At a one-day creative job fair entitled, “Where Are All The Black People? Part 2” earlier this week for Advertising Week, a mix of seasoned advertising executives, graduating seniors, and young professionals gathered to attest to the lack of African-American talent in the advertising industry. Among them was Lewis Williams, executive vice president and chief creative officer at Burrell Communications. Williams, a veteran ad exec who served as art director at Burrell for 15 years before becoming creative director at the Leo Burnett agency in Chicago, has a unique combination of general market experience and extensive African-American consumer expertise.
According to Williams, the conversation piques every five years or so. The last time it bubbled up to the surface was at a news conference in 2006 where the N.A.A.C.P. joined attorney Cyrus Mehri of the law firm Mehri & Skalet to announce the Madison Avenue Project. It was created “to address race and employment in advertising”. “Where Are All The Black People? Part 2”, which picks up where a heated discussion in May of 2011 left off, is one of the initiatives being taken to help dissect the problem.
The goal, according to Kevin Swanepoel, president of The One Club, which sponsored the event, is “to enable as many participants as possible to walk away with a job offer, a confirmed second interview or a paid internship”. After a day of student presentations; tutorials on building portfolios; and a panel discussion led by industry leaders Jimmy Smith, Roy Eaton, Jeff Goodby and Neal Arthur, four students walked away as the winners of the competition. They are guaranteed interviews by all 10 of the participating agencies, which include Burrell, Wieden +Kennedy, TBWA\Chiat\Day, BBDO and others.
Though well intentioned, it is a safe bet that the day will not prove to be a cure-all. Whether or not anything on this matter will change, remains to be seen. Here, Williams shares his insight on access, hiring, and "getting it wrong".
TNJ.com: What did you think of the event? And is there a lack of Black talent out there or is this lack of diversity we’re seeing a case of good, old-fashioned discrimination?
Lewis Williams: The event was good. I think the students ranged from good to not so good. Some were ready to be hired and others needed mentoring. Overall, it was positive. But we have to move past some of the philosophical aspects that the keynote speakers were discussing...stories about "this is what happened to me" and "my first racial experience in advertising". We have to move into reality. How are we really going to change the climate?
On a related note, a lot of the Black ad execs currently in the general market started off at Burrell Communications. Burrell is one of a few Black agencies around these days. Not one of the four keynote speakers on the panel work at minority agencies. I mean, in thinking of the way the event was structured... representatives from Black agencies were in the audience, but not on stage. There are a handful of folks who could have contributed to that panel. UniWorld should have been considered, Burrell, Global Hue...I think that’s something The One Club should think about for the next career fair.
TNJ.com: In terms of hiring, would you say that Black kids simply aren’t “the favored ones” in this industry?
LW: A lot of times, white recruiters are not comfortable with Black kids. It’s a communication gap. It’s a cultural gap. They lack sensitivity to other cultures. For example, there were a few students whom presented at the event whom I would have hired, trained, and nurtured. It’s what I call taking “a leap of faith”.
If I interview somebody, and if there are 3 things out of 10 that I can work with, I’ll hire that person. I keep in mind the fact that our kids, a lot of times, did not go to art school and did not have the opportunity to take a portfolio class that would help them present the best book possible. But he or she might, nonetheless, be very talented, very artistic and very creative. Sometimes it comes down to access, and if it has to do with finances and economics, then it’s our kids who often have the least access, for obvious reasons.
Also, with this business, as with any other, it comes down to whom knows whom. If a recruiter went to Harvard and the candidate went to Harvard, there’s a great opening for conversation to break the ice. Black kids may not have had the same educational opportunities, and are perhaps timid in the interview because he or she doesn’t get a warm reception from the recruiter. And the list just go on.
TNJ.com: Someone in the audience asked the panel whether or not aspiring Black students, who are in school, diligently studying the craft, will, realistically, get jobs in the industry. What do you think?
LW: It has to do with fate. Just do your best and stay on it. Think of an actor who gets the right role at the right time. Good people want good people. If you’re lucky enough to be at the right agency at the right time, perhaps you’ll get the right campaign that’s pitched to the right client. That’s a success story. But I’ve also seen extremely talented people not do well in the same set of circumstances. In advertising, it's important to be effective...to be memorable. Just stay true to yourself and if you love what you do, it will eventually work out.
In terms of getting a job, a lot of times recruiters will place a Black candidate at an agency, and if it doesn’t work out, he or she will be reluctant to place another Black candidate. It poisons the recruiter against hiring Blacks. It’s unfortunate. It’s like painting the entire Black race with one brush. Creativity is so vast, and there could be many reasons why that hire didn’t work out.
TNJ.com: Do the clients have any bearing on the issue? I read somewhere that general market agencies don’t want Black creative directors and art directors pitching to clients. Do you think that’s true?
LW: You just have no way of knowing if certain clients want to see Black people on the other side of the table. That Black employee may have pitched a great campaign, and the client could come back and say, “We just didn’t vibe”. It may not be overt. Not a lot has changed in this regard. And then the agency heads may know that certain clients would prefer not to deal with Blacks on the account. There are a lot of factors.
If the client, however, is Black, this won't be an issue.
An agency only stands to gain when its work force is diverse. There’s a lot of growth in the Black market and if you have Black employees on accounts, the agency won’t “get it wrong” with a campaign that has racial aspects. For example like what happened with that Nivea ad. If you’re borrowing from a particular group, then you should have members of that group monitoring the outcome.