Color blind

In the days immediately following the Los Angeles riots last April, smoke and ash from the fires in South Central drifted west to the city’s upperclass beachfront areas. The air was especially heavy, both figuratively and literally, over the pristine white Santa Monica offices of Kresser/Cralg.
Although Bob Kresser and Jean Craig had long made a conscious effort to hire minorities at their $96million agency, the violence that rocked Los Angeles a year ago this week made them more determined than ever to reach out. “The riots were a trigger of sorts for us,” explains the 50-year-old Kresser, who grew up and still lives in the tony suburb of Manhattan Beach. “My feeling was that our business needed to be a reflection of the community we’re in. That’s true not just in L.A., but increasingly throughout the country as it becomes more ethnically diverse.”
In an effort to move the agency toward true multiethnic status, the principals put new emphasis on minority hiring. Since May, Kresser/Craig has made six such hires, increasing to 21 the number of African-, Hispanic- and AsianAmericans working on nearly every level of the agency’s 103-person staff.
Ester Ramirez, executive director of the Minority Advertising Training Program, calls Kresser/ Craig a leader in minority hiring. She’s quick to add that the agency’s involvement extends to her own program, which is designed to place minority interns with Los Angeles agencies. Ramirez says MATP regularly supplies a trainee to both Kresser/ Craig’s account management and creative departments (most agencies take only one intern).
Not that Kresser and Craig are painting themselves as heroes. They prefer to view themselves as realists. “From much more of a business perspective than a social consciousness point of view, I see a tremendous benefit to evolving the agency to a multiethnic status,” says Kresser.
Clients, for one, are demanding these kinds of changes. Several of Kresser/Craig’s accounts, including Arco, Albertson’s supermarkets, AM/PM minimarts, Clothestime and the State of California Transportation Department, already run Hispanic and Asian campaigns that are farmed out to ethnic vendors through Kresser/Craig. Eventually, the partners would like to see Kresser/Craig become multilingual and capable of handling minority ad campaigns. “It just can’t be a social consciousness kind of thing,” Kresser says. “But without any question, once you get into it, you realize what great energy minority points of view bring to the business.” Stan Gwyn, an African-American print production manager at Kresser/Craig, has been at the shop for three years. “I came from a large agency and there was a pretty good mix of minorities,” he says. “But there wasn’t as much of an activism about bringing in minority employees as there is at Kresser/Craig.” A 55-year-old mother of four who lives in Malibu and serves on the boards of numerous business organizations and charities, Craig sees a higher purpose in the minority hiring than the pragmatic Kresser.
“There’s so much negativity and crime in this city and in the world today,” she says. “All the security in life is gone. Anything you can do to bring back a more positive feeling is more important now than ever.” She has been instrumental in pushing the agency into a deeper involvement with the community it serves. Two years ago, for instance, Kresser/Craig decided it would give a percentage of the shop’s profits to local charities. And taking an example from client Arco, which is involved in a number of community activities, the agency hired Larry Bershon as a full-time director of public affairs. The programs instituted under the former Arco executive include adopting a class at a South Central grade school (agency employees take the youngsters to the beach and to picnics) and bringing the work of minority artists to the walls of the agency. It’s all part of a business trying to come to grips with a changing society, and it’s not always easy. Just finding minorities to hire in the lily-white ad world can be difficult. “There are few senior level minorities, particularly blacks and especially those with creative experience, to draw upon,” Kresser says.
Mike Whirlow, an African-American freelance copywriter who runs The Book Store, a popular L.A. school for copywriters, agrees. But he says it’s not only the fault of agencies that numbers are so low. Minorities generally aren’t exposed to the arts often enough to gravitate toward creative pursuits, he says. In the six years he’s been teaching, Whitlow says he’s only had two black students complete his program. “Minorities are not really drawn into the world of advertising,” says Gwyn, who adds that more agencies should follow the example of Kresser/Craig. “Every agency needs to be concentrating on soliciting minorities and welcoming them.”
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)