‘Ideas are nipped to death’: Confessions of a black copywriter

It’s been quite the year for diversity talk in agencies. There’s the JWT CEO Gustavo Martinez sexual harassment lawsuit, another lawsuit against Rapp CEO Alexei Orlov accusing him of discrimination and retaliation, and, more recently, the Kevin Roberts scandal that led to the Publicis head coach losing his job.

But while gender diversity is a topic that is getting a lot of deserved attention in the agency space, there has been less discussion about race. But the fact remains the agency world lags far behind when it comes to hiring, retaining and promoting blacks, Hispanics and other minorities. (It’s so bad that the Commission on Human Rights has time and time again called out agencies for how bad they were at hiring minorities.)

In this edition of Confessions, we spoke to a black copywriter with over a decade of experience at agencies. Answers have been lightly edited for clarity.

The agency world has been called out for being bad on racial diversity. Have things gotten worse?
There’s a growing tension, which I suspect is due in large part to a new generation of employees that are coming toe-to-toe with archaic systems. The growing focus on the way in which gender is treated was the spark. But there has been less attention paid to the ways in which race has been treated, although after what happened this year with JWT, Rapp and everything else, it’s happening.

When you say “archaic,” what do you mean?
The way in which leadership is arranged inside agencies is really archaic. Younger people see the workforce as an arena for collaboration. And the top-down approach is causing a bit of friction. Older employees, specifically, older men, find it hard to see assertive people of color, and women of color, in particular. So they are finding ways to mitigate assertiveness. It’s caused a lot of the tension we’re seeing now.

So it’s really about old and young?
Not exactly. I don’t mean “older” in a pejorative way. To be fair, most of this happens on the senior level. So there are a lot of junior copywriters saying, “Look, my idea has value, my experience has value, but why isn’t my insight being given due attention?” And it’s because they’re black, Hispanic or women who are black or Hispanic.

That seems overt.
It doesn’t happen overtly. When I’ve reported to or worked alongside women or women of color, if they worked passionately in an idea or wanted to move the needle in a direction, if they were not a senior member of staff, creative director or more, ideas were dismissed to their faces in the company of co-workers. I’ve seen it happen. If you’re not a creative director or above — oh, and it’s hard to find females of color who are — senior leadership will take ideas as smoke and suggestions, not action items. They’re just things efficiently to be dismissed.

How does it manifest?
Once, I was working on a financial account, and a senior art director had a great insight. The idea she proposed became the building block for our entire concept, which we, as a team of six, later presented. But the moment in which the idea was offered, it was completely dismissed. That’s not good for people.

The problem is that ideas and concepts are nipped to death very quickly. Yes, we want to kill first drafts of all junior people, but I’ve seen the vigor and energy with which that effort is directed against minorities. It’s nauseating. It’s not a writ-large, “your ideas are horrible,” but a slow, energized, nipping and tucking of their ideas. So much so they they start asking, “Why am I even here?”

OK, so million-dollar question: Why does this happen?
Oddly enough, it is because when you’re unpacking demographics and examining purchasing power, there is the spirit of condescension that comes in when you’re doing actual creative. So much of what one does in advertising is examine a way in which people behave, that there is this natural slouching of thought that happens where you say: “I know these people; I know what they make and what they consume; I think I know them.” So, it’s a natural judgment.

So basically consumers turn into your co-workers?
Where you’re examining people all day, predicting behaviors and anticipating behaviors, you get in a place where you’re empowered enough to look at someone and say you can anticipate how they’ll perform. It’s a lazy spirit of prejudgment. And there’s no countervailing force. There’s never an effort to consider these individuals as individuals. There is no force to emphasize the humanity of the target market.

But we’ve seen a lot more ads addressing the fact that the average American now isn’t white and male.
Yes, but two things: The team itself behind these ads is rarely representative of that. Also, it’s a designated space to say, “We’re stepping away now from our mainstream message.” Then, let’s get back to our regularly scheduled advertising efforts. Even that is segregated. It’s still segregated. Oh good, we gave some deference to the fact that not everyone is a straight white male. Let’s high-five for us because we acknowledged the world doesn’t look like North Dakota.

Why do you think so few brands have focused on #BlackLivesMatter?
Well, first, there are aspects to this movement people don’t want to associate with. There are also few people inside brands and agencies who can acknowledge the nuance of the movement. Wieden did something. So did Hill Holliday. But for most, it was very, very difficult to find someone who can champion it. If you had someone inside companies who could champion it, you’re going to get there. There is a ethnic homogeneity that is stopping everyone from being able to communicate with the moment of the time and the demographics of the day.


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