The Minority Report

Black athletes, musicians and actors figure more prominently in ad campaigns than ever, but the chances that African Americans actually created those ads are pretty slim.

According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data from January 2008, the advertising field — defined as advertising and PR agencies, as well as media, direct mail and other operations exclusively devoted to creating and delivering ads — is just 5 percent African American, 3 percent Asian and 8 percent Hispanic or Latino. Those numbers are particularly stark considering that New York, the city with the highest concentration of ad agencies, is only 45 percent white, according to U.S. Census data. USA Today recently dubbed the ad industry “a poster child for a dearth of diversity.”

For more than four decades, civil rights groups have accused the ad business of violating equal-opportunity hiring laws. In 2006, the New York City Commission on Human Rights (NYCCHR), acting on a complaint from Sanford Moore, an African American who had worked at agencies including BBDO, launched an investigation of 16 prominent New York firms, including BBDO, DDB, Ogilvy & Mather, Saatchi & Saatchi and Young & Rubicam. The agencies settled with the commission, committing to increase diversity over three years.

In the wake of that settlement, some agencies have increased the number of minorities working in their shops. And the industry as a whole is making progress, according to Nancy Hill, who became the American Association of Advertising Agencies’ first female CEO this year, and whose commitment to diversity has been lauded by Moore and others. “I know the industry still has a long way to go,” Hills says. “But a lot of things are starting to come together.”

But the data suggest that some shops have merely donned a fig leaf — offering bromides about how their hiring process is “colorblind,” doing pro bono work for minority causes, but still hiring only those who look like them.

Soon, those shops could be in for a day of reckoning, as Cyrus Mehri, the civil rights lawyer behind several landmark racial discrimination suits — including those against Coca-Cola (which settled for $193 million) and Texaco (which settled for $176 million) — is now targeting the advertising business. The result could be the dropping of so many fig leaves that the industry will need a rake.

Mehri says he has been contacted by “people from inside the industry who have suffered discrimination” and that his firm will soon issue a report on African Americans in advertising. (Critics agree that the situation with African Americans is unique, since they have been confronting both racial stereotypes in advertising and the lack of professional opportunities for more than a half century.) Using Census and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission data, the report will benchmark advertising against 28 other “persuasion” industries.

Among the findings in a preliminary report obtained by Adweek: African Americans make up only 3.2 percent of advertising’s upper management in the U.S., well under half of the average of 7.2 percent in similar professions.

Mehri won’t say whether he’s preparing a class-action suit against agencies, but even if he isn’t, he will likely leave the industry more diverse than he found it. Based on the remedies he and the late Johnnie Cochran prescribed in a study about the lack of black head coaches in the NFL, for example, the league adopted new hiring policies and more than tripled their ranks within four years.

Luke Visconti, co-founder of the magazine DiversityInc, who describes the ad industry’s diversity efforts as “laughable,” says advertising pros should take note that Mehri “can use the legal system to grind you to bits,” but that he is reasonable in crafting constructive solutions.