The Advertising and Marketing Industry Has a Diversity Problem

By Wilson Camelo, President and Chief Marketing Officer

At a time when racial disparities are at the forefront, it’s necessary we discuss the advertising and marketing industry’s not-so-hidden secret: it is run primarily by people who don’t look, think, or understand the cultures of those who are shaping this country now and in the future.

For an industry centered on consumer “insights” and driven by data, it’s frankly shameful how it operates when it comes to multicultural marketing. The “White privilege” in our industry is one of thinking consumer insights of Whites are adequate for marketing to other ethnicities and races, and thinking “multicultural marketing” is simply translating campaigns based on those insights into a foreign language.  

As the demographics in the U.S. continues to dramatically shift from a White majority to – by 2042 – a White minority population, the makeup and leadership of the advertising and marketing industry is not following suit.

According to a 2019 Association of National Advertisers (ANA) survey, only 12% of member Chief Marketing Officers identify as either Hispanic (5%), African-American/Black (3%) or Asian (5%). This percentage has slipped from 13% in 2018.

Why does this matter? 

Because the industry continues to fail in how to properly allocate dollars to reach the “New America,” which is increasingly diverse. Ad agencies, in particular, need to step up and change. Far too many continue to wrongfully advise their clients on where to spend their dollars and to develop creative without including key insights for non-White consumers.  As such, their “multicultural marketing” often takes the form of literal translations or just including ethnic diversity in the creative.

The best way to illustrate this point is how dollars are currently being spent by major ethnic/racial group in the United States:

  • Hispanic are 18% of the population, but only 3.6% of advertising dollars are allocated to
    reaching them.
  • Blacks are 13.4% of the population, but only 1.4% of advertising dollars are allocated to
    reaching them.
  • Asian are (5.8%) of the population, but only 0.1% of advertising dollars are allocated to
    reaching them.

Brands and clients need to also step up by challenging their general market agencies to go beyond simple translations of campaigns, to stop buying multicultural media like they buy general market media, and to either develop specialized capabilities in-house or partner with expert multicultural agencies.

There are two ways to make a meaningful, long-term impact and to put the advertising and marketing industry on the path to change.  As Steve Stoute wrote in AdWeek last year, fixing advertising’s diversity problem shouldn’t fall to minorities.

First, is to ensure we give opportunities and a voice to the approximately 25 percent of ethnic/racially diverse people already working in the industry, particularly those who work at general market agencies. Simply Google, “Being an ethnic minority at a predominantly White workplace,” and you’ll find many articles about how minorities often feel they can’t be themselves or are afraid to speak up for fear of being dismissed or not taken seriously.  Use their talents and their cultural knowledge to ensure campaigns are not simply translated, but “transcreated” to be culturally relevant.  But, come to them for input at the creative development stage, and not after creative has been completed to ask them, “what they think” or how they think the creative can be “more cultural.”  At that point, it’s too late.

Second, is we need to collectively make an effort to get more kids of diverse backgrounds interested in the advertising and marketing industry.  We need to support programs that are already exposing middle and high school kids to marketing, media, and related curriculums.  Offer financial support, offer to host them, to speak to their groups, develop a scholarship program, etc. At the university level, ensure that we are proactively considering diversity in our internship programs. 

This week, more than 600 Black professionals in advertising outlined 12 urgent action steps for ad agencies to take to end systemic racism affecting our industry.

It is not enough to just “listen” and simply put out images and messages of solidarity and inclusion. Now is the time for all of us to put our actions where our collective mouths are to bring about much needed change in our industry.