We can thank "Mad Men"-era thinking for creating the need for a specialized multicultural business model. The advertising industry in general was slow on the uptake when it came to societal changes and big demographic shifts. That left a void, and a handful of visionaries saw the business opportunity left by that void. The smart ones filled it by valuing the contributions and experiences of African-American, Hispanic, Asian, LGBT, and other segments growing in influence and affluence.
What if it had been different? What if the advertising industry cared more about consumers than about its old boys’ club? Imagine agencies and clients embracing inclusion from the start. Not just window-dressing, check-the-box, we-have-people-of-color-on-our-staff-to fill-a-quota inclusion, but real inclusion — the kind that leverages diverse thinking to fuel innovation; the kind that reflects and respects diverse lives. Life experiences make us who we are. How better to understand consumers than to celebrate difference and acknowledge the limitations inherent in homogeneity?
Over the years, agencies made little to no effort to change tired hiring practices because only consumers from the "mainstream" were supposed to matter to clients and, therefore, to the creative product that went on air. Remember Rolodexes? Well, "not in the Rolodex" was a convenient excuse for not bringing in more diverse talent in terms of staff and suppliers. It was common to hear, "We want to hire Blacks or Hispanics, they just don’t apply" — or "We just can’t find any." Scan the Walton Isaacson website, check out the photos under "Who We Are," and you’ll find that "We" are everybody — it’s reflected in our looks, our lives and our values. That’s not how the advertising world looked when we began our careers. Truth be told, even to this day, there are still too many "Who We Are’s" and "Meet the Staff’s" that look like they come straight out of the "Mad Men" era, particularly at senior management levels. Only the fashions and hairstyles have changed (and not always for the better).
There has been progress. Initiatives like the 4A’s Multicultural Advertising Training Program underscore a shift in attitudes and actions. Where doors were once closed to multicultural candidates, they are now not only open but there is even outreach coming from agencies. The contributions men and women of color have made in the industry are being recognized by AdColor. The AAF and the ANA have made a difference. The Marcus Graham Project identifies, mentors and trains ethnically diverse professionals in all aspects of the industry. Florida State University is one of several universities offering multicultural marketing degrees. Clients — more diverse themselves and aware that their customers are — are holding their agencies to a higher standard in terms of staff composition and multicultural competencies. Today, multicultural agencies are able to grow their businesses by taking on assignments that were historically reserved for so-called "general market" agencies.
The playing field may not quite be level, but at least there is a playing field.
Aaron Walton and Cory Isaacson are co-founders of Walton Isaacson.