival, he has a unique perspective. He’s an old school creative, he doesn’t particularly trust tech, and he believes in the power of the right people in the right room.

“The new model needs to be a little old too. It needs to be creative-driven. And this is going to upset some folks. Our biggest fault was creatives stopped wanting to run agencies and let our product be disguised as creative executions.

“When we put numbers folks in charge of our business, we stopped focusing on our product and the creatives got overworked.”

He believes in the power of the copywriter/art director super team. Such teams are less common than they were, largely due to the commoditization of product and the drive for efficiency.

“What is a brand worth? I can’t give you numbers on that. Short-term thinking is going to kill us. But also fear, we”re afraid to sell our product for what it is.” His views chime with recent observations that you won’t find the word ’advertising’ on WPP’s homepage; instead, the company sells “creative transformation”. The a-word is similarly absent from the landing pages of Dentsu, Publicis Groupe and Omnicom.

And finally, although Brown and Browner Advertising is by all means a virtual agency, he sees the value of getting teams together in a room once or twice a month.

“If this isolation teaches us anything, it's an appreciation of our humanity. And the work needs to get back to being human. Our emotions and our feelings sell a lot more than data and research and analytics.”

For more on Walker’s views and origins, check out his entry into our 10 Questions With… series.

Walker talked to executive editor Stephen Lepitak as part of The Drum’s Can-Do Festival, an online event celebrating the positive energy, innovation and creative thinking that can make the marketing community such a powerful force for good. You can watch the interview in full here.

Sign up to watch forthcoming sessions and see the full Can-Do schedule here.

Join us, it's free.

Become a member to get access to:

  • Exclusive Content
  • Daily and specialised newsletters
  • Research and analysis

Join us, it’s free.

Want to read this article and others just like it? All you need to do is become a member of The Drum. Basic membership is quick, free and you will be able to receive daily news updates.