Even if you aren't racist, your agency might be

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An introspective SXSW panel confronts the industry's struggles with race and representation

AUSTIN — The room, already a small one, was less than half full for a discussion on race and racism in the advertising industry on Day 2 of SXSW Interactive. The 5-member panel was occasionally drowned out by the applause coming from the session about viral videos next door.

But the intimate group didn’t shy away from tackling tough topics, perhaps best exemplified by the panel’s provocative title, "If You Are in Advertising, You May Be a Racist."

Louie Moses, president and creative director at independent agency Moses Inc., noted that the panel members had spent the day together, talking about their experiences in the industry and the challenges that underrepresented groups, particularly racial minorities, face. Often, it begins with even getting diversity issues recognized.

"A lot of people didn’t realize it was a joke," said Arwa Mahdawi, about Rent-A-Minority, the satirical site she founded. Agencies and companies were actually interested in the "revolutionary new service designed for those oh-shit moments where you've realized your award show, corporate brochure, conference panel is entirely composed of white men."

"This is how a lot of companies approach diversity today," said Mahdawi, chief strategy & innovation officer at the creative agency Cummins & Partners.

But agencies and advertisers have a responsibility to embrace diversity, because they are so often the gatekeepers of the images the public sees, said moderator Erin Swenson Gorrall, group planning director at MullenLowe U.S. "We have the power to create messages and to put a lot of media dollars behind those messages."

But too often, ad messages exacerbate racial divides, she said, citing racially targeted briefs and audience rationales that include heavy stereotyping: "African-American moms and Hispanic moms tend to be less nutritious, have larger families, have less income than general populations, so are interested in low-cost snacking options."

That’s "lazy storytelling," Mahdawi said.

Better to target consumers based on universal human emotions, Moses said. It’s also more effective, which is all that most clients care about. "If we can lead clients to the best way to sell their product or service to the consumer, they’re happy, because the color they care about is green."

In order to do that in an authentic way, many brands turn to agencies that specialize in targeting underrepresented consumers, a practice Mahdawi found fault with.

"I find it kind of crazy that we have multicultural agencies in a multicultural country," she said. "What does that make the other agencies? The straight, white man agency? Actually, most of the time, they are."

But in one of the few instances of disagreement on the panel, Don Perry, CEO of the image archive Digital Diaspora, said multicultural agencies offer a counterweight to mainstream agencies, though he called out big agencies that rely on the expertise of multicultural agencies but don’t share enough of the revenue from affected accounts.

The ultimate problem lies in hiring, Perry said. Without a diverse pool of talent in agencies, they’ll never be able to represent the diversity of society.

Gorrall backed up the claim with statistics: the ad industry is only 6.6% African-American, 5.7% Asian-American and 10.5% Hispanic. C-level employees are 88% white. But 100% of publicly traded agencies require diversity training, she said, so it obviously isn’t working.

But if an HR seminar can’t help, where does that leave employees who want to change the environment at their offices?

"We all just need to be brave," said Mahdawi, even if that means standing up to superiors. She cited allegations of racism and misogyny currently being investigated at J. Walter Thompson. "I just have so much respect for Erin Johnson for opening her mouth and calling out her boss for saying terrible things about women and minorities, and that’s the sort of thing we need to have people do if things are going to change."

On Thursday, J. Walter Thompson worldwide communications director Johnson filed a discrimination lawsuit against chairman and chief executive Gustav Martinez, claiming he repeatedly made racist and misogynistic remarks.


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