WTF is accreditation for Black-owned publications?

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Three years ago, advertising agencies committed to spending a certain percentage of their media budgets with minority-owned publishers to help get more dollars flowing to historically under-funded businesses.

But to access those budgets, agencies are pushing Black-owned media companies to prove that they are non-white owned, according to conversations with four media execs. At stake, they say, is the money set aside by advertisers to support non-white media companies following the the media reckoning spurred by the murder of George Floyd in 2020.

Who’s asking for these accreditations?

Black-owned publishers told Digiday that they are being asked — or encouraged — by ad agencies like Dentsu and Publicis to get accredited by third-party companies that, in some cases, have been around for years.

After this story was published, a Publicis spokesperson told Digiday the agency does not require Black-owned publishers to have accreditation.

“Certification holds significant importance for certain clients; however, it poses no impediment for Publicis. We recognize the inherent challenges in attaining certification, a fundamental component of our Once and for All Coalition—a strategic initiative aimed at tackling systemic issues. Furthermore, we have made strategic investments in Maven, a third-party verification firm that offers complimentary services to publishers. This partnership enables us to effectively showcase internally and to our clients the extensive opportunities within the diverse media ecosystem,” Stephen Paez, evp and cultural investment lead at Publicis Media, said in an emailed statement.

Dentsu Media’s Mark Prince, svp and head of economic empowerment, said his agency doesn’t “fully require” these types of certifications to prove non-white ownership, but asks companies about it and helps them become certified if they’re not.

“We certainly get asked for certification, though as time goes on, the ask is less and less but maybe that’s because we are working with the same agencies and brands over and over again,” said Kerel Cooper, president of advertising at Group Black. Group Black includes its certification stamp from NMSDC in decks and other sales material. “It’s one of the first things we lead with. We answer that question right up front… it’s on slide one,” Cooper said.

Agencies don’t ask for certifications from particular companies, just proof that Black-owned media businesses have them, Cooper said — along with Justin Barton, svp of digital strategy and partnerships at Black Enterprise, and Rhonesha Byng, CEO and founder of the Black millennial women-focused digital media company Her Agenda and co-founder of The Black Owned Media Equity and Sustainability Institute (BOMESI).

Which organizations provide these accreditations?

There are a number of certification organizations, but three in particular were brought up in conversations with execs at Black-owned media companies.

Each publisher mentioned the National Minority Supplier Development Council (NMSDC), a private organization that certifies “ethnic-minority businesses that have traditionally been locked out of supply chain procurement opportunities from major corporations,” said Constance Jones, NMSDC’s senior director of network success. NMSDC certification essentially verifies that businesses are at least 51% owned by an ethnic minority who is a U.S. citizen, she said.

Prince said Dentsu’s clients, primarily ask for accreditations from national organizations like NMSDC. Typically, larger brands and advertisers ask to only work with companies that are certified, though Prince didn’t name specific brands.

However, other agencies like Publicis have asked Black-owned publishers for proof of membership from specific entities, like the Alliance for Inclusive and Multicultural Marketing (AIMM), a branch of the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), according to Christopher Kenna, CEO of Brand Advance, a media network connecting brands with multicultural publishers. However, the Publicis spokesperson said the agency does not ask publishers to show proof of membership to organizations like AIMM.

AIMM members get access to a variety of resources, including research, networking opportunities and annual and monthly member meetings, said co-founder Lisette Arsuaga. AIMM also has a “diverse suppliers” database that media buying agencies pay to access, which does not require a membership.

Local, government organizations like the NYC Small Business Services also offer certification, which is known as the Minority and Women-owned Business Enterprise (NYC SBS MWBE). Though the process is “pretty rigorous,” the certification is free, Byng said. However, Kenna noted that in his experience, the free, state certifications were not accepted by agencies he’s worked with.

Byng’s company publication only had the NYC SBS MWBE certification for the past five years, but she said she decided to get the NMSDC certification in 2023 because she had heard from another media executive that it would be “more favorable when it comes to being included in campaigns,” Byng said. “I never want any brand or agency to have an excuse to count out Her Agenda.”

What’s the process for getting accredited?

For NMSDC certification, the process is changing this month from a regional to national certification process to streamline it. Up to this point, companies have applied to their regional council, which then verifies their information, performs a site visit and makes a recommendation to NMSDC’s certification committee. The board of directors then approves or denies certification, Jones explained. The process can take up to 90 days, she added. Byng said the application took her 20 minutes.

Companies that want to become ANA AIMM members apply through their website and undergo an interview. To get on its diverse suppliers database — which is free to join — minority-owned and targeted media companies have to get NMSDC certification, Arsuaga said.

Companies can apply to the NYC SBS MWBE through an online portal and wait for a determination from the SBS.

How much does it cost?

The price for the annual NMSDC certification ranges from $150 to $1,500 based on the company’s annual revenue and location, Jones said. Annual re-certifications cost “a little less” in some regions, she added.

The revenue tiers are broken up into annual revenue of less than $1 million, $1-$10 million, $10-$50 million and $50 million and above, Jones said.

Arsuaga declined to share how much the ANA charges for a full membership to AIMM, but Kenna said an annual AIMM membership cost his company a whopping $15,000 in 2023. Kenna told Digiday that he refused to renew his membership this year, due to the cost, but he has not seen an impact on his business yet.

Some companies, including Nielsen and Omnicom Media Group, are working with NMSDC and AIMM to help cover the cost of membership and certification. The program, which began in 2022, currently helps over 100 minority-owned entities, Jones said. The NMSDC certification was $400 for Her Agenda, which the company is getting reimbursed through Nielsen’s program, Byng said.

At AIMM, brands such as Verizon, P&G, Target, Anheuser Busch, Nielsen, AARP and General Motors are helping to fund membership, Arsuaga said. Around 30 members are sponsored right now, according to Arsuaga.

Is accreditation another barrier for Black-owned publishers?

“While I understand the need for certification, because part of it is [to] keep bad actors out… [it] can be another barrier of entry for minority-owned media companies who maybe don’t have the resources to go through that process,” Cooper said.

Kenna called it a “Black tax” to have to pay for certifications to access the small percentage of budgets set aside for minority-owned companies. Barton said that while it wasn’t a “big deal” for Black Enterprise, it could be a concern for smaller publishers. “If you’re a mainstream media, white-owned, publicly traded company, you just get the dollars. So why does Black-owned media have to jump through an additional hoop just to secure dollars?” he said.

Dentsu’s Prince argued certification confirms publishers’ non-white ownership to help unlock those budgets, but at the same time they shouldn’t be “pigeonholed into one budget and it’s about being eligible for all the dollars that are out there.”

Even execs at the accreditation organizations agree that it’s a hurdle — but they say it’s just part of doing business.

“I’m not saying in all cases… but if a firm cannot afford the certification fee, are they really ready to do business with a Fortune 1000 firm?” Jones said. Certification “is a marketing cost that we have to sometimes do in order to be able to play the game.”

This story was updated after publication to include Publicis’s response.

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