Black Professionals Labeled As ‘Difficult’ And ‘Overly Ambitious’ At Ad Agencies

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Written by Ann Brown
agencies
Black professionals complain about being labeled as “difficult” and “overly ambitious” and overt racism at advertising agencies. (Image: nappy.co)

More than 600 Black advertising professionals signed an open letter earlier this month demanding urgent action from agency leadership regarding systemic racism in the industry. 

Since then, the primary organizers have developed a nonprofit named 600 & Rising and secured a partnership with the 4A’s, or the American Association of Advertising Agencies, Ad Week reported.

Periscope group strategy director Nathan Young and Bennett D. Bennett, principal and content lead at Aerialist spearhead the letter and will run 600 & Rising. They described it as “the first organization solely dedicated to the advocacy and advancement of Black advertising employees,” in a statement. 

Already, the organization has 1,100 members. Through its new partnership with the 4A’s, 600 & Rising aims to work alongside the trade body to advise agencies on what steps need to be taken to address systemic racism in the advertising industry.

“The 4A’s has always been committed to supporting our agency members, and now we are doing so in a way that empowers the very people who need our support the most,” Marla Kaplowitz, president and CEO of the 4A’s, said in a statement. “There is a lot of work to be done, and we are readily leveraging our platform to continue partnering with agency leaders and with the members of 600 & Rising in making their critical work a reality.” 

600 & Rising and the 4A’s have set a 90-day timetable for enacting reforms across the industry.

“What we’ve heard from our members is that, as individuals, they don’t feel like they have a voice,” Young said in a statement. “This organization has been designed from the ground up to amplify Black voices and ensure that collectively, we get the resources and recognition that have been denied to our members for far too long.”

This latest development comes on the heels of Black professionals describing agencies as “hotbeds for racism and microaggression.” For a recent piece, Ad Age spoke with 26 employees who have worked at various ad agencies over their careers, including GMMB, Publicis Sapient, Havas, and McCann. Interviewees shared troubling experiences of racism at work. Some even spoke anonymously for fear of endangering their positions. 

They gave Ad Age details of experiences of overt racism, microaggression, and unconscious bias while at on the job.

In the wake of the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, product brands and advertisers are displaying public support for the Black Lives Matter movement but Black ad agencies workers are skeptical of the flood of responses. Especially since, within the ad industry the vast majority of agencies remain predominantly white, especially at the C-suite level, Ad Age reported.

Interpublic Group of Cos., the parent of R/GA, recently released its employee makeup in a leaked memo from CEO-Chairman Michael Roth. According to that memo, only 2.6 percent of IPG’s senior executives and managers are Black or African American; 5.5 percent are Asian; 5.2 percent are Hispanic or Latinx; and 84.9 percent are white. Roth wrote in the memo, “We can all agree that we MUST do better.”

“GMMB—the Omnicom Group-owned advertising, political consulting and advocacy shop that was founded in 1983 and worked on Democratic campaigns for progressive politicians such as Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Kamala Harris and now Joe Biden—recently drew sharp criticism online from former employees after showing public support for Black Lives Matter,” Ad Age reported.

Peter Ukhurebor, who applied for a job at GMMB but never worked there, tweeted in response to a GMMB tweet in support of Black Live Matter: “Your agency is the most Racist agency in the DC AREA. So please do not talk about diversity. I have a list of Black people that have worked at your agency in the DC area that were treated horribly. Even the Black HR managers you hire are made not to hire POC [person of color] even with the interns. SO continue being racist and stop typing about diversity and George.”

The spokesperson said GMMB “announced a number of specific actions [on June 17] to make good on our promise to staff to try harder and do better,” and the agency is “troubled by the allegations made by former employees, and we take their comments very seriously.” GMMB’s spokesperson added that it is “difficult to investigate anonymous claims without knowing more specifics, and we are prohibited from commenting on confidential personnel matters.”

But five employees interviewed by Ad Age say that when GMMB pitches new accounts, partners will ask employees of color for their bios and headshots to send in with their response to the pitch in question, to make the agency look more diverse. Yet, the employees say Black employees will rarely ever actually get the chance to work on the pitch or account if won.

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When asked to comment, the GMMB spokesperson said: “When putting together many hundreds of proposals, staffers of all races and backgrounds are included in proposals to show our capabilities. Going forward, we will consult all employees prior to including their resume or bio.”

One GMMB Black employees said Black executives who speak up are labeled as “difficult to work with, as having a bad attitude, or as being not professional.” The GMMB spokesperson denied this claim.

It was just some of many examples cited in the Ad Age piece. 

Others point to the treatment of Black women at agencies.

It’s common for Black women to be labeled as “overly ambitious or too aggressive” by leadership at ad agencies, said Deadra Rahaman, founder and principal of Society Redefined Consulting. Rahaman is a former strategy executive and account director at agencies including Spike DDB and IPG’s Jack Morton Worldwide.

“I was told I should scale back my confidence because it makes others uncomfortable,” she recalled.

Many Black professionals said they have not seen ad agencies try hard to change their corporate cultures.

“I don’t think they have a real drive (to change),” Rahaman said. “I think right now they are being forced to have a drive. They have had the data. This is not new. The change is going to come because the change is going to be demanded, but not because it’s something they felt they should do.”