White men in advertising are too quiet - and their silence speaks volumes

Derek Walker

I despise this story, but the silence is killing advertising:

Working at this agency was killing me. For years, I had wanted to work at this shop. I dreamed of being here. Too bad the dream was nothing but a nightmare.

My creative director (CD) didn’t hire me, a partner did. I thought that was a good thing. How stupid I was.

My “interview” with my CD was more a formality since the partner had already offered me the job. He had been out of country during my interview. (I wasn’t even supposed to interview with his team, but his second in charge saw my book, and thought I would be a good fit on their team.) I dismissed how badly the “interview” went to him being jet-lagged. He didn’t ask many questions, we barely talked over lunch.

Lord, I should have known. I was too old to miss the warning signs but I was so excited about the opportunity the accounts presented that I did not see what I was getting myself into.

This was hell.

It started the first day, when he came into my office and told me, “I told Bert (not the partner’s real name) that I don’t believe a Black man can be a copywriter, and I am going to prove it.”

Think about this. He claimed to have told a “partner” that he didn’t believe a Black man could be a copywriter. And he still had his job.

I should have quit then, but my contract stated that if I did, I had to pay back the sign-on bonus, the moving expenses and all other costs involved. That wasn’t going to happen. “How bad could it be?” I thought.

For what seemed like an eternity, he gave me the worse assignments, refused to approve most of my work and went out of his way to make sure I would fail. It got so bad that I would give my concepts to a junior team, and let them present. He would approve the concepts, commenting that this was the type of work the entire team should be doing. Everyone on the team knew it was my work but him.

Remember that part – “Everyone on the team knew it was my work but him.”

I went to human resources. I filed grievances. I tried to work through the system. It only made him worse. I requested to be transferred to another group – he blocked my request.

This went on for months. I had to stay two years before I wouldn’t have to pay the agency back. There was no way I was going to write them a check, not after all of this.

My migraines and high blood pressure were out of control. My doctor couldn’t figure out why I was as sick as I was. He thought I was going to have a stroke or heart attack. I never thought to tell him how bad things were at work.

I guess my CD couldn’t take it anymore. Months before my two years were up, he came into my office, closed the door and said smiling, ”why don’t you go ahead and quit? It isn’t going to get any better for you here.”

I laughed at him. “My people survived slavery. I can survive you.”

The look on his face was worth it. A week later he wrote me up.

Finally, HR came for me. She came into my office, shut the door and said, “It isn’t working out for you. We are going to have to let you go.”

“Okay, let’s talk my severance package,” I responded.

She looked at me in shock. “We don’t pay severance for people we fire.”

I reached into my desk and pulled out two folders, one yellow and one red. I gave her the yellow one. “Look this over, and get back to me about my severance,” I said to her.

She took the folder and left. A few minutes she returned, and said, “can we talk about this tomorrow? We need some time to review all of this.”

I agreed, and left for the day.

Inside the each folder was every email my fellow team member had sent me about how our CD was only treating me like this because I was Black. I had nearly 30 emails from every member of the team at one time or another. Every team member.

I’ll let you guess how things went the next day.

I will tell you that the agency didn’t fire my CD. He stayed for a couple more years, and today is running another creative department. So, this guy is still in the industry.

I don’t tell this story to brag or prove how bad things are but to talk about my teammates. There is a lesson in my teammates’ silence.

For the entire time I was there, they knew how badly he was treating me and why, but they never spoke to management. They never told anyone. Sure, they emailed me, but they were all upset with me for using their emails. I haven’t spoken to some of them since that week. To them, I betrayed their trust.

“I betrayed their trust.” Let that marinate.

They were more upset about me using their emails than they were about how I was being treated. They were content to be silent.

I wish this silence of white men was an exception instead of more the rule.

The first blog I wrote here for The Drum, I use some quotes that I have heard during my career. As bad as they might have seemed, the real ugliness is that there were white men present for almost every one of those quotes, and they never said a word.

Not a single word.

“It’s always the quiet ones who’ll ‘f’ you up the worse.”

Think I’m joking? Look at the election for president in the USA. The poor Democrats, many of them never saw those results coming, but they should have. White people were just too quiet.

Now, that’s about all I am going to say about the election, besides the election should serve as a cautionary tale to those working for diversity in advertising.

White men in advertising are too quiet.

Sure, sure, there are a few of them speaking up and taking action, but as a group, they are awful quiet.

The 3% Conference was pretty interesting in this respect.

A lot of the agencies and clients were represented at the conference; several of which are even big sponsors. However, there is a “but” to their participation – there were very few C-suite and/or superstar status white men present (about 10-15 out of 1000 attendees). Now, those who were there were some really powerful men, but there simply wasn’t enough. The same is true for the industry in general.

White men in advertising are too quiet.

I have partnered with some great art directors, many who have either gone on to run creative departments or their own agencies. We have been more than partners, they have been to our home, our children played together – I considered them my brothers.

Notice that I use the past tense. Their silence betrayed me.

We had been in the trenches together, fighting to do great work – we had each other’s back. Or so I thought.

Without fail, there came a time when I was being attacked because of who I was, and my “partners” said nothing. Heck, a couple of them went along with it. Only to call me later to tell me how unfair it was the way I was being treated.

That’s nice, but it would have meant more if they had spoken up at the time. I understand and appreciate the sacrifice that I am talking about, but if diversity in advertising is ever going to change – white men cannot remain silent.

Imagine what might have happened if my teammates in the story above had found their voices earlier, and went to management about what I was going through. How hard would it have been for management to back my CD if the team had spoken up?

White men in advertising are too quiet.

We can talk about diversity in advertising until the cows come home, but until white men in advertising start having real and meaningful conversations about the issue, not much can change.

Too often we are looking for grand solutions, some magical program or initiative that will solve the issue of diversity, but there isn’t one. However, there is one small thing that can be done – speak up.

Break the silence. Find your voice.

Imagine if someone had told my CD, “not cool,” how that might have changed his behavior? Their silence was permission for him to carry on. When you’re in a meeting or hanging out or reviewing resumes and portfolios, and someone makes a comment that isn’t right – say so. Speak up for the person who can’t.

Beloved agency leaders and management, it is not enough for you to support a diversity; you have to speak up and then show up. Change at most organization happens from the top down. Lead.

The conversations about diversity are not always going to be fun or painless but they are conversations that need to happen. And it is all talk until the bosses are speaking about it. Your words have power. Use them to help advertising become better.

Right now, the silence of white men in advertising speaks volumes.

Unfortunately, it is saying the wrong thing.

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