By the time The Richards Group founder Stan Richards had publicly apologized for calling a campaign idea “too Black,” the damage had been done. The staff had reportedly been incensed by leadership’s sluggish response, and longtime client Motel 6—for whom the campaign at issue was pitched—had chosen to fire the agency.
The loss of an iconic client (Richards Group and actor Tom Bodett coined the timeless Motel 6 tagline “We’ll leave the light on for you” in 1986) was quickly followed by more high-profile and high-cost fallout as The Home Depot also severed its relationship with the agency.
Richards’ comment was made during an internal meeting with no clients present, but word still spread as staff demanded a substantive response, highlighting that tone-deaf incidents can spiral into the public forum even without traditionally revealing tipping points such as lawsuits.
For ad industry diversity advocates, the moment is one of vital reflection for all agencies to take stock of how earnestly they’re embracing inclusivity both in staffing and in their leadership’s words and actions. And for some with direct experience at The Richards Group, there were signs its culture might be changing from the bottom up.
The fact that the issue was escalated by Richards Group employees “gives me a great amount of faith in our industry and the next generation,” said a former employee of the agency who had been laid off prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The younger generation is on that level where they won’t accept that and won’t stand for it,” the former employee told Adweek. “I’m psyched there were people saying, ‘We can’t cover this up; we have to tell the client; we have to have an apology; we want change.'”
Adweek reached out to three high-profile diversity advocates, and below are the lessons they believe the ad industry should take from the fallout being felt by the Richards Group:
Founder and chairman, the Marcus Graham Project
There are four words that should be at the top of the mind of any agency executive as it relates to their employees calling out their alleged practices or behavior: Acknowledgement, Apology, Amendment and Atonement.
It is how you navigate through each phase in these moments of recompense that matters. Every word matters.
Clients are obviously watching. We are all watching. Longstanding relationships aren’t immune from it. Even some of the best marriages end in divorce.
CEO and founder, IfWeRanTheWorld and MakeLoveNotPorn
For years I’ve been saying that there is only one thing that will make our industry’s white male-dominated holding companies and agencies change to actively embrace diversity: complete total utter fucking disaster.
What’s happened at The Richards Group sends a message to all agency executives, that if you don’t start acting NOW to root out systemic racism—and sexism, ageism, ableism, homophobia; all of this is intersectional—from the very top of your agency downwards, at every single level, it’s going to blow up in your face, and it’s going to blow up your business.
As this episode demonstrates, it could happen to you at any moment, starting right now. So do the work you’ve been failing to do for decades, and do it FAST, starting right now.
Co-founder of Allyship & Action and founder of Palette Group
The message is clear, your agency’s staff are done with performative statements from leadership internally and leadership on the client-side. Toxic behavior in the advertising industry has run rampant for what feels like eons.