If the name Cyrus Mehri rings a bell, it’s for good reason. The founding partner of Mehri & Skalet PLLC has litigated some of the most high-profile discrimination, corporate fraud, and civil and consumer rights cases in America.
He was in the middle of two of the largest race discrimination class actions in history, going up against Texaco in 1997 and Coca-Cola in 2001, which settled for $176 million and $192.5 million, respectively. Additionally, Mehri was instrumental in getting the NFL to establish its so-called Rooney Rule, requiring the league to interview at least one minority candidate for head coaching and general manager roles.
The ad world may recall Mehri from his time working on the Madison Avenue Project, which shed light on the significant underrepresentation of Black professionals in the ad industry, exposing systemic issues in 2009. Mehri’s firm subsequently represented several Black ad pros in race discrimination charges before the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
With new pressure being put on the ad industry, and particularly agencies, Mehri and his firm have reached an agreement to work with advocacy group 600 & Rising.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the organization said: “600 & Rising is focused on advocacy, transparency and, importantly, policy that supports Black talent in advertising and public relations, with wage equity a top priority, based on feedback from a recent survey of 600 & Rising signatories. While taking steps toward meaningful change, 600 & Rising will be receiving legal counsel from Cyrus Mehri and the team at Mehri & Skalet.”
Without going into specifics, Mehri noted that the firm is “providing legal counsel on a wide range of topics.”
Over the summer, several agencies and holding companies released diversity data, yet, according to Mehri, not much has changed since his first foray into the industry in the late 2000s.
“The data shows that virtually no positive changes happened,” he said, also referring to a recent study from economist Marc Bendick showing employment and pay gaps. “The data and social science show that when organizations go through the motions and check boxes, they get the same result. The only way to overcome that is for leadership at the top to insist on meaningful change, accountability and intentional efforts to create an atmosphere of equal opportunity.”
Mehri also noted that American culture and current sentiment are different from 2009, with a population more vociferously and actively demanding change. Related to the advertising industry, he feels that there is “an incredible moment for this industry to do what’s right and genuinely create the change that has eluded them all of these years,” adding that it has to “start from the CEO, C-suite and board of directors, putting their foot down and holding people accountable.”
Litigation, Mehri feels, is “the absolute last resort.” Instead, a range of opportunities, including policy initiatives, could pave the way for agencies to succeed.
In looking at where the industry sits at the moment, Mehri is both pessimistic and optimistic that industry leaders can do the right thing and avoid some of the missed opportunities of the past.
“The pessimism is the track record of dodging and weaving, putting things off and talking a good game, while not holding people accountable,” Mehri said. “I’m optimistic because there’s a tidal wave of change coming. They’re either going to go with it or be forgotten. But there’s probably no better moment than now.”