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'Stop and listen': The Black advertising execs confronting racism in their profession

by Anastasia Moloney | @anastasiabogota | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 16 July 2020 15:12 GMT

Stephanie Caudle, founder of the Black Girl Group. Photo by Janine Domingues-Vasquez

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The $600 billion-a-year advertising industry has been criticised for a lack of racial diversity, particularly at a senior level

By Anastasia Moloney

July 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - American businesswoman Stephanie Caudle says her phone has not stopped ringing since George Floyd's death provoked a national reckoning over race.

Four years ago Caudle founded the Black Girl Group, which matches Black female marketing and advertising freelancers across the United States with companies seeking to advertise to Black consumers, drawing from a database of about 5,000 women.

"It caught me by surprise," said Caudle of the about 50 calls she received in the week following Floyd's death in police custody in May.  

"Normally I'm pitching my company to other companies and nine times out of 10 they don't respond or they say we are not interested right now.

"And then all of a sudden, I'm not having to reach out to anyone. They are coming to me," said Caudle. She has seen a 60% increase in client inquiries for her freelance workers, who include copywriters, publicists and graphic designers.

Floyd's killing sparked global anti-racism protests and intense debate about racial inequality that has forced many industries to confront their own lack of diversity.

Global spending on advertising totals about $600 billion a year and the industry has been criticised for a lack of gender and racial diversity, particularly at a senior level.

Black Americans make up about 13% of the U.S. population, but only 8% of employees in the advertising and public relations sector, according to 2019 government data.

More than 600 Black advertising professionals in the United States signed an open letter urging industry leaders to address "systemic racism" in the sector.

They said a pervasive "boys' club mentality" stifled the growth of Black employees and that a failure to track diversity numbers made it impossible to tell what progress, if any, had been made.


Caudle recalls feeling uneasy when voicing her opinion in meetings in the past.

"There were times when I've been seated at board rooms and I'm afraid to speak up when things are wrong, especially as it relates to race, as I never wanted to appear to be the mad Black woman," she said.

Now, as public pressure over racism prompts the companies behind some of the world's biggest brands to drop longstanding names and logos, some are waking up to the need for change.

Quaker Foods said last month it would drop the name and image of its more than 130-year-old Aunt Jemima brand of pancake mix and syrup, acknowledging it was rooted in a racial stereotype.

L'Oreal, the world's biggest cosmetics company, and Unilever both announced changes to brands that had been marketed for their skin-lightening qualities.

"I actually had a lot of folks reach out to me to saying: 'We know we have not been getting it right as it relates to diversity and inclusion'," said Caudle, whose clients include  said Netflix and the consumer goods producer Procter & Gamble.

"Ad agencies need to ask themselves: 'Am I making all demographics feel welcome, or am I making only demographics that look like me feel welcome?'."

Caudle believes one reason why Black Americans aren't getting hired is because recruiters tend to ignore they places where they study, meet and live.

"Most ad agencies never came to our school to recruit," said Caudle, who studied journalism at North Carolina A&T State University, a traditionally Black college.

"And so if you don't come to where we are, there's no way that we even know about these opportunities," she said.



The world's biggest advertising group, London-based WPP, said after Floyd's death it would invest $30 million over the next three years in inclusion programmes within and outside of the company to support Black and minority ethnic talent.          

Chris Kenna, a leading Black British gay entrepreneur in the British capital, is playing his role in making changes at the top.

In 2017 he founded Brand Advance, an advertising agency that helps brands reach and appeal to Black and ethnic minorities and LGBT+ people to counter mainstream culture that he called  "straight and white".

Despite running a successful company with clients including Google, Amazon, Unilever, and L'Oreal, Kenna said he experiences racism in and outside the world of advertising.

He recalled once speaking at the start of a business meeting when the client interrupted and said: "I'm sorry son, how about you just take a seat and we'll wait for your boss to get here." 

Chris Kenna (wearing hat) speaks at an advertising conference. Photo courtesy of Chris Kenna, Brand Avance

In Britain, people from the Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities hold only 5% of top positions in agencies, according to a 2018 survey by The Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA).

Kenna, 37, said he is one of four Black heads of advertising agencies in Britain, putting the onus on industry leaders "to stop and listen at every level".

"What I'm challenging CEOs for the moment is, 'ok you are not going to give up your seat .. so now you need to change it from you down," he said.

A key challenge is getting Black employees to remain in a company, which means addressing tokenism and promoting an environment where they feel their voice is valued, he said.

"And that doesn't mean getting your Black and brown employees to tell you what needs to be done. It's not their place to explain your own inequality, or your own systemic racism," Kenna said.

It is common for Black employees to be pulled into a client meeting "not to give your input but just so that skin colour can be seen in the picture," Kenna said.

Such a culture partly explains why Black employees typically only stay for two years, he said.

"They are leaving faster than we can get them up the ladder."   

Both Kenna and Caudle see a shift in the advertising world, but say change must now focus on hiring more Black men and women.

"There's a lot of momentum right now," Caudle said. "We need to make sure we hold on to this moment ... and that this ultimately becomes something that transforms the industry as we know it."

    Related stories:

    Race and Inequality

    Top women's rights group probes claims of racism by staff

    Protests lead brands to speak out against racism. But will they act?    

(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)