Getting A Colorful Reminder Of Who Does The Work

Over at Bnet, Jim Edwards highlights a recent letter sent by Cyrus Mehri and the NAACP to marketers regarding diversity, and the lack thereof, in general market ad agencies. Here’s a bit of what Jim wrote:

Here’s what is likely to happen next: Not wanting to appear racist or get sued, these companies will tap executives to work with Mehri. There will be lots of meetings. The meetings will set hiring goals in each clients’ agencies, and dates for those goals to be met. The deadlines will be different for each company and each agency, making the process as confusing as possible. Time will pass. The deadlines will expire. Some companies and agencies will meet some or all of their goals. The ones that fail will have a range of excuses, from the legitimate to the fraudulent.

That prediction may or may not come true, but here’s what’s at the heart of the problem: Most marketers have no clue who’s really working on their account.
Any time I worked at a big agency on sizeable accounts, I rarely met with the client. The other creatives didn’t. The writers, art directors, production artists, traffic managers, junior AE’s and other people who did the day-to-day work didn’t meet the clients either. Client meetings involved a CD, an account supervisor, even the management of the agency who would show up just to get face-time.
None of that will change unless clients demand it. Agencies are perfectly content to keep their talent hidden away–no matter what the color. And it’s true, some creatives are good with clients and present well, some aren’t. But without presentation skills, or a real face-to-face relationship with clients, your career will go nowhere. Ad agencies are perfectly happy with that status quo. And clients just aren’t interested, even if the people doing the work can provide better insight on the business or the agency relationship–which they often can, just from living with the account.
The ball is in the marketer’s court. They need to ask–and demand–to meet the very people who do the work. Not just the agency people who serve as stand-ins during a new business pitch. Then, and only then, they’ll know how much sunshine ad agencies are blowing up their collective asses.

About Dan Goldgeier

Blogging on AdPulp since 2005, Dan Goldgeier is a Seattle-based freelance copywriter with experience at advertising agencies across the U.S. He is a graduate of the Creative Circus ad school, and currently teaches at Seattle's School of Visual Concepts. In addition, he is a regular columnist for Dan published the best of his columns in a book entitled View From The Cheap Seats: A Broader Look at Advertising, Marketing, Branding, Global Politics, Office Politics, Sexual Politics, and Getting Drunk During a Job Interview. Look for it on Amazon in paperback and e-book editions.


  1. You have to see creative as the heart of the business to introduce creatives to the client.
    And we all know for many agencies it’s actually “the client relationship” that’s at the center of the business.

  2. David is correct. In many shops, the creatives are merely vendors or cogs in the wheel. Easily replaceable and generic.
    There are a few issues regarding Danny’s points.
    First, clients have been reluctant to step in for a few reasons. The biggest reason being they’re equally guilty in the diversity arena. You won’t find many people of color in senior positions at most corporations. Secondly, there are legal issues. Clients cannot demand that agencies become more diverse. They can certainly influence things, but they can’t make mandates for others’ businesses. Let’s be real, we’re all familiar with our clients’ conservative legal departments – so we know they don’t want to touch this. Third, many clients are “solving” the global issue by using multicultural shops. The multicultural shops are satisfying clients’ minority vendor goals. This is clearly not the solution to the lack of diversity in mass market shops, but clients might think it is.
    Additionally, the clients don’t have to necessarily demand that agencies show who’s behind the curtain. Organizations like the NAACP can handle such matters by asking agencies to show the figures. But even that is something difficult to mandate. For example, the NAACP already asks major corporations to show such figures, and certain ones refuse to comply for a host of reasons (Target, for example, has always resisted supplying information because they believe it’s a private matter – and they are self-regulating themselves).

  3. Well, HJ, there are some legal issues here, which may be valid. I’m not an attorney, don’t know all that.
    But clients can absolutely make mandates for others’ businesses. They do it all the time. I’ve worked at agencies that, when a client kept us on retainer, they had a body count for the department–i.e., “we’re paying for 3 art directors, 4 production artists, etc. dedicated to our account.” They simply don’t know whether the ad agency actually commits those actual people to work full-time on the account, but more importantly, they don’t follow-up. And frankly, if the CEO of a client said to the CEO of an agency, “I need a such-and-such (minority) person working on our business or we’ll go elsewhere,” it’ll get done. Clients have that power, particularly in this economy.
    Yes, clients are equally guilty with their lack of diversity–there’s plenty of blame to go around. With that in mind, I’m not sure that going after the marketers to, in turn, influence the agencies to change their hiring practices is the most effective way for Cyrus & the NAACP to affect change.
    Never said I had all the answers. But if clients want to know if they’re getting their money’s worth, or whether they’re getting the diversity they desire, they can find out–it’s not hard. Whether it’s legal, well I don’t know.

  4. Let’s remember that there are exceptional clients just like there exceptional account people and exceptional agencies. The best clients and account people want to get creatives on their side and do.
    One thing Integer (where I worked twice) has going for it is close proximity to the big client—Coors. Coors marketing people do things with Integer creatives all the time. Games at Coors Field and the Pepsi Can, happy hour, white water rafting, backyard parties, etc.

  5. To be clear, clients can certainly make mandates about staffing when they are paying for bodies (i.e., if they’re paying for 5 FTEs, they must see evidence of it). But it’s a whole other can of worms to demand the ethnic/racial/gender makeup of the people.
    And to clarify, it is possible for clients to influence change. But they have no legal ability to force it. After all, think of the countless family-owned businesses that could be hit under such mandates.
    These things make the scenario so tricky and complicated.
    The reason Mehri and the NAACP are targeting the clients is because they know these companies have the power to influence. They also know these clients have the most to lose from negative publicity. That is, no one is going to boycott or picket Omnicom (or if they do, the results will be iffy). The majority of the public has no idea what Omnicom even is. But getting the public pissed off at Budweiser or Verizon is an easier and more effective solution. That’s one major reason why Mehri and the NAACP are targeting the clients.
    The legal battles—i.e., actually proving discrimination—are the hardest parts of the equation. While the dearth of diversity might seem like evidence enough, you’d still have to prove deliberate intent and actions. As people in our business grow increasingly more nomadic, it will be difficult to establish patterns. Again, the lack of color makes it all seem simple enough. But in a court of law, it’s a whole new ballgame.
    Don’t misread these comments. The actions of Mehri and the NAACP are great. Love it. Just pointing out the difficulties and realities. For more perspectives, check out the Tommy DeVito comment at The Big Tent and this earlier post.

  6. One wonders why it’s been so hard to get some advertising agencies to think differently about their staffing, mentoring, and promoting processes. Just point to the state of the industry and say “do we want more of the same?”
    Speaking from personal experience, working in a multicultural environment is a JOY and fosters unique creative ideas.