Q&A: GlobalHue’s Don Coleman

In December, GlobalHue was named AdweekMedia’s multicultural agency of the decade. Don Coleman, the agency’s CEO and chairman, spoke to Adweek about the importance of research, what the 2010 Census may mean for multicultural agencies and the thorny problem of the lack of diversity in the advertising industry.

Adweek: Research is important for all agencies. Tell us why it is particularly important for you.

Coleman: Understanding the ever-growing ethnic populations is vital to us because we need to know more than anyone about the cultures and nuances of Hispanics, African Americans and Asians and how they are melding into popular culture and, importantly, how they are influencing broader popular culture. For our clients we use research to measure the results of our work and, most importantly, to help clients understand where their brands are positioned in the minds of the different population groups.

What about internally?

The 2000 Census gave me a clear indication that multicultural consumers were going to play a much more significant role in brand marketing, so we had to prepare ourselves to take advantage of that — particularly in 2000 as it related to Hispanic consumers. That’s where we saw the growth pattern. We decided to put all of our cultural understanding of the different groups under one roof, something that had not been done before.

What do you expect to see in the 2010 Census?

I have an A and a B scenario. Under scenario A, all things being equal, you’re going to see a spike in the minority population and a significant spike on the Asian side. That’s where you are going to see a jump from the 2000 Census, similar to the jump we saw in Hispanics in 2000.

The B scenario is based on immigration reform, attempts at reform and the threat of immigration law changing, combined with the economic downturn. As a result it’s going to be more difficult to get people to participate. There is a paranoia among minority populations, and Hispanics especially, that information will not be held confidentially, that people will be deported as a result of what they put in the form. The economic downturn means that there are more people who simply do not want to be found.

The Census is working hard to avoid scenario B [GlobalHue is working for the Census office in the Hispanic and African-American population segments], convincing people that the information will be held confidentially and that there can be no backlash and that there is, in fact, some benefit to filling in the forms accurately as it relates to budget appropriations and so on.

Do you foresee the structure or focus of your agency changing as a result of the census?

Whatever scenario pans out, we will still be dealing with a rapidly growing ethnic population. Marketing is going to change as a result. Already, 52 percent of all individuals under the age of 21 are from minorities. That is going to play out down the line in terms of how brands are positioned, even from a general market perspective. We are keeping an eye on that and where we evolve as an agency is going to center around those findings.

Is it the ambition of all ethnically focused shops to win general assignment work?

I cannot speak with authority for all multicultural agencies, but for GlobalHue we feel we have to be able to evolve with what the market presents us. That’s the way I have always looked at it and that’s why the agency remains entrepreneurial in spirit. We know that sometimes we have to make adjustments very quickly with the growing numbers and the growing spending power — some states like California and Texas are already “majority-minority” states and some brands are the same. These are trends we think will continue and we want to be prepared to take advantage of them.

It is generally accepted that the digital/traditional distinction will at some point vanish in the agency world. Does the same apply to the distinction between general assignment and multicultural shops?

But we are not dealing with a monolith. When I first got into advertising working on the Chevrolet account, it was all about mass marketing, everyone into baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet. But since then we have gone beyond the notion of that mass marketing scenario. Minority cultures will not completely assimilate into a full American lifestyle. They will adjust and adapt, but they will still maintain their cultural bearings. That’s why we will always need agencies that specialize in targeting these groups.

Diversity in employment in the advertising industry is a clear problem. Why does the industry fail to attract executives from minority populations in appropriate numbers?

There are a number of reasons. First, the client side dictates in many cases what the agency side does. If there were more impetus on the client side to see more people of color in agencies, then you would.

Also, in years past, the agency business has not been fully accountable for business growth, as it is becoming today. There was a lot of nepotism and cronyism as it relates to who was employed. There were accounts that had been at the same agencies for 20 or 30 years. That in itself builds up an incestuous scenario. It was almost a country club scenario. Agencies were not viewed as strategic business partners.

It is clearly wrong to say that you cannot find creative people of color. The ad industry is still a little like professional sports in the ’50s before Bill Russell and the guys broke the color barrier in the NBA.

So as business reality kicks in this will change?

Absolutely. But it is incumbent on the ethnic agencies to get an even better handle on the consumers they understand and make sure that translates into business growth for clients.

This is reflected in what the Italians did at Chrysler. When the business is on the line, you have to go for the best results and the best ideas. [GlobalHue won a Jeep assignment in September last year.] We went up against some of the biggest agencies for that work, but when it came to a matter of survival for the business they had to go for the best ideas.

If we can translate that survival thinking into day-to-day business mode of shared growth and stockholder value, then we will have more of an even playing field.