Last September, my Instagram feed was filled with this collage of beautiful black women on the covers of various print media outlets. However, I immediately noticed a clear and apparent flaw: Only one of the magazines were actually owned and run by a person of color (Essence). The rest, contrary to the unsolicited praise and worship they received, have historically not embraced black women’s beauty and influence on fashion.
I was furious. As an owner of an independently owned and operated media company for people of color, I couldn’t believe the celebration these outlets were getting for the same work companies like mine have been doing for decades. Work we do every day with little acknowledgment and unquestionably produced with a fraction of the budgets our counterparts on the other side are afforded. Like, seriously, is it really a #BlackGirlMagic moment after centuries of multiple absentia black women were placed on covers to prop some diversity and inclusion initiative because it was a trending topic? Did they even know Issa Rae when she was an Awkward Black Girl? What do they think Ebony and Essence have been doing all these years?
Black culture has influenced all things American. Who we are is a global commodity, yet we rarely—if at all—get to profit or credit from this. Jazz, blues, rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, rap and hip-hop are all products of a community that is not only underserved and ignored by the government, but account managers at big ad agencies, too.
The media planners are gatekeepers of a system that is inherently prejudiced. Yes, that is a strong accusation, but it’s true. This isn’t anything new. Fifty years ago, Ebony had to make an instructional video titled “The Secret of Selling the Negro” just to teach agencies that black families did the same fundamental things in their daily lives as white families. Unfortunately, it seems to be time for a sequel.
It’s just not enough for brands like Gucci, Boss, Burberry, Tom Ford or Louis Vuitton to put a black body in their marketing materials if those ads only land in Vogue, GQ, Esquire and Vanity Fair. True diversity and inclusion in advertising mean treating media outlets of color equally. They already make magic out of thin air—imagine if they were propped up by the same discriminatory system that funnels budgets to the same outlets over and over again. African-American adults read an average of 10.8 print magazine issues per month, compared to 8.2 issues per month for all U.S. adults, according to The Association of Magazine Media, so why aren’t more brands advertising in black-owned outlets?
Putting a person of color in your ad campaign yet not placing that ad in diverse outlets is akin to Antebellum era minstrel shows using white actors with blackface to play exaggerated stereotypes of black people to avoid hiring and paying black actors. Media planners need to do a better job of not thinking of people of color as marketing props, but as consumers with estimates of $4.3 trillion in spending power. The black population alone over-indexes in countless consumer product categories, yet we are disproportionately left out of the budgets when it comes to advertising these products in print media. Brands haven’t even fully tapped into the potential of engaging these consumers through minority-owned media outlets due to the antiquated system of planning and spending by the big agencies.
Print isn’t dead—we just need more diversity in planning roles at big agencies. Some black-owned brands find the most success in scoring a new account when they go to the brand directly, avoiding the agency altogether. The agencies’ responses are always along the lines of: “Wow, your product is beautiful! I can’t believe we never heard of you before.” How could you when the person in charge of the account always buys pages in the same five magazines because those are the only ones they read or because their brother’s first roommate after college is the sales rep?
Media planners of color should not only be found at black-owned shops. There should be an industry standard to have a non-monolithic approach to who gets to allocate budgets on the clients’ behalves. Diversity and inclusion start at home base; it needs to become part of the agency’s DNA. The cultural revolution is happening now in America and around the globe. And, yes, it will be televised, tweeted and live streamed. But most importantly, as with all historical content, it will be written.
Agencies have made some strides in addressing diversity. Multicultural TV spots and print and digital campaigns have sprouted, from insurance companies to beauty brands. Unfortunately, they miss the mark on the most important component of any diversity strategy: inclusion. Simply putting a person of color in the creative is not enough. Media planners must do a better job including diverse media outlets. Almost no black-owned print media even makes it into the plan. And when it does, it is usually just one. If brands want to increase sales, which is the obvious objective, then they should speak to a more diverse audience with their spend and not just place someone that looks like them in the creative.