Racism, Sexism, Ageism. Are Agencies Ready to Tackle Their Demons?

Oberland's video series targets ongoing bias

For an industry that prides itself on its own perceptiveness, advertising has some glaring blind spots. 

A level of racism, sexism, homophobia and ageism still exists in the business—despite what are sometimes good intentions. We can surely chalk a lot of this up to the continuing dearth of diversity and inclusion in the industry; in a system where the power still resides largely with straight white men, it shouldn't be surprising that unconscious bias (and worse) and so-called "microaggressions" are perpetuated within the culture of agencies—and, often, in the work they produce. 

Oberland, a purpose-based New York indie agency, is trying to tackle this issue of bias with an initiative called "Nothing Changes If We Don't." It includes a series of videos showing ordinary agency situations—from career conversations to casting sessions—where bias can crop up. 

Each video ends with a well-known ad executive talking more about the specific problem highlighted in that video—from mansplaining to tokenism to typecasting. 

See the videos here: 

Oberland isn't just throwing out these topics for debate. It's shining a light on itself, too, by undergoing a compensation study, environmental analysis, diversity and inclusion training, mental health training, harassment training, and a comprehensive HR policy audit—the results of which it plans to make public. 

And it's calling on other agencies to do the same, in the hope it will catch on and accelerate the process of eradicating bias from the agency world. 

Oberland co-founders Bill Oberlander and Drew Train launched the initiative. Oberlander, the agency's executive creative director, tells Muse that the idea originally came out of pitch work for the Southern Poverty Law Center. Oberland didn't end up working with the SPLC, but the pitch process involved a discussion about racial microaggressions—and got the agency thinking about how such issues manifest in the ad business. 

"We said to ourselves, 'Why don't we think about all these things we've witnessed, that we've heard, that we've been down the hallway from, and kind of call bullshit on ourselves and hold up this mirror to the industry?' " says Oberlander. 

They held a brainstorming session, stockpiled true stories and wrote scripts against them. Even in the process of the campaign's creation, they realized they had blind spots—they had to shelve one of the videos, which was sending out the wrong tone, according to Oberlander. 

Bias continues to haunt the ad industry partly because of its historical lack of diversity, Oberlander says. "It goes back to Don Draper and Madison Avenue," he says. "Just look at those old oil paintings. They're all white guys. And quite frankly, not much has evolved since then." 

Aside from being, on one level, a self-promotion project for the agency, the initiative does seem heartfelt in terms of wanting things to change. Indeed, Oberland has been reaching out to other agencies—smaller shops like Barton F. Graf but also much bigger places like FCB, Ogilvy and Publicis—to see if they'd like to get involved somehow. 

"It would be great to have the might of those agencies because their reach is so much farther and deeper," says Oberlander. "But their employee handbook is a thick as your arm. I don't know how much they'd be able to turn it upside down and do the walk-the-walk audit that we've gone through. But we will invite and accept the help, as shallow or as deep as people want to get involved." 

It is a tricky topic to address—there are reasons people are afraid to meaningfully engage in conversations around racism, sexism, ageism and pay equity. But with Oberland opening up the conversation, the hope is others will follow. The agency is considering some kind of open mic night where more stories can be told (either anonymously or not). And if all goes well, Oberland may even host an event at Cannes Lions around the topic. 

"Something I embrace is the willingness to say, 'You know what? We're not perfect and we have to change that,' " says Oberlander. "Hopefully it'll have an impact. It's meant to be contagious." 

Profile picture for user Tim Nudd
Tim Nudd
Tim Nudd is editor in chief of the Clio Awards.