Like many of his generation, Marc Strachan, a 35-year veteran of marketing communications, was introduced to advertising through "Bewitched." That was the only cultural reference Strachan had as an African American high school student to the industry in which he would eventually carve out a successful career.
"I didn’t know anybody in that business. Nobody in my family knew anybody in the business," says Strachan, who fell in love with advertising after reading David Ogilvy’s "Confessions of an Advertising Man" as a business student at Adelphi University. "This was a white-male dominated business and we were not considered. As a matter of fact, unless you had somebody who was a relative in the business, most people weren’t considered."
"I got lucky," says Strachan. A college guidance counselor steered him to the 4A's Multicultural Advertising Internship Program (MAIP), and a Latin female traffic manager took him under her wing during his 10-week stint at what was then Compton Advertising. Now vice president of premise strategy and multicultural marketing at Diageo, Strachan admits his ascent to the top marketing ranks of one of the world’s leading spirits companies didn’t come easy. "I probably survived by hook or crook," he says. "I’ve had great opportunities put in front of me, and therefore I was able to push those doors open."
Strachan experienced the benefits of mentorship firsthand, and now as board chairman of AdColor, an industry-leading non-profit dedicated to diversity, it’s about paying it forward. Like hires like. You need to see it to be it. These well-worn sayings have become shorthand for the importance of role models to anyone’s career success. For minority talent, the need is even more pronounced, simply because their numbers in the advertising industry are so low. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, African Americans accounted for 5.3% of the employees working in advertising and related industries in the U.S. in 2015, compared to the 11.7% of the total workforce. Hispanics, 16.4% of the overall workforce, made up 11.7%, and Asians made up 6%, which is in line with the numbers in the total workforce of 5.8%.
Tiffany R. Warren
The numbers were likely even lower 15 years ago, when a bright young employee of the 4A’s, Tiffany R. Warren, a manager of the group’s diversity programs, observed just how few people of color were accepting trophies on the industry’s awards-show circuit. "Often I was surprised when I saw people of color win because I wasn’t reading about them or seeing them," she says. A light bulb went off.
"I was overseeing an internship program and I had to stand up and tell people that there were opportunities, but knowing on the back end that was going to be a longer journey for them and their counterparts," explains AdColor’s founder. "I didn’t think launching an awards show was being revolutionary or anything, it was out of necessity to see if I can draw out the same types of people from the same disciplines I was seeing at these other shows."
After a couple of years of research, Warren, who had moved on to a diversity role at Arnold Worldwide, enlisted the support of key industry organizations as founding members of a industry-wide coalition dedicated to diversity—the 4a's, the American Advertising Federation, the Association of National Advertisers, the Advertising Research Foundation, The Advertising Club of New York and Arnold Worldwide—to present the first AdColor awards in 2007. Held in Boca Raton, FL., the inaugural celebration was held during the ANA’s Multicultural Conference and honored 17 professionals in front of about a hundred attendees. "We had 160 nominations that year," she says. "It was amazing to go through all the nominations. That’s when we felt we had something special."
This week, AdColor will host nearly 500 attendants when it returns to Boca Raton for its 10th celebration. But it’s now much more than an awards show. It has grown into one of the industry’s largest diversity events, and a growing non-profit organization dedicated to championing all diversity talent across creative industries.
The description of its awards is now something of a mouthful. AdColor Awards "highlight and honor the achievements of African-American, American Indian/Native American, Asian Pacific-American, Hispanic/Latino, LGBT professionals and diversity and inclusion champions in the space," reads one online listing for this week’s event.
"About our third year in, we had a realization that diversity is not exclusively a benefit or something that is promoted by people of color," explains Warren, who in addition to serving as president of AdColor leads the diversity efforts of Omnicom Group as senior vice president and chief diversity officer. "There were a lot of great change agents that were supporting the effort. We thought we should get their stories out too."
The AdColor community has also grown beyond its agency beginnings to include other types of creative companies from the worlds of media, entertainment and technology. Just a few examples of tech company involvement this year: Mark D’Arcy, the chief creative officer of Facebook’s Creative Shop, recently joined AdColor’s board of directors. Apple is sponsoring the Futures program hackathon at the conference this year. And Twitter last week introduced a custom emoji, a multiracial fist-bump with a heart on top. The design, exclusive to AdColor until mid-October, says "we’ve got your back, we have you, as a community and as organization," says Warren. "And the fist bump has always been the recognition of a job well done."
The icon communicates the core tenants of the organization’s motto, "rise up and reach back." It’s about shining the spotlight on multi-cultural talent, creating and fostering a community of mentors and colleagues that provide much-needed support, not only for young talent with its Futures program, but for diversity talent throughout their careers. And with its conference program, thought leadership and inspiration attendees can take back to their companies.
"It's grown up, and it's grown up well," says Singleton Beato, evp of diversity and inclusion strategy and talent development at the 4A’s, of AdColor. "It’s a cemented presence in the industry as a community builder, a place where people of color can come together and feel connected and inspired."
Yet for all its accomplishments, AdColor is not without its share of detractors. Some say it’s an insular community of like-minded people talking to and rewarding each other (isn’t all of advertising?), others that the awards don’t have anywhere near the career currency other awards shows like Cannes carry. And for all the celebration that comes with the yearly event, even past winners question how much real work is being accomplished once the party is over. "It's great for advertising. It advertises we're doing great things in the industry, that we're trying," notes one past winner. "But supporting the minority cause isn't about the dog and pony show. It's about the work of hiring qualified people of diverse groups."
It was only 10 years ago that the agency business came under fire from the New York Human Rights Commission, which took the major agencies and their holding-company parents to task over their minority hiring practices. It was under this pressured environment that agencies were spurred to make greater investments in diversity programs and hire more people dedicated to the issue in roles such as chief diversity officer. It was in this climate that AdColor was born.
This year too has marked a watershed moment for diversity. Conversations about diversity have dominated headlines both within the industry and in popular culture. The pending lawsuit against J. Walter Thompson that accused its former CEO of gender discrimination and disparaging African-Americans with racial slurs has ignited a level of conversation around diversity not seen since those HRC hearings. Another agency leader, the CEO of Campbell Ewald, was fired after failing to take adequate disciplinary action against an employee who had sent an email about a "ghetto day" party.
In term of their own employee numbers, agencies have been struggling to catch up to the rapidly changing face of the nation’s consumers. The U.S. Census Bureau has predicted that the nation will be minority-majority by the year 2044. And millennials are more racially and ethnically diverse than any previous generation in the U.S., with more than 40% identifying themselves as non-white. Clients are no longer merely suggesting agencies diversify their ranks, they are demanding it. Pepsi’s Brad Jakeman has publically chastised the industry for it’s lack of diversity, and more recently HP and General Mills told their agencies that they’ll have to show progress in their efforts to increase their diversity numbers in order to continue doing business with them.
"Rome has to burn to make changes of this magnitude," says Diageo’s Strachan. "Agencies don’t make these types of changes on their own. When a client makes demands, things change. You either make things happen or Rome burns. No one could afford Rome to burn these days."
The danger, however, is thinking participation with any one diversity organization or program can provide a quick-fix solution. "AdColor in and of itself is not enough," warns Heide Gardner, SVP, chief diversity and inclusion officer of Interpublic Group, and a past AdColor honoree. "Agencies and marketers and media companies can’t just limit their activities to supporting AdColor and calling it a day."
The difficult incremental work required inside organizations to create lasting change is hardest to achieve. "We have plenty of diverse people interested in our industry. A fair number of folks are hired. They don't stay," says the 4A’s Beato. "There are a lot of reasons for that, but the chief reason they don't see people who look like them." Agencies don’t have inclusive cultures and offer little support to hires. "We’re not good at cultivating talent, period," she says.
"AdColor filled a tremendous void in the industry," adds Gardner. "It’s important for people to have role models. And it’s important to debunk the myth that we don’t have stellar diverse talent in the industry."
While the common view might be that solving the industry’s diversity problem is complex, Jimmy Smith, founder of Amusement Park Entertainment and an AdColor award winner, says ultimately it comes down to desire. "It’s easily fixable," he says. "I’m a chairman CEO. I can hire who I want. Anybody else can do the same thing."
AdColor and other programs that showcase talent challenge a familiar industry refrain— they simply can’t find diverse job candidates. "AdColor takes away that excuse," says Smith, a co-founder of The One Club’s "Here are all the black people" diversity conference. Agencies only need to attend these events or review the ten-year history of AdColor’s award winners to find talent at all stages of their careers. "It’s ridiculous that we’re still having this conversation in 2016," he says. "The more organizations that put a spotlight on it, maybe we can fix it sooner rather than later."
AdColor’s four-year old Futures program alone gives hiring managers instant access to a robust pipeline of young talent across industry internship programs, bringing together talent from programs including the 4A’s, AAF, The One Club and The Marcus Graham Project, notes Christena J. Pyle, director of diversity and inclusion at Omnicom Group and director of AdColor.
"The biggest accomplishment AdColor is building this community of people our industry and multiple industries said does not exist," says Pyle, estimating that the broader community that has engaged with the group over ten years is 10,000 strong. "Yes we do. Here they are. Here are their voices. Here are their accomplishments. You cannot refuse what you can now see."
Keesha Jean-Baptiste, director of human resources at Wieden + Kennedy, Portland, and a recent addition to AdColor’s board, is cautiously optimistic of the industry’s current climate of change. "More people are contributing to diversity efforts, and more people are willing to call out what's wrong .Yet, our industry still struggles to retain talent, which shows the issue is bigger than just a hiring rise in diversity stats," she says. "Acceptance and inclusion don't happen until we break the dominant culture. That's the work we have yet to do."
To step up its efforts, AdColor has in recent years moved toward what Warren calls more advocacy work, tapping its community’s braintrust to provide more thought leadership and tools conference attendees can take back to their companies. Last year, for example, the Futures program hacked the subject of cultural appropriation, producing a three -step process to become a culture appreciator rather than appropriator. This year, in the wake of extraordinary violence and social unrest, the conference will address how to handle socially-sensitive issues like the Orlando and police shootings inside companies.
Looking to the future, Warren says one of the biggest challenges the organization faces, like all non-profits, is financing. The diversity conversation has certainly grown louder of late but that doesn’t necessarily translate to more financial support. "Yes, there is more pressure from clients for agencies to diversify their staffs, but budgets don’t always match that request," she says. "And you can’t take your foot off that pedal. Once you let up, you’ll see numbers that were there before this became the most interesting thing to talk about."
AdColor will have to continue stoking the industry discussion, says Warren, maintain a high level of awareness — and dial up the diversity conversation beyond the go-to headline about gender. "We have to keep pushing," she says. "We can easily take a couple of steps backwards if we don’t keep saying that all diversity is important."