Dan Wieden Makes Impassioned Diversity Pitch at 4A’s

SAN FRANCISCO Speaking plainly, directly and at times profanely, Wieden + Kennedy’s Dan Wieden today used the platform of the American Association of Advertising Agencies to urge agencies to finally address the relative lack of diversity in the industry.

Wieden pointed to an outdoor camp for at-risk youth he helped create in Oregon as a concrete example of what he has done to introduce minorities to the art of filmmaking and the possibility of working in advertising. At the same time, he acknowledged that his agency is still predominantly white, though its percentages of African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians have increased in the past six years.

The issue of diversity “continues to gnaw at me because, like it or not, in this business I essentially hire a bunch of white, middle-class kids, pay them enormous, enormous sums of money to do what? To create messages to the inner-city kids who create the culture the white kids are trying like hell to emulate,” said Wieden, one of the featured speakers on the last day of this year’s 4A’s Leadership Conference. “But if you go into the inner city, odds are these kids aren’t even going to see advertising as a possibility, as an opportunity for them. Now that’s fucked up,” he said.

Wieden added: “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not bringing this up today because I think Wieden + Kennedy is doing this phenomenal goddam job at rectifying the situation. I think we’ve made some progress. But we’ve got miles and miles to go before we sleep.”

African-Americans, Asians and Hispanics today represent nearly 18 percent of Wieden’s Portland, Ore., office and about 24 percent of its New York office, up from about 6 percent and 10 percent, respectively, since 2003, Wieden said. To achieve those increases, the independent agency has utilized Howard University’s Center for Excellence, the Minority Advertising Training program and outreach specialists like Partners in Diversity.

“I repeat, though, I’m not bringing that up just to brag. If I had any common sense, I would avoid this topic like the plague,” Wieden said. “But I thought, maybe, just maybe it might be more inspirational to hear from someone as screwed up as you are. And you are screwed up, aren’t you? I mean, look at this room: how many black faces do you see here?” Roughly a half-dozen of the 150 or so attendees remaining in the audience in the waning hours of the conference could be described as people of color.

Wieden pointed to his camp, Caldera, as a manifestation of his own soul-searching on the issue of diversity. The sleepover camp, which opened in 1996, offers arts and environmental activities to adolescents in the hope that they will “find their voice,” Wieden said.

By way of illustration, Wieden showed a 10-minute film that a teenage girl created about the experience. The clip blended music with images of campers waking up, drumming in groups, dancing and singing in front of a campfire. It closed with the song “Amazing Grace” and the screen copy message: “I love you all. The end.”

“Why not have that agency of yours adopt one of these things — one of these groups that is focused on diversity — and get messy with it?” Wieden said. “We need to get these kids that have no idea what we do in the commercial arts and the fine arts — we need to open these doors wide and get them in.”

Wieden concluded by saying that “there are many, many undiscovered voices out there — voices that against all odds can rise up and enrich this culture and perhaps one day change the very nature of the marketplace for the better.”