It’s time to take two steps forward on racial equity

The advertising industry made a lot of promises about diversity after the murder of George Floyd one year ago. But did real actions follow the empathetic words?

One year ago yesterday, a police officer kneeled on the neck of a Black man named George Floyd for more than nine minutes, murdering him and sparking international outrage about racial injustices that permeate every corner of our society.

As people marched in the street for justice and equality, corporate America — and the advertising industry — looked inwards.

We shed light on numbers, facts and figures that painted a clear picture that we need to do better at hiring and, more importantly, retaining minority talent. 

We created employee resource groups and safe spaces for staffers to talk about their identities and experiences — without judgment. We hired chief diversity, equity and inclusion officers, with a direct line to the CEO and promises of significant investment and support.

We changed brands and logos that represented racist tropes. We expanded our definition of “diverse” to include communities of all colors, backgrounds and abilities. We even started rethinking our media investments, shaking up decades-old incumbent deals and reevaluating success beyond scoring the cheapest CPM.

The past year has been one of introspection, recalibration and ambition when it comes to making right decades of wrongs. Finally, we’re doing more than listening to white people talk about diversity on industry panels.

But now comes the hard part: sustaining the momentum and pushing change further.

It’s almost summer in New York and people are out enjoying life again after a year that felt more like a bad dream than reality. Masks are coming off — with the CDC’s green light — and restaurants and bars are bustling again.

Before we know it, we’ll be back in our offices (Two days a week? Three days a week? Choose-your-own-adventure hybrid?) and the scars of the pandemic will start to fade.

As exciting as the prospect of a new “normal” is, it’s important we don’t forget what we went through as a society last year, how we got to where we are, and how far we still need to go. 

Fixing systemic inequalities is a marathon that requires the constant exertion of a sprint. Inclusivity must be a factor in every decision from who we hire, to who we partner with, to who we decide to work with and who we take money from.

Real change comes from the top, and in this industry that starts with marketers. Brands hold the purse strings. Agencies are by no means perfect (far from it), but after a gutting year of layoffs and furloughs, there can be a conflict between standing by your principles and caving into a client that might pay the bills but doesn’t necessarily uphold your ideals.

We’re seeing real commitments from marketers, whether that's promises from GM and McDonald’s to increase spend with minority-owned media companies, or impactful work from brands such as Procter & Gamble and Nike that makes us challenge deeply ingrained stereotypes and norms through a more inclusive lens.

Too often, however, as in the case of GM and McDonald’s, the onusis on the Black and minority communities to point out and advocate for these changes themselves. Black advertising employees basically wrote the playbook that holding companies are now using to develop their DE&I frameworks. It’s no wonder that I hear anecdotally all the time that people of color are fleeing the industry due to burnout.

We may feel like patting ourselves on the back, but let’s remember that, in 2020, just 8% of employees in advertising and PR were Black, even though Black Americans make up 13% of the U.S. population, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's likely much higher in urban areas like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, where the advertising industry is concentrated. That’s wrong, even before considering how heavily this industry leverages Black culture to sell products and get rich.

And let’s not forget that we’ve been here before. The NAACP put out a report in 2009 that revealed racial inequality in advertising is twice as large as the overall labor market. And, we’re still running into the same issues. Just last week, Cannes Lions, the ultimate seal of creative excellence, came under fire for firing the only dean of color in its learning program.

Moments of progress in the advertising industry are often one step forward, two steps back. Right now, we’re one step forward.

Let’s not take one more step back.

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