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Advertising Diversity & Inclusion Long Reads

It is not me, it is you: The advertising industry needs to face its diversity problems, and stop blaming others


By Derek Walker | Founder

October 10, 2016 | 11 min read

Have you ever watched a person purposely destroy his career and business? No? Well, keep reading. I’m about to torch both in one fell swoop. I’m going to talk racial diversity in the advertising industry.

Derek Walker

Derek Walker

First, I’m going to share with you actual quotes (as close as I can remember) that have been said to me during my career in advertising:

1. My last interview for a creative director position ended this way: “I don’t want to lie to you, but management didn’t know you were Black, and they are unwilling to pay a Black man this much.” Maybe that explains why despite being on my itinerary, they didn’t meet with me during the two days I was there.

2. Here’s my nomination for the world’s shortest interview: A partner whose name was on the door met me in the lobby, shook my hand, and said: “I’m sorry Derek, but I don’t think our clients are ready for a Black copywriter.” Interview over.

3. From the Group Creative Director on my first day of work. (He didn’t hire me, the partners did): “I told them that I don’t believe a Black man can write copy, and I am going to prove it.”

4. During a glowing evaluation from a Group Creative Director: “You do know if you were white, I’d be working for you. Management has told me that I can give you a raise but as long as you’re Black, you can never be promoted. Dude, I’m sorry.”

5. In a meeting of the new business team, my Executive Vice President thought it important to point this out: “I don’t care how talented you are, how creative or how smart – if you don’t have the look, you will not be allowed in front of the client.” (I was the only Black in the group, and the only person never to present work to a client, despite the majority of the concepts being mine.) By the way, I do own a few custom suits and shirts.

6. My new reality as the owner of a small ad agency in Columbia, South Carolina. I’ve heard a version of this comment at least four times over the past 18 months: “You know what you need to do to grow your shop? Hire a White guy or even better, a pretty blonde White woman, and make him/her the face of your agency, and the business will come. You have the talent and experience. You just need a White face.”

I wish, I really, really wish that my experience were unique, but I’ve heard similar stories of other Black advertising professionals. My experience is more common than it should be.

Now, let’s talk racial diversity in the ad industry.


I’m a figment of my own imagination.

According to the advertising industry, I don’t exist.

I’m a unicorn. I’m the Loch Ness Monster.

I’m a qualified, senior Black advertising professional.

My name is Derek L. Walker.

I’m a figment of my own imagination.

According to the advertising industry, I don’t exist.

I’m not alone.

There are Ed Crayton, Hadji Williams, Harry Webber, Paul Hebron, and James Glover — all friends whom I mention here with permission. But there are more, a lot more senior-level, Black creative advertising professionals.

Right now, some folks at the 4A’s (Association of American Advertising Agencies), AAF (American Advertising Federation), and The One Club may be blowing a gasket. Good. They know we exist. Heck, they wheel out the same group of senior Black advertising professionals for every panel or event to push their agenda. Too bad that agenda says, “You don’t exist.”

For years, these organizations have been towing the safe, predictable line: namely that the ad industry’s lack of diversity is due in part to a lack of knowledge on the part of Black people about careers in advertising; that we have not been exposed to advertising as a career choice; and that if we have, our skills are lacking.

Male bovine excrement.

Like a lot of folks, by embracing this course of action, they subconsciously blame Black people for the diversity problem. Oh, the next statement is going to hit a nerve — but please, hear me out.

To focus on programs that bring more Black young people into advertising without looking at retention and advancement rates of Blacks already working in the industry implies the problem is Blacks are both unaware of careers in advertising and unprepared.


Of course, they mean well, and they aren’t saying this aloud. But their actions scream it. Nearly every program or panel works off this premise. Go to their websites and check out how they approach racial diversity.

It is important to make the distinction between racial diversity and gender diversity. Look at the programs and panels for gender diversity. They do not assume that women are unaware or unprepared for a career in advertising, or that those women working in advertising lack the skills to advance and grow as professional. These initiatives claim the problem is with the advertising industry, not women.

See the difference?

All this talk about how unaware of or unprepared Black people are for an advertising career ignores the fact that there have been Black advertising agencies since the late 1960s. How could we have Black-owned advertising agencies doing work aimed at speaking to Black consumers if we were unaware of career opportunities in advertising? Someone answer me, please. Cue the chirping cricket sounds.

To acknowledge the existence of senior-level Black creative advertising professionals is to admit the ugly truth that the industry’s problem with diversity is the fault of the agencies, and theirs alone.

Oh, we don’t like doing that, finding fault with a person or a party. But here is what folks don’t get: We can’t make advancements until we recognize where advertising is as an industry. Both parties don’t and shouldn’t share the blame; this is an industry problem, and it is time our industry owned up to its issues.

It is time.

The advertising industry has to put on its big boys’ and big girls’ panties and face the glaring truth: that the racial diversity issue has little to do with awareness or availability of qualified talent. And everything to do with prejudice and racism inside advertising.

Yes, I’m calling a lot of people in advertising either prejudiced or racist, but I firmly believe it’s a prejudice issue more than a racist thing. Please, the two terms are not the same. Before you pull out the pitchforks and torches, allow me to explain the difference. No. Let’s allow Merriam-Webster to give the definition of the two words:


“Preconceived judgment or opinion (2): an adverse opinion or leaning formed without just grounds or before sufficient knowledge



“A belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race

It is important to understand the differences and variances between the two words. Having worked in advertising for more than 20 years, I believe most of the issues concerning diversity are tied to a form of prejudice, rather than racism, although there is a bit of that going on as well.

I cringe every time I hear advertising professionals throw out words like “culture” and “fit” when talking about hiring people. Both terms reflect a degree of prejudice. What is it about the person that doesn’t “fit?” What “culture” doesn’t a person have that he/she can’t do the job?

The ambiguity of these words makes their use as a tool for excluding a group of people an act of pure genius. An interviewer can have a feeling that the person will not be a good “fit” or match in the “culture” without having to explain why. It is the perfect cloak for prejudice.

Until advertising acknowledges and moves to deal with this prejudice —instead of promoting and perpetuating the idea that Blacks are either unaware or do not possess the skill set to work in advertising — very little will change. The current course of action is nothing but shifting the blame.

Ah, but here is the catch: Advertising cannot and will not face its racial diversity issues alone. And the industry shouldn’t have to. 

This is partially the fault of clients.

Clients know their agencies. They know the people who work on their accounts. And they are keenly aware that it has been a white men’s club for years. Despite the fact that most clients have had diversity programs in place for decades, which they themselves know has succeeded. All too often, the only people of color in the room during meetings are on the client side. This should make clients uncomfortable, and give them pause.

The issue of racial diversity is so much more than political correctness, it is good business. Having a diverse staff allows an agency to have a wider range of experiences and views to pull from when creating messages to reach an audience that is becoming more diverse every day. Clients are screaming for more effective work. Well, how effective is it to always approach assignments from a singular cultural point of view? It isn’t.

So what can clients do? I’m not talking about a mandate from clients. Simply asking about and encouraging your agency to look into its diversity will have a huge impact.

(Here is a secret your agencies don’t want you to know: They are afraid of you – scared excrement-less (yeah, this isn’t a word but I’m trying to keep it “G-rated”) of you. Shhh. Don’t let them know I said this, but agencies are horrified that you, the client, will ever be upset with them.)

Don’t force them to go it alone. Offer to make your HR and diversity people available to share the understandings and insights they have from years of doing it. Just offering to share information will ignite a fire with your agency because they will know that you have noticed their own lack of diversity. And that you care.

For more than 20 years, I have watched and waited for advertising to mature and develop a conscience on this subject. I’ve seen program after program come and go, and nothing ever changes.

Wait, that is a lie. There has been one change: Today there are fewer Blacks in advertising, at general marketing agencies than when I first entered the business. The lack of diversity has actually grown worse.

Shame on advertising.

“Advertising is afraid of the dark.”

The big advantage of me speaking out is that, since I technically don’t exist, anyone who disagrees can brush off this blog as a figment of his or her imagination, and go on with business as usual.

I’m really not here.

But I can’t wait to exist.

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