Why Advertising Has the Power to Advance How We Talk About Race in America

But the industry has much work to do

Ad industry players believe that agencies need to make safe spaces for serious discussions about race and racism within their organizations—outside of diversity training—where employees feel they can address harmful issues. Why?

Because the industry has "a lot of power, a lot of advertising dollars, to be able to push this conversation  [about race in America] forward," said Erin Swenson Gorrall, group planning director, Mullen Lowe, while moderating a panel on late Saturday about racism in advertising at South by Southwest Interactive. 

The panelists outlined several issues that stem from a culture of silence within agencies; from using detrimental stereotypes within briefs to casting to racism within those agencies. The panel gave the example of a brief that targeted Hispanic and African-American moms and said they tend be less nutrition-conscious and have bigger families.

The conversation even briefly touched on Erin Johnson, the chief communications officer at JWT who recently filed suit against CEO Gustavo Martinez, claiming that he regularly made racist and sexist comments which went unchecked and created an intolerable work environment. 

"We need to applaud the woman from JWT for speaking up," said Arwa Mahdawi, chief strategy and innovation officer, Cummins & Partners. "More people need to speak up and call out the sort of things that aren't okay." 

And that seems to be the rub. The panelists agreed that—without creating a culture where employees within agencies feel comfortable addressing issues around race and racism—those agencies will continue to have diversity issues and create work that is steeped in and furthers stereotypes. 

"It's important to have safe spaces where people can really talk about who they are," said Thomas Allen Harris, president of Digital Diaspora Family Reunion. "Checking boxes for black or Hispanic are limiting—our identities are much bigger than that."

Louie Moses, president and creative director, Moses Inc., agreed that when it comes to diversity in agencies, "checking a box is not good enough because if we can't have a conversation within our agencies then we can't have a conversation with our clients." 

"We're all creative, and we have to find the way to use words to move the conversation forward," said Moses.