You don’t have to know very much about American politics to understand why that’s important. Obama’s declaration comes at the start of Black History Month – which was started many years ago to give voice to the African American story, which so often fails to make it to mainstream media.
The common thread to the discussions about Obama’s bid for the Presidency or the need for a Black History Month in the first place is really about the push for diversity in important aspects of American life.
Diversity is taken very seriously by the white male-dominated boardrooms of corporate America. Business chiefs are frequently challenged by the likes of the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Push Coalition to show they are doing enough for their local communities and the diverse nation as a whole. It has also been shown time and again that it makes plain old business sense for many companies.
This is a country with a fast-changing demographic due in the main to immigration (legal and illegal) and higher birth rates among new arrivals compared with established citizens.
Some statistics forecast the population of the country to be less than 50% white by 2050. Hispanic Americans recently overtook African Americans as the largest ethnic minority group in the US. They now account for 13% of the populace and are growing.
But the changing face of America isn’t reflected in the advertising industry, which plays an important role in shaping the country’s self-image and awareness, claim its critics.
Over the last year Madison Avenue has been under severe pressure to change its ways and recruit a staff base that looks more like the country it creates ads for.
Things came to a head last June when the New York City Human Rights Commission subpoenaed the heads of 16 New York-based agencies, including familiar names like DDB, Saatchi & Saatchi and Ogilvy & Mather.
According to the commission’s research, just 2% of senior advertising executives in New York are black. It said a study of 8,000 employees at 16 agencies found that although 22% had salaries of more than $100,000 (£51,000), only 2.5% of those were black.
According to national figures from the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, African-Americans make up 5.9% of the advertising industry, Hispanics 5.7% and Asian-Americans 4.4%.
By September, the agencies came to some agreement with the New York commission to hire more minorities. In January this year, the commission published the targets set by the respective agency groups.
Each of the agencies or agency groups had their own approach to what they measure as diversity and what each sees as the key issues within the debate. But they all set seemingly high targets of anywhere between 15% and 35% for professional hires from ethnic minority backgrounds. The agency groups were Omnicom (BBDO, DDB, Merkley, PHD); WPP (Ogilvy, G2 Direct & Digital, G2 Interactive, Young & Rubicam); Havas (Arnold Worldwide, Euro RSCG) and Publicis Group (Saatchi & Saatchi, Kaplan Thaler).
Interpublic agencies Gotham; Avrett Free Ginsberg; and Draft FCB went a step further by not only setting targets for hiring ethnic minorities, but also women. The IPG agencies also set targets for an oft-overlooked statistic – the issue of retention. This is because studies in various industry sectors have shown recruiting people is a separate challenge to retaining them.
And this isn’t just an exercise in political fencing by the commission or the advertising industry. The commission expects the agencies to submit report cards at the end of the year detailing the number of hires, salary ranges and job titles, along with a set of new hiring goals for 2008. The process is expected to continue for three years. If the agencies do not meet their own goals, they’ll be required to hire external consultants to help them.
It’s very likely the big agencies will be working on implementing the changes nationwide and not just at their New York offices. Reverend Jackson is already on record as saying the Rainbow Push Coalition will be looking at taking this issue to other major US cities including Los Angeles and the other advertising heartland, Chicago.
Agencies are also taking their own initiatives in making sure the issue doesn’t flare up again. Ogilvy North America said last week that it has formed an external Diversity Advisory Board made up of a group of professionals from various fields. Bill Gray, co-ceo of Ogilvy North America says/ "We are at an important moment in our industry’s future and know that diversity and inclusion are at the absolute centre of how we will succeed. The guidance of this board is key to making our goals a reality."
There has also been a keen push by trade bodies to improve the image of the advertising industry by encouraging and aiding the recruitment of ethnic minority students to advertising degrees and courses across the US.
The American Advertising Federation (AAF) has its Mosaic Center, which develops and operates programmes and policies to address the ad industry’s diversity and has a focus on young new recruits including its Most Promising Minority Students Programme.
Despite the talk of under-representation of minorities in the US ad industry, it’s also important not to completely misrepresent the industry since there are some members of the various ethnic minority communities in influential positions in the US advertising industry. Until her retirement at the end of last year, Young & Rubicam Brands’ chief executive was an African-American woman, Ann Fudge, as is the current ceo of Starcom Mediavest Group, Renetta McCann. Then there are also the minority-owned agencies like Uniworld, in which WPP has a small stake, and Burrell Communications, which is 49%-owned by Publicis. Both create many of the ads for major advertisers targeted at African Americans and others, with clients including McDonald’s, Burger King, Ford, and Lexus.
The influence of such agencies and key individuals as well as the buying power of all types of ethnicities in the US means the ads are a lot more diverse than the faces you might see in the UK.
It’s not uncommon to see African-American, Asian or Hispanic individuals and families in ads for all kinds of products on television, newspapers or magazines.
It’s also important not to underestimate the important influence of the hip hop sub-culture, which has gone completely mainstream in US life. This is why the rapper mogul Jay-Z (real name Shawn Carter), is in ads for Hewlett-Packard personal computers and has been signed up as a co-brand director for Budweiser Select.
The Wall Street Journal recently ran a piece on how car manufacturer General Motors turned to so-called "bling" culture to attract the attention of younger buyers for its Buick range of cars, which usually attract buyers in their 60s.
Other car makers are also looking at taking this approach and it’s important to note that the advertising is not just about appealing to the ethnic minorities who appear in the ads but also to all audiences with a similar "urban chic" sensibility.
With all that said about the US, lack of diversity is still a major issue in the UK where executives have done plenty of hand-wringing in recent years about the need for more diverse staffing in the advertising and media industries.
Like the US the UK’s demographics are changing rapidly. According to The Guardian, by 2010 it’s estimated more than 35% of the population in urban areas will be of ethnic minority descent.
Yet, as the paper says: "Black and Asian people are still drastically under-represented on the big and small screen…and particularly, in advertising."
• Yinka Adegoke is a New York-based business journalist. email@example.com