Yesterday over 600 black advertising professionals put their name to an open letter to advertising agency leadership demanding urgent action. Like many other industries, advertising has a long way to go in terms of having representation that truly reflects what the U.S. looks like today and making the industry more equitable.
A little over a week ago, I was asked to get involved in this initiative and sign the letter. It wasn’t something that required a second thought, and here’s why.
As an agency leader with over 25 years in the business, I’ve been pretty fortunate to have been exposed to some iconic figures in our industry: Ron Elgin, Pat Fallon, David Lubars, Lee Clow, Jeff Goodby, and Rich Silverstein – and many others who served as true mentors throughout my career (you know who you are). I learned a ton from these people and owe whatever success I have today from stealing small bits of their leadership style and making them my own.
But as I reflect on my career, I realize I was deprived of one thing – a role model that looked like me and shared a similar background. Don’t get me wrong; there have been many black advertising trailblazers I admire and respect: Vince Cullers, Tom Burrell, Carol H. Williams, Caroline Jones, to name a few. And in recent years, I’ve been excited to see the likes of Michael Houston, Steve Stout, Jimmy Smith, Jayanta Jenkins, Geoff Edwards, and Keith Cartwright gain greater visibility within the industry.
However, that’s far from enough.
For change to indeed happen in our industry, it has to come from the top. And that’s hard to do when the top isn’t very diverse. Just ask the many women in our industry that have struggled with the glass ceiling or boy’s club issue.
Some of this may be because blacks have not had some of the same opportunities as their white counterparts. Some of it may be because African Americans have been less willing or able to take the risks of starting an agency. Or perhaps it’s because we’re seeing fewer people of color coming into our industry. After all, there’s a feeling among many people of color that they cannot bring their “full self” to work each day. No matter the reason, not seeing other black people in leadership roles with the ability and willingness to guide, mentor, and push young black people coming into the industry has had a significant influence on what our industry looks like today.
The letter is important because it’s about accountability. Accountability in terms of establishing metrics, on-going reporting, looking at policies, bias training, outreach to diverse communities, funding programs, closing the pay gap, and executive participation – including representation on agency boards. It’s not easy, but frankly, it’s just common-sense stuff. The letter serves as a wake-up call for everyone in our industry, including our agency. I’m excited we are committing to all 12 actions requested in the letter, and I’m hoping others will do the same.
Having a daughter who’s just entering the industry, I want her to have a different experience. Yes, I’d love for her to have similar positive influences. But hopefully, when she looks back on her career, she can quickly point to a person of color in leadership that was an advocate for her and helped shape her development. If that happens, just maybe, that will be a signal our industry has changed for the better.
That’s why I signed this letter. President of DNA, Chris Witherspoon