'She would be disappointed': How the ad industry still fails black talent

'She would be disappointed': How the ad industry still fails black talent

Adland is still not living up to the legacy of Caroline Jones, one of the first black female vice-presidents of a major agency.

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"We will not let you fail."

The six words that advertising pioneer Caroline Jones said to Heide Gardner as she prepared to launch a talent and diversity initiative for the American Advertising Federation. It's a commitment that reflects Jones' living, breathing legacy as one of the first black female vice-presidents of any major agency and a champion of young talent.  

As senior vice-president and chief diversity and inclusion officer at Interpublic, Gardner is still one of the most powerful and thoughtful drivers of diversity in the creative industries. And Jones has had a major impact on her career. "The reason she and other black icons in the industry wanted to launch this talent programme was that they were so tired of hearing ‘We can’t find any’ as an excuse to the lack of diversity in advertising," Gardner says. "The entire programme was designed to take that excuse off the table." 

Yet, more than thirty years after the launch of the scheme, that same excuse remains firmly on the table. In many ways, the ad industry as it stands has not lived up to Jones’ legacy and, in doing so, failed generations of diverse talent. Reflecting on Jones’ "huge legacy", Gardner says she would be "dissappointed to see where we are and that we are still having the same conversations about having diversity at the table."

She adds: "In terms of her dissappointment, it would include all the thousands of people who came into the industry 22 years ago when we started the programme. Of all of those people, so few of them are at the helm of major agencies."

Garnder notes that Jones and many people of a ethnic-minority background who came into the industry did so in order to influence the portrayal of people of colour. "That mattered deeply to her and it still matters now. I can’t tell you how many essays I read from young students that say I want to be at the table to make that change," she points out.

A legacy of hope

Thirty years ago, a small column in Campaign noted the rise of Jones’ mould-breaking career. The article announcing Interpublic’s affiliation with a "new black shop" commented on the nine out of 10 failure rate of previous "black-managed agencies". Paul Foley, then Interpublic’s chairman, was quoted as saying: "Black-owned agencies in the past have lacked professionalism, sound financial guidance, strong back-up support services and national and international scope. Our affiliation with Mingo, Jones, Guilmenot has the answer to all of these handicaps."

Jones, one of the three founding partners of this fledgling agency, was creative services director and described in the article as "the highest-paid black creative in the US and the first black female vice-president of any major agency".

Back then, the lack of support – and, at times, out-and-out racism – experienced by ethnic minorities in the ad industry was often ignored. For critics of all the press coverage focusing on diversiity today – who are either "bored", dismiss it as "virtue-signalling" or see it as distraction from the work – perhaps Jones' legacy will provide a much-needed pause for thought.

Because what was sidelined was the impact and business importance of multicultural media; in essence, the work wasn't as good because it did not understand or represent the markets it sought to serve. According to Gardner, the ad industry trade press did not focus on covering the multicultural side of the business. Instead, it was multicultural media that championed the sector and the individuals within it.

It is a state of play that ethnic-minority people are still dealing with, Gardner points out: "Having a high profile is really important, but it is having a profile internally within the business you work for that drives whether or not you are promoted. This idea of visibility is a problem for women and people of colour."

True definintion of a trailblazer

Having graduated from the University of Michigan with a bachelors degree in English and science, Jones began her advertising career in 1963 as a secretary and copywriter trainee at J Walter Thompson, an agency where she rose to the position of creative director. She ultimately left Mingo, Jones, Guilmenot (later Mingo-Jones) to launch her own companies – Creative Resources Management and Caroline Jones Advertising, where she was president at the time of her death in 2001.

"She had a huge amount of social capital outside of the industry and she used that to help elevate the issue of diversity," Gardner explains. This effort culminated in a huge summit that looked at diversity and the allocation of advertising dollars. Jones brought together the likes of Al Sharpton, the Association of National Advertisers and 4A's alongside members of congress and federal government agencies. "One of the thing she did so well was bring all the sections of the industry together – it was a packed room at the Waldorf," Gardner recalls.

Frustration as a force for change

Yet, despite being a true trailblazer with an impact far beyond the traditional realms of adland, Jones was at times "extremely frustrated", Gardner remembers: "White executives and creators were able to leave their agencies, set up shop at a hotel room and immediately get clients. Someone like her didn’t get that opportunity as easily."

It would be tempting to sugar-coat Jones’ career progression, but to not tell the truth of her struggle would be to ignore the barriers she had to face. "You have to remember that some went into the business as entrepreneurs not just because they saw business opportunities that were being overlooked, but also because they could not see business opportunities for themselves and they wanted to create those opportunities for young talent," Garnder explains. 

When Jones did strike out on her own, one of her founding clients was KFC. She had previously been the brains behind the brand’s hugely successful "We do chicken right" campaign.

Speaking truth to power

Reflecting on Jones’ lasting impact on the industry, Gardner says: "She spoke truth to power and I feel obligated to do the same. She used her social caipital, her influence, to do what she could to make a difference and that is a powerful message to everyone."

Jones was all about opening doors and dedicated her warmth, energy and time into supporting the next generation. Gardner notes that Jones used to show up at student programmes as long as her health permitted and, in many ways, connecting with and championing young talent was her life’s work.

Here is perhaps the point in the story when you might expect a glib statement about the power of role models. But for Gardner, the issue is far more complex than that: "It is not just a question of 'You can’t be it if you can’t see it', it is also a question of proof points – is your organisation somewhere where people like you can really make it?"

As Campaign speaks to Gardner, a blog post written by Kai Deveraux Lawson, a producer who has worked at agencies including Wunderman, AKQA and Momentum Worldwide, has gone viral. In the article, she describes the micro-aggressions that led her to quit her job in advertising. She writes: "I used to wonder why people of color leave the advertising industry, never return. It was hard to understand how someone could leave the set of skills they’ve worked so hard to refine, and the knowledge that’s taken so long to gain, only to never look back. Today, I can say from experience, that when it comes to mental health and peace, drastic times will always call for drastic measures."

"I call it the thousand cuts," Gardner says. "This is the power of the small. With #MeToo and #TimesUp, we are so focused on the obvious and the egregious that we aren’t paying attention to the power of ‘small’."  She explains that people could respond to comments or actions differently due to their identity and all these small things can add up and become internalised.

"My generation – we expected these kinds of things to happen. We had this mutual support and understanding that helped with resilience," Gardner continues. "Millennials are unprepared and shocked by these things. They ask: did that really happen? Does that mean what I think it does? Those are the issues that the business world has to focus on.

"What happens to people as human beings is, over time, you can internalise those thousand cuts and you can lose self-esteem and your faith in yourself."

To talent from diverse backgrounds, the message is silent but clear: we won't just let you fail, we will uphold a system in which you are almost destined to. In 2018, it should not require a leap of faith for the creative industries to work towards a level playing field – a legacy that Jones would be proud of.

Main picture: Jones, centre, with Bob Johnson, founder, BET; Clarence Smith, co-founder, Essence; Earl Graves Sr, founder, Black Enterprise; and Tom Burrell, founder, Burrell Communications Group

Over the past five weeks, Campaign has been digging into its archives to rewrite the stories of some of the most trailblazing women in the industry successfully changing the narrative and achieving success on their own terms. Read more about #TellHerStory here and our recent  #TellHerStory event here.

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