Agencies Face a Huge Obstacle in Responding to Racism: Their Own Failure to Act

Six black professionals tell Adweek what they do—and don't—want to hear this week

george floyd
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Headshot of Doug Zanger

Key insights:

Every day, agencies are tasked with solving problems too complex, nuanced and rapidly evolving for their clients to handle alone. In short, the agency world exists to find creative answers to the business world’s most daunting, high-stakes questions.

Yet when it comes to the heartbreakingly obvious inequalities of race in America, agencies have been notoriously slow to offer tangible solutions and, despite years of industry dialogue, have little to show for all their talk when it comes to diversity in top-level leadership. So when a moment flares up such as the current national protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, agencies seem to find themselves racing to catch up on conversations they could have been leading proactively.

“Agencies are reactive. That’s the biggest problem I’ve seen,” said Keni Thacker, founder of 100 Roses From Concrete, a platform for black male professionals in advertising and marketing. “They’re tripping on their shoelaces all the time because they’re not paying attention.”

Over the weekend, as demonstrations that began in U.S. cities spread around the globe, often escalating into clashes with police, Adweek spoke with industry veteran Thacker and five younger black professionals—who asked to remain anonymous so they could be candid without risk of workplace backlash—about how agencies should be responding to this pivotal moment.

Their responses make clear there is no one specific path forward that all will agree on, and the agency world has burned a large amount of potential goodwill by being years late to the conversation. But they also illustrate why it’s more important than ever for agencies to be turning words into actions and demonstrating the same level of creative intensity that’s brought to bear for client brands each day.

Action and transparency instead of sympathy

While there appears to be a rush for people to say something or offer some level of comfort, in the mind of one person in the media department of a holding company agency, that’s not helpful.

"The thing we're tired of is sympathy. Feeling sorry for us is not going to foster the change that we're all looking for."
Media department employee, holding company agency

“To me, and many people I’ve spoken to, the thing we’re tired of is sympathy,” they said. “Feeling sorry for us is not going to foster the change that we’re all looking for. Don’t make that the core focus of how you portray yourself as an ally. Feeling bad does not bring about change; it’s an emotion.”

According to a creative at a media company with several years of agency experience, most of the communications that they have seen has been more in response to the riots rather than the killings of Floyd, as well as Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. Additionally, none of the outreach has included naming Floyd or what happened.

“Saying that we want to acknowledge ‘tragic events’ is palatable,” they said. “If you send it on a Friday night—the [police officer] has been charged with murder—call it what it is and be transparent or open about what you are reacting to. Be actionable in the communications.”

Additionally, this individual noted that when “the effect or ramifications of tragedy are large enough for people not to ignore, often the conversations—to the pained person that represents the same group as the victim—tends to be, ‘Tell us what to do. What should we be doing now?’ That’s what I don’t want to hear, and hate when victims have to figure out the remedy.”

Another creative at a holding company agency based on the West Coast agreed with the sentiment, noting that black people shouldn’t be the ones to solve the issues related to diversity, inclusion, equality and equity.

"If we can get an entire generation hooked on cigarettes, we could do something to solve racism without having black people be the mouthpiece or the ones advocating for that change."
Creative, holding company agency

“We don’t want to hear how much we matter to you. We don’t want to hear how about how this is unjust,” they said. “We know that it’s unjust. We know that racism is real. We want to see action and thinking outside the box. If we can get an entire generation hooked on cigarettes, we could do something to solve racism without having black people be the mouthpiece or the ones advocating for that change.”

This employee also pointed out the systemic inaction of agencies in finding diverse talent, only paying lip service when bringing the issue up.

“I feel like a lot of agencies give the excuse of, ‘We don’t know what to do, we don’t know how to fix this,'” they said. “And a lot of people let that pass and give the agencies the benefit of the doubt because they also feel like they don’t know what to do. To me, that feels incredibly lazy. But that’s the entire nature of the work we do: We get problems, don’t know what to do with them at first, and then solve them.”

"'What should we be doing now?' That's what I don't want to hear, and hate when victims have to figure out the remedy."
Executive, media company


@zanger doug.zanger@adweek.com Doug Zanger is a senior editor, agencies at Adweek, focusing on creativity and agencies.
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