Study: Ad Agencies Exhibit ‘Pervasive Racial Discrimination’

Marissa Miley and Ken Wheaton, Ad Age, January 8, 2009

The ad industry doesn’t simply have a diversity problem. According to Cyrus Mehri’s Madison Avenue Project, it is guilty of “pervasive racial discrimination” that not only underhires and segregates African-Americans but pays them 80 cents for every dollar it pays comparable white employees. With current efforts to bridge the gap doing little more than “blaming the victims,” Mr. Mehri and the NAACP are laying the groundwork for a possible class-action suit against the industry.

“The NAACP and my firm are joining forces to take on the advertising industry to end the long era of purposeful discrimination,” Mr. Mehri said in New York today, where he, NAACP Interim General Counsel Angela Ciccolo, activist Sanford Moore and economists Marc Bendick and Mary Lou Egan held a press conference. The industry, Mr. Mehri continued, “has robbed the African-American community of equal opportunity, good positions and, most important, their dignity.”

Mr. Mehri’s civil-rights firm, Mehri & Skalet, specializes in class-action cases, including successful discrimination cases against Coca-Cola Co., Ford Motor Co. and Texaco. {snip}

‘Tried to get people to listen’

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While that may seem like hyperbole to some, the study, authored by Mr. Bendick and Ms. Egan, offers some startling findings:

* Black college graduates in advertising earn 80 cents for every dollar earned by their white counterparts.

* The total U.S. population is 12.8% African-American. Blacks should represent 9.6% of advertising professionals and managers, according to U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission estimates. But actual representation falls dramatically short of that expectation–about 55% short.

* Blacks are only 10% as likely as their white counterparts to hold a position that pays $100,000 or more per year.

* Compared with the overall U.S. labor market, the advertising industry fares significantly worse on eight measures of employment for black managers and professionals–by an average of 36.7%.

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Efforts have been made

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He [Sanford Moore] has particular disdain for chief diversity officers. “Diversity executives and diversity consultants are diversity pimps. The only thing that’s diversified are their bank accounts,” Mr. Moore said. “They’re put there as window dressing. And window dressing gets taken down after the holidays.”

Mr. Bendick and Ms. Egan, on the other hand, said such positions can be very useful–if the executives report to CEOs and the CEOs have the will to diversify their agencies. But they both added that if there is no commitment at the highest levels of the agency, the role is indeed window dressing.

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‘Couldn’t come at a worse time’

“Honestly, it couldn’t come at a worse time,” he said via e-mail. “How much can be done to encourage new [minority] hiring when many firms are laying off experienced people of all racial and ethnic persuasions?” Mr. Chambers said in order to bring about change in the industry, holding companies and agencies need to have a “consistent commitment to funding and encouraging minority participation” over the long-term. At a minimum, he said, this should be done for a decade, “not one to two years with an occasional report to a body whose leadership and focus changes.”

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[Editor’s Note: The report “Research Perspectives on Race and Employment in the Advertising Industry,” by Marc Bendick, Jr., Ph.D., and Mary Lou Egan, Ph.D.,” can be read or downloaded as a PDF file here.]

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