Our Industry Has a Promise to Keep. It's a Promise That Has Been Broken Before

What agencies must do now about diversity

As our country faces one of the most important presidential elections in history, it is important to note that agency leaders, a lot like politicians, have a promise to keep to those who have been underrepresented in our industry for far too long.

For context, I am biased. Nothing has had a bigger impact on my career than Atlanta's Black culture. Atlanta is a place like no other, where I feel a sense of genuine responsibility to acknowledge and provide a space for Atlanta's Black talent to grow. OK, enough about me. I'm a 46-year-old white agency owner. We're here to talk about diversity and what agencies can and should do to help deliver on the promises being made to create greater diversity within our industry.

As a whole, the ad industry has done a shameful job attracting and retaining Black talent.

The question isn't if the ad agency model is broken. The real question is if it can move quickly to understand its blind spots and shortcomings. Some agencies, like 72andSunny, understand the importance of diversity. I can't say for sure if they truly practice all that they preach, but their powerful mission to "diversify the creative class" has always stood out to me because it underscores the inherent value of diversity as it relates to creativity. It elevates everything they do to something bigger than just advertising. They understand the creative and competitive value of diversity to their business and their clients' businesses as well. It's not optional.

There is a big distinction in diversity as an obligation and diversity being at the core of what your business does.

Diversity needs to be more than a brand pillar crafted by strategists and copywriters, focus group tested and then placed carefully into the agency creds. It's about what drives your people and your ideas. It needs to be that thing that keeps your agency's leadership up at night until it's figured out. That's something we are working on at Chemistry. How do we develop it within our own culture? The recent social issues at the forefront of the daily news and our industry have made me realize how lethargic our industry has been to change. How do we systematically ensure that our efforts translate into equal opportunity, equal compensation and truly equal credit for underrepresented groups? The old way of thinking says, "This is a complicated issue, and it will take time." Saying your heart is in the right place is worse than lip service at this point—it's a cop-out. That's what we are focusing on. How do we make sure we are backing everything we do with action—not just words?

Diversity in advertising can be addressed a lot faster than most in our industry believe.

We use excuses like "It's hard to find qualified minority candidates." Well, one, that's a lie. Two, what isn't hard? It's hard to do lots of things in business, but the good businesses attack the hard "problems" and make them competitive advantages. As an industry, we haven't failed to solve this issue because it's hard. We have failed to solve it because until now, it has not been important enough to those who hold the real power. But when bottom lines are devoured because agencies can't think and move like they should because of their lack of diversity, there will be a reckoning. Those who understand the clock is ticking and act accordingly will win. Those agencies will be fueled by leaders who understand that diversity isn't an obligation. It's a strength. 

Our agency has attacked the issue from the top down and the bottom up. We're by no means the standard, but I am excited by our commitment and focus. It's not about being perfect. It's about moving in the right direction and never looking back. We are trying new things like partnering with Black-owned creative businesses in our communities to offer dual internships with those businesses. Our Ally Internship is designed specifically to introduce advertising to Black creatives who may not have identified advertising as a viable career path. We've also created numerous initiatives like Alchemy, our employee-led DEI group, to hold ourselves accountable. 

The bottom line is, no matter your agency's size, location or competency, now is the time. Do it. Whatever it is. Do it now. It's not only the right thing to do, it's the smart thing to do. Kind of like voting.

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Chris Breen
Chris Breen is chief creative officer at Chemistry.

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