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Updated: Diversity Study Takes Ad Biz to Task

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NEW YORK African Americans in the advertising industry are significantly underrepresented and underpaid compared to their white counterparts, in part due to a "culture in which deeply embedded racial bias, both conscious and unconscious, creates systematic barriers to inclusion" for black professionals, according to a new study commissioned by civil rights law firm Mehri & Skalet.

The study, "Research Perspective on Race and Employment in the Advertising Industry," was released today. It cites employment and salary statistics and compares them to similar industries in an effort to illuminate the disparities between black and white workers in the $31 billion ad industry.

The 73-page report concludes that general market agencies need to fundamentally transform the current workplace culture to achieve "substantial, permanent change" in industry racial trends.

"Most employers make this commitment only when forced by substantial, sustained external pressure," states the study, which was conducted by Bendick and Egan Economic Consultants in Washington, D.C. "Sporatic, poorly designed government oversight over multiple decades has failed to provide that pressure, creating a need for fresh approaches. One promising new strategy is to incite advertising agencies' powerful clients to insist on compliance with the clients' commitment to equal opportunity. Another promising approach is large-scale anti-discrimination litigation."

Mehri & Skalet, whose founding partner, Cyrus Mehri, has previously achieved landmark racial discrimination settlements from Coca-Cola and Texaco, is partnering with the NAACP to launch the Madison Avenue Project to address what they perceive to be widespread racial discrimination in advertising.

Mehri and Angela Ciccolo, interim general counsel for the NAACP, this morning outlined the broad strokes of their plan to reporters at a press conference in New York.

"We're going to be catalysts," Mehri said. "We're not going to let go until this industry moves forward."

Ciccolo added: "This initiative is more important than ever" now because "when recession weakens our economy, many training, recruitment and anti-discrimination programs come to a halt."

Among the report's key findings:

--Black college graduates working in advertising earn 80 cents for every dollar earned by their equally qualified white counterparts. Black employees would need to be paid 25 percent more to earn what whites earn with the same qualifications. This racial pay gap is more than twice as large in advertising as in the overall labor market.

--The U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission estimate the expected representation of African Americans at 9.6 percent of advertising managers and professionals. The current 5.3 percent representation reaches only 55 percent of that benchmark, and eliminating this shortfall would require hiring or promoting 7,200 additional black ad professionals and managers.

--About 16 percent of large establishments in the industry employ no black managers or professionals, a rate 60 percent higher than in the overall labor market.

--African Americans are only 62 percent as likely as their white counterparts to work in advertising agencies' powerful "creative" and "client contact" functions and only 10 percent as likely to hold a position paying $100,000 or more per year.

Two of the top four agency holding companies issued statements in response to the release of the study.

Omnicom said it is "actively engaged in strengthening our diversity efforts across the company," citing a Diversity Development Advisory Committee it set up last year and this week's hire of Arnold's Tiffany Warren in the new role of chief diversity officer. Warren is tasked with expanding current efforts and forging "new and far-reaching initiatives," the statement said.

Omnicom added that it is "committed to continuously improving our diversity efforts and welcome all constructive suggestions, including those the NAACP or Mr. Mehri may wish to offer."

Yesterday, Interpublic Group's chief diversity and inclusion officer, Heide Gardner, said: "Inclusion has been a top priority for us for a number of years now and we agree that change can only be achieved through systemically addressing the company's culture. We've put in place a wide range of diversity initiatives, but we're always open to dialogue with anyone that comes to the table with new solutions."

Gardner added that IPG recognizes that "there's still much work to be done."

The report comes two years after 15 major agencies pledged to increase diversity in their ranks in response to an investigation by the New York City Commission on Human Rights. The investigation was triggered by a complaint from Sanford Moore, an African American who previously worked at agencies such as BBDO.

Related: "The Minority Report," an in-depth analysis of the state of diversity in the ad business.

This story updates an item posted yesterday with holding company reactions.