A Lawyer's Call for a Greater Black Presence in Agencies

A Lawyer's Call for a Greater Black Presence in Agencies


Friday, January 09, 2009

THE inability of the advertising industry to fill its desks, cubicles and offices with a diverse work force is coming under fire again, this time from a lawyer with a track record of extracting large settlements on behalf of employees of giant corporations like Coca-Cola, Morgan Stanley and Texaco who believed they had been the victims of racial discrimination.

The lawyer, Cyrus Mehri, joined the N.A.A.C.P. at a news conference on Thursday in Midtown Manhattan to release a report on race and employment in advertising. The 100-page report, addressing subjects like hiring, compensation, assignments and promotions, is part of what the N.A.A.C.P. and Mr. Mehri, of the Washington law firm of Mehri & Skalet, are calling the Madison Avenue Project.

“The N.A.A.C.P. and my firm are joining forces to take on the advertising industry and end the era of purposeful discrimination,” Mr. Mehri said.

“Forty-five years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it’s still a closed society,” he added, where “favoritism rules and merit is cast aside.”

The goal of the project is nothing short of finally ending what Mr. Mehri and the other participants described as decades of systemic and pervasive bias against agency employees and would-be employees who are black, which they said makes the ad business far more unfair than most other major American industries.

One way to achieve that would be to enlist agency clients — the marketers that hire Madison Avenue to sell their wares to consumers — in the quest for diversity.

“They will be a very persuasive voice to the advertising industry to change,” said Angela Ciccolo, interim general counsel of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, particularly because many of them have already diversified their executive suites.

Mr. Mehri shied away from listing legal action as another way for the project to achieve its goals. He said he preferred a “collaborative process” rather than confrontation.

However, Mr. Mehri said that industry employees have already been coming forward to talk with his firm about “charges of racial discrimination.”

Blacks remain underrepresented on Madison Avenue, according to the report, “Research Perspectives on Race and Employment in the Advertising Industry,” which concluded that only 5.3 percent of managers and professionals at agencies in 2008 were black.

And those blacks who do manage to land jobs on Madison Avenue are significantly underpaid, the report said, earning 80 cents for each dollar earned by their white counterparts.

The economy worsens the problem, Ms. Ciccolo said, because “many training, recruitment and antidiscrimination programs come to a complete halt” in hard times.

Even so, “recession is no excuse for discrimination,” she added. “Although African-Americans have found a place on Pennsylvania Avenue, they must have a place to work on Madison Avenue.”

The ad industry has been the subject of criticism for the diversity of its hiring practices since the 1960s. Most recently, the New York City Human Rights Commission reached settlements in 2006 with nearly a dozen major agencies that required them to set and meet numerical goals for adding blacks to the ranks of their creative and managerial staffs.

The involvement of Mr. Mehri, however, has the potential to intensify the pressure on Madison Avenue because of his success in handling class-action lawsuits against corporate America as well as the National Football League.

The class-action lawsuit he handled against Coca-Cola, for instance, was settled for $193 million, along with stipulations for improvements in hiring practices.

And after Mr. Mehri and the lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. presented a report on the lack of opportunities for blacks to become coaches of N.F.L. teams, the league adopted a rule requiring that at least one member of a minority group be interviewed for openings.

A sign of how seriously the ad industry is taking the Madison Avenue Project was the presence at the news conference of Nancy Hill, chief executive of the industry’s leading trade organization, the American Association of Advertising Agencies.

Asked after the news conference for her reaction to the report, Ms. Hill said she wanted to read it first, then added: “The numbers speak for themselves. It’s disappointing and discouraging. More has to be done.”

Some members of the association also responded to the report.

“Inclusion has been a top priority for us for a number of years now, and we agree that change can only be achieved through systematically addressing the company’s culture,” said Heide Gardner, senior vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer at the Interpublic Group of Companies in New York, which owns agencies like Campbell-Ewald, Deutsch and McCann Erickson Worldwide.

“We’ve put in place a wide range of diversity initiatives,” she added, “but we’re always open to dialogue with anyone that comes to the table with new solutions.” Ms. Gardner, who took her post at Interpublic in 2003, listed efforts there that include “linking diversity goals and compensation” for senior executives.

Pat Sloan, a spokeswoman for the Omnicom Group in New York, which owns agencies like BBDO Worldwide, DDB Worldwide and TBWA Worldwide, said that executives there wanted “to go through the report before we comment.”

On Wednesday, the day before the news conference, Omnicom announced the hiring of its first chief diversity officer, Tiffany R. Warren, who worked at Arnold Worldwide in Boston, a Havas agency, as vice president for multicultural programs and community outreach.

The timing of that announcement came in for some ribbing by Mr. Mehri, who referred to it as taking place “between our press advisory and our press conference.” (Ms. Warren’s hiring was about four months in the making.)

Owen J. Dougherty, a spokesman for the Grey Group in New York, part of WPP, referred to his agency’s progress in achieving diversity goals as outlined in April in a preliminary report card from the city human rights commission. Two Grey agencies exceeded both sets of goals set for them, he said, and worked hard to recruit minority candidates for mid- and senior-level posts.

Another major focus of the report — written by Marc Bendick Jr. and Mary Lou Egan of Bendick & Egan Economic Consultants in Washington — was to dismiss the effectiveness of efforts long popular in the ad industry to improve work force diversity like internships, scholarships and entry-level hiring programs.

“We need to adopt a different approach,” Mr. Bendick said at the news conference, “not on changing the behavior of the African-American applicant but changing the behavior” of industry executives.

“The playing field in the industry is not level and has never been level,” he added. “At the current rate of improvement, we’re not going to get to equal representation of African-Americans for another 71 years.”

The most provocative criticism at the news conference of the lack of diversity at agencies came from Sanford Moore, an activist and talk-show host who is a former employee of BBDO. He has worked with city officials to change the employment practices at New York agencies.

Speaking quietly but forcefully, Mr. Moore took issue with what he called “the cotton curtain of discrimination” as perpetuated by “the men in the gray flannel sheets” and declared that “it is time for the last corporate bastion of Jim Crow to fall.”

© The New York Times. All rights reserved. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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