Will 2020’s racial reckoning lead to progress on marketing’s long-standing representation problems?

October 6, 2020, 7:06 PM UTC
Marketing Diversity Team
Businesspeople at big creative agency
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When the client request for a private school advertisement hit her desk, Le’Shae Robinson thought, Here comes another Caucasian-only order. The directive came from the client’s salesperson, and Robinson’s job was to help the digital advertising team execute––even if that client wanted to only attract white children with their campaign. 

The advertising industry has struggled with diversity for a long time. When Americans called for change after more instances of police brutality this summer, the industry was one of many announcing its commitment to improve. For people like Robinson who must deal with racism both in their daily lives and in corporate spaces, these announcements fueled hope tempered with long-standing doubt. 

A steady customer for the advertising company, the school was a hard opponent to face down. When “white-only” orders came in, the team acknowledged that it was wrong, but as the only Black person at the table, Robinson didn’t feel as if she had much power to move things past a conversation.

“I could have taken [off the “white-only” directive], but if I were to change it and the customer got different results, it would have very obviously been me that did it. Nobody else would really care,” Robinson says.

Too much noise, she reasoned, and she would be out of there. When Robinson started a new job with a larger advertising agency, it ended up happening anyway. Robinson pitched the idea of hiring more people of color to leadership. Friends in other departments asked her questions about Black audiences and how to speak to them all the time; why not hire Black people with the cultural competency and knowledge for those teams as well? In December, Robinson prepared a presentation for executives intent on highlighting the financial benefits of both hiring Black employees and investing in multicultural research. 

“How can we tap into the $2.2 trillion buying powers of minorities?” a presentation slide asked.   

The following month, Robinson was let go, with the company citing budget cuts. This summer that same company announced a new hiring policy: For new positions, at least half of all potential candidates must be a person of color. “We have not done enough,” the company statement read. It also released data about hiring demographics that revealed no Black employees, on any team.

The company was one of 30 that decided to reveal their diversity numbers following a call for transparency from 600 Black professionals across the industry. Those signees became a formal nonprofit––600 & Rising––led by marketers Bennett D. Bennett and Nathan Young with the goal of advocating for the advancement of Black talent in the industry. 

Reality check

Already Jorge Martínez, the vice president of multicultural research firm C+R Research, has seen that commitment ebb and flow. While the firm’s clients immediately requested more research and training around multicultural marketing in May following the series of protests, Martínez has seen that interest drop. Kenosha fueled another spike. 

“When these type of situations happen, I would say there’s almost like a second wave––similar to COVID––where it’s picking up again. And we’ve seen both more requests from the research perspective, but also in education,” he says.

Although the interest is rewarding, Martínez says it’s also happening during a very inconvenient year when it comes to marketing and research funds. Companies with slashed budgets are having to make tradeoffs, deciding to invest more on one ethnic group over the other to avoid hurting their budgets even more.

Typically C+R Research might see a couple of projects a year strictly focused on the Black community, but Ashleigh Williams says 2020 is different. When Williams came into this business as a Black researcher, it took her years to connect with other Black researchers in her field. With the rise of Black Lives Matter protests, a group of Black market researchers have begun meeting, and the camaraderie there, Williams says, gives her hope.

“We’ve been asking ourselves, how do we bring in a generation of researchers, but also how can the older generation mentor the younger?” she says, adding that for her role in marketing, there are few people of color to begin with. 

For companies that are still not convinced, the Alliance for Inclusive and Multicultural Marketing (AIMM) is working to create an industry standard that they can’t ignore. According to the U.S. Census, 42% of the population identify with one or more of these underrepresented groups: Black, Hispanic, disabled, or LGBTQ+. And yet, an AIMM Benchmark Study found that only 16% of marketers research how to communicate with these audiences effectively. A lack of data is a big excuse used to not invest in more, says Lisette Arsuaga, cofounder of AIMM, a branch of the Association of National Advertisers. 

 “The bottom line is that those who are dragging their feet are going to miss out,” says Arsuaga. “They might not engage us at this point. What’s going to engage them is the growth in their competitors that’s going to make others take notice and do things differently.”

AIMM launched the #SeeALL campaign to hold agencies accountable while providing them with the education they need. The alliance’s new metric, the Cultural Insights Impact Measure, will prove how effective and useful multicultural research can be for brands, cofounder Gilbert Dávila says. 

“We’ve seen the brands that have embraced this more than doubling, even tripling their consumer growth, and it’s not just about growth,” he says, adding that AIMM has been testing advertisements since last year. “It’s about talking to everyone in a way that connects with those consumers and making sure that you’re letting them know that their business is important to you.”

Problems in the middle

Keni Thacker has spent almost a decade creating initiatives to recruit and develop diverse talent for companies like Wunderman Thompson and now his own: 100 Roses From Concrete, a networking platform for men of color in the industry. He says the gestures and statements companies made this summer follow a long history of being reactive, instead of proactive. 

“They know those numbers were bad. That’s why they never released them,” Thacker says. “So now you’re going to release them and say that you’re working on it. But you knew that this was the same problem that you had five, 10, 20 years ago.”

When it became apparent that students would lose their internships as companies struggled with COVID, Thacker started the G.R.O.W.T.H. (Giving Real Opportunity With Talent & Heart) Initiative, a virtual agency program that would make sure students of color wouldn’t be forgotten. While Thacker and diversity internship programs like the MAIP (Multicultural Advertising Intern Program) and the T. Howard Foundation are putting diverse talent on agencies’ radars, the programs can’t do much once students are past those doors. And if there’s one thing the industry really fails at, Thacker says, it’s developing Black and brown talent. 

“Often they’ll get into these big organizations, and after two years they’ll realize, ‘I’m still in the same job’ or ‘There’s not even a remote chance that I’m going to get any type of training or promotion,’” Thacker explains. 

As a result, young professionals of color play leapfrog, jumping from one company to another before they finally land somewhere supportive. President of multicultural agency Bold Culture by Streamlined Media, Darren Martin was an International Radio & Television Society fellow in 2014. Out of his 23-strong cohort, he says, maybe five remain in the industry.

“They’re still interviewing 10 times before they get a role. They’re still hearing that they’re ‘not a culture fit’ when they get into the office, so people just leave the industry,” Martin says.

Instead of supporting these employees in the middle of their career, Thacker explains, some companies have gotten away with playing what he calls the logo game: They send representatives to conferences or sponsor conventions where they know Black people will be to show support, but in reality do very little hiring, he says. And then there is the general lack of understanding, he notes, that leads to kerfuffles like the Pepsi ad where Kendall Jenner stopped a riot by handing a can to officers. If more people of color had roles across every aspect of the industry, agencies would have had someone in the room, he says, to tell them when they’re making a mistake. 

“We have always learned white culture, but they rarely ever care to learn about ours. And we’ve been here forever,” he says. “Like, we all know what Penn is. We all know what Notre Dame is, but white people are still learning what an HBCU is today, still having to be taught the basics to build empathy for our journeys and experiences.”


Martin started Bold Culture with photographer and graphic designer Ahmad Barber to provide the content knowledge––and research about multicultural communities––that marketers lacked.

“When we think about the increasingly diverse generations that are coming after us, agencies have to shift their perspective of what it means to be advertising to general market versus multicultural market,” Martin says.

Here’s how things fall apart: If an agency is largely white and straight, Martin says, then their strategies might overlook the nuances between Black millennials and white millennials. The general market audience is thought to be largely white by default in their minds.

And then we go on to the creative team. For example, women make up almost half of the industry, but less than 15% of creative director roles. The number is even lower when you factor in race. As a result, Martin says, the creative team doesn’t reflect their multicultural audience, and if the client doesn’t stop them, it goes downhill from there. 

“Some are afraid to speak to multicultural audiences, isn’t that crazy? They’ll say, ‘I don’t know how to connect with this community, and when we’ve tried, something’s always gone wrong, and therefore, we’re just not going to focus on it,’” Martin says. 

Through Bold Culture, Martin not only empowers agencies with research, he also prepares them to be a welcoming environment for people of color. With inclusive management development programs and attrition prevention programs, the company is slowly undoing the harm of equally ineffective one-off solutions.

Own it

Solving the industry’s multitude of race problems is going to take a level of transparency that the sector has never achieved before, brand strategist Gary J. Nix says. Part of the business model is to always be right. If a brand does something wrong, Nix says, it’s more likely to release a statement and run away as quickly as possible than to acknowledge the harm.

Still, when companies haven’t been doing the right thing for a long time, announcing big changes doesn’t inspire much trust––but accountability does. 

“People will always ‘people,’” Nix says. “They’re inconsistent, hypocritical—that’s just humanity. What these companies need to understand is that they’re worried about being called out by the wrong people.”

Sometimes companies avoid more inclusive campaign decisions because they’re afraid to get it wrong; they’re also afraid of how their white audience will respond, Nix explains. But if companies think from a financial standpoint, Nix says, they’re ignoring a huge market. And if your audience is upset with you for speaking to all Americans, Nix has a question: Is that really the money you want?

Dove has a long history of getting it right. From its long-standing support of the CROWN Act to eradicate race-based hair discrimination to its project #ShowUs––a partnership with women and nonbinary people and photographers to create a collection of inclusive stock images––Dove is a leader in representative advertising. The Unilever brand, however, has also made some mistakes, like its 2017 ad that depicted a Black woman transforming into a white woman after using its products to show that they were for all skin types; however, critics said the campaign reinforced stereotypes that white skin is clean and black skin is dirty.

Esi Eggleston Bracey, executive VP and COO of Unilever North America, says that while it’s traditionally been ill-advised for brands to talk about past mistakes, it’s time for companies to be transparent.

“We have to look at images for decades that we’ve been responsible for as an industry that have perpetuated narrow beauty stereotypes or ways of thinking that don’t serve America,” she says. “We have to be willing to say, ‘We’ve made mistakes. Our actions are inconsistent with our intentions.’”

Brands and companies all fall short, she explains, because there’s institutional, unconscious bias that prevents advertisers from understanding important cultural nuances. While they are not going to be able to avoid mistakes, Bracey says, they need to be willing to learn how to get it right. 

“We have to commit to do better. The expectation today is to learn, be vulnerable, and act,” she says. “Dove has had to own those mistakes, accept responsibility, and commit to do better.”

The good news? The people to help companies finally get it right have always been there, says Shaswau Howell, the founder of the Federation of African American Advertisers & Marketers (FAAAM). In her 20 years in the industry, Howell has seen Black talent rise and fall, passed over again and again for opportunities where they would have made a difference. She started FAAAM to connect companies with qualified Black professionals across the industry and to support Black advertising professionals on their journey. 

“I’ve seen a level of promotion for Black people who have been qualified forever but are now finally receiving opportunities––I so celebrate that,” Howell says. “It’s so exciting to see that they are finally getting their just due.”

With the attention comes an opportunity that people of color have never seen before, she says. There’s mistrust there. There’s hurt. But there’s also a new opportunity: to advocate for the people of color who will come after her and others fighting to make things better now.  

“That’s the crossroads of the Black experience––the triumph and the challenge of it all,” Howell says. “It’s hard some days—actually it’s extremely difficult—but we have to keep encouraging each other and showing up the best that we can because this is our generation’s moment.”