NEW YORK Last week's release of a 73-page report quantifying the relative paucity of African Americans in the advertising industry was but the first shot across the bow to major ad holding companies from civil rights law firm Mehri & Skalet and its partner, the NAACP.
In the the coming weeks, the NAACP will ask advertisers to pressure the holding company agencies they employ to fundamentally change their approach to hiring, retaining and promoting black staffers, according to Mehri & Skalet founding partner Cyrus Mehri.
The study, "Research Perspectives on Race and Employment in the Advertising Industry," argues that current industry efforts to "expand the pipeline" of minority applicants-via internships, scholarships and mentoring programs-aren't enough. There are still wide gaps in representation, income levels and promotion opportunities between black and white employees that have existed for decades.
The report asserts, for example, that black workers, on average, make 80 cents for every dollar earned by their white counterparts and that based in part on black representation in like industries, African Americans should comprise 9.6 percent of advertising's total estimated U.S. workforce of 167,000, not the current 5.3 percent. "None of the 'expand the pipeline' initiatives . . . is harmful in itself," the report states. "However, the initiatives are harmful to the extent that they lead the advertising industry, public enforcement agencies, civil rights advocates, the news media or other interested parties to believe that race discrimination in industry employment is being addressed in a meaningful way."
The study, which Mehri & Skalet commissioned from Bendick and Egan Economic Consultants in Washington, D.C., further calls for agency leaders to systematically rid their workplace cultures of conscious or unconscious bias and make a "business case for inclusion." Such change will take years and require new policies and the retraining of agency staffers, particularly agency managers, the report suggests.
Mehri & Skalet since last spring has gathered anecdotal evidence of discrimination from African Americans in the business who feel aggrieved. That process began with interviews with a core group of a dozen people and continues as others connect with the firm via word of mouth, said Mehri.
Implied in the information gathering, report generation and client outreach is the prospect of a lawsuit-a tool that Mehri used previously to extract major settlements of discrimination claims from Coca-Cola and Texaco. In other cases, however, Mehri's firm has achieved anti-discriminatory policies without suing, such as getting the NFL to consider black candidates when hiring coaches or persuading Morgan Stanley to address gender inequality.
When asked about the likelihood of striking an accord with the ad industry without suing, Mehri said it was a question of leadership. "This really turns at the CEO level," Mehri told Adweek on Friday. "In other words, are the [holding company] CEOs going to be like the owners of the NFL, and say, 'Now is the time to do something?' Or are the CEOs going to be entrenched and shortsighted? And if so, I think these companies are going to crumble under what we're going to give them because they're going to start losing their clients."
The recession and its related client spending cuts and agency layoffs create "challenges and opportunities," said Mehri. "We're in an economic crisis. But we're in an industry that is vulnerable because of that economic crisis. The last thing they need is to lose more business because they're taking an unenlightened view on this."