Editor's letter: New year, same old elephant in the room

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The visuals for Ad Age's Agency A-List are a mostly white, mostly male reminder of the industry's failure to adapt

When the Oscars once again nominated 20 white actors for performance of the year last week, Hollywood went ballistic. Black actors and directors called for a boycott, and social media rallied around #Oscarssowhite. To quell the outrage, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced it was rescinding lifetime voting rights, a move designed to increase diversity by forcing the old, white guard into retirement.

Yesterday, the ad industry dragged its own dirty secret into public once again. When Advertising Age revealed its 2016 Agency A-List, readers were greeted with a too-familiar site: a Top 10 picture of mostly white faces, belonging almost entirely to men.

Now we have to ask the question again: How long will we present this as the face of the industry elite?

There was very little outrage to greet yesterday’s imagery. Perhaps because Ad Age’s process isn’t solely discretionary — agencies must submit to be considered, and decisions are based in part on empirical data. Though there were certainly missed opportunities elsewhere in the package to feature non-white talent, it’s not Ad Age’s fault if the CEOs of the best-performing agencies are, to borrow a line from "30 Rock," less diverse than a Wilco concert.

But as familiar as the image has become, it never gets any less embarrassing. The agency world is awash in chief diversity officersdiversity committeesdiversity recruitment efforts, female leadership programs and perfectly well-meaning panel discussions. And the product in recent years has certainly become more diverse. Ads featuring people of color, LGBTQ people, empowered women (and girls), and non-traditional couples are not only common, they clean up awards shows and help clients sell more stuff.

But how many times must we see this same photo before somebody gets the picture? Advertising is a business built on connecting with the public. Yet every selfie we produce seems to send the same maddening message: Non-whites and females need not apply, particularly if you’re aiming for the top.

"The agencies on the A List are all greatly deserving of the honor," said Nancy Hill, president and chief executive of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, via email. "The unfortunate reality for the industry is that the accompanying photos for the editorial show the complete lack of diversity that has become the norm in management levels of agencies."

"While there has been some progress," she added, "this photo array shows just how far we still have to go."

Everyone who covers the ad industry has grappled with this problem. How do you compile a diverse awards jury or panel discussion when the industry’s exalted few are so very male and white? How do you encourage diverse points of view when the most celebrated players all look the same? Tokenism is never the answer, but neither is accepting the status quo, because that’s what got us here in the first place.

Yesterday’s picture is just the end result of a deeply ingrained dysfunction. Just as the Academy won’t solve anything by retiring older voters, adland won’t achieve diversity by taking better photos. But there is so much talent out there that doesn’t quite look like everyone else we keep celebrating. Both industries need to get better at getting them in front of the camera. 


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