In the wake of George Floyd's killing and nationwide protests that followed, 32 Minnesota ad agencies have promised to disclose their racial employment data and hire more people of color in the hopes of having a staff that more closely reflects society's diversity.
In the last few weeks, Fallon, Carmichael Lynch, Colle McVoy, Padilla, Periscope, Solve and other advertising and marketing mavericks joined the #CommitToChange effort led by 600 & Rising, the newly formed nonprofit that is shining a spotlight on the persistent lack of Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and Indians in advertising.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of ad managers who are Black shrank from 0.8% in 2010 to 0.7% last year. The percentage of Asians rose from 2% to 7%, while Hispanics, at 9%, and Native Americans, at 1%, stayed the same.
Desperate for change, two Black advertising executives from Minnesota and New York founded 600 & Rising and published an open letter to the industry last month. They asked ad agencies to publicly release their race employment data and improvement plans.
The letter, which now has 3,000 signatures, has helped convince many ad agencies to pledge to release race numbers and improve hiring and training. Similar racial equity efforts are brewing in law firms and media outlets.
For ad firms, "We're at 90 agencies nationwide right now and 32 in Minneapolis. That is a pleasant surprise," said Nathan Young, president and co-founder of 600 & Rising and Group Strategic director at Periscope in Minneapolis.
Until now, agencies were unwilling to disclose race data, he said. That's changing since George Floyd's killing by police and public outcries to end systemic racism.
"Now, some [agencies] said 'We want to make sure that at least 50% of the people we hire are people of color or that 50% of the applicants are.' Others are investing in internships programs. We left it up to the agencies to make their own commitments," said Young, one of 179 employees to walk out of Periscope earlier this month, when the Wisconsin parent company, Quad, ordered workers to remove any references to the phrase Black Lives Matter on social media posts.
The walkout prompted an apology from the firm's CEO, the release of employment data (showing 16 employees of color, including four Blacks out of 179 total workers) and a promise to conduct diversity training and hire more people of color.
#CommitToChange advocates at advertising and marketing firms that represent brands like 3M, Target, Land O'Lakes, Walgreens, Subaru, and the Minnesota Twins, said having an inclusive creative team can make ads richer with input that represents larger segments of the population.
"What gets measured gets action. It's an act of courage and transparency to share with the world where we are today," said Mike Caguin, chief creative officer at Colle McVoy and board chairman of the BrandLab, an internship program designed to introduce students of color to the ad industry. "When George Floyd was killed, everyone here was deeply affected by that. Much like the rest of the world, we took a look in the mirror … [Joining #CommitToChange] is about how we can contribute to making our community and industry better than we are today."
For a decade, Colle McVoy worked with the BrandLab nonprofit to hire high school and college students of color as interns and introduce them to advertising careers. But there is more to do, Caguin said.
A week ago, Colle McVoy posted on Twitter that 90% of its 240-member Minneapolis staff was white. The company website now states a promise. "We will recruit more BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, people of color] employees at all levels across the agency. We will mentor, champion and advance BIPOC employees into senior roles . … We will conduct more anti-racism training for managers and the agency."
Carmichael Lynch CEO Marcus Fischer said his Minneapolis firm will soon post its racial makeup on Instagram. People of color comprise 12% of all its workers. "But if we look around the office? It is not where we want to be. It is not reflective of the population," Fischer said. Black employees represent 1.7% of all workers. Whites comprise 87.7%.
After a decade of financing BrandLab internships, mentoring and working with ADColor and the American Advertising Federation's Mosaic Center for Multiculturalism, more initiatives are in the works to boost recruiting and retention.
"Like every agency, we have always been committed but our efforts are woefully short," Fischer said. "What Nathan [Young] and #CommitToChange have done is a great thing, because it is forcing a level of transparency and accountability."
Dorion Taylor, who worked at two Twin Cities ad agencies before becoming a director at Carmichael Lynch, said there has been some progress. But the industry is "still horrifically behind. You went from being able to count the people of color from one hand to two hands in advertising. That's a low, low percentage," said Taylor who left the agency in November to become a senior director at Pohlad Cos.
He wants more diverse leadership in advertising and marketing and meaningful career development.
"Not seeing others like me in any higher roles? It didn't give me a lot of hope that there really was opportunity for me for advancement," Taylor said. "A lot of agencies can probably tout they hired a person of color, but they have not done a good job of developing [leaders]. That is a huge problem."
And nationally, said Christopher Boulton, an associate communications professor at University of Tampa who wrote his doctoral dissertation on race in advertising.
"Despite four decades of seeking to 'expand the pipeline' of Black employees through small, targeted scholarships and internships, advertising maintains a Black/white labor gap that is 38% larger than the labor market in general," he said.
Change will require firms to make their race numbers public. "To me, that single demand will make the most impact. So [product makers] can see if their ad agency is being hypocritical," Boulton said. "The hope is that the exposure will shame advertisers into firing bad actors."
Young agreed. "It's the public pressure that has been compelling these agencies to act. We've had decades and decades to fix this problem."
Soon 600 & Rising plans to ask product makers to follow the lead of diversity trendsetters like General Mills and Verizon. "They already have diversity requirements," for their creative teams, sometimes requiring that 20% of the team be comprised of people of color, Young said.
Fischer at Carmichael Lynch said his goal is more than numbers. Retention is just as important as hiring.
"The industry as whole has high turnover," he said. "So making sure that our culture is welcoming and inviting to everyone is important, so they want to be part of [the company] and feel they can bring their full selves."