Black Madison Ave should be a wake-up call for all corporate leaders


When Walter Geer looks around, he doesn’t see many people who look like him. As Black Executive Creative Director at WPP-owned ad agency VMLY&R, Geer rarely sees another black face in his seniority. When he began actively investigating how many Black executive creative directors (ECDs) there were in holding company agencies, he only needed two hands to count them.

When the New York Festivals offered Geer a platform, he immediately knew what he wanted to do. He made a few calls and quickly assembled 7 of the 10 or so Black ECDs in New York City – to meet in person as a group for the first time – and have a frank, candid conversation about their career path, their day-to-day jobs and how the advertising industry is changing in to further develop their dealings with black voices. The two-hour conversation was filmed and divided into three episodes. It’s called Black Madison Ave.

“My thought was to give people access so they could be a fly on the wall,” Geer tells me. “Participating in a conversation that, frankly, not many people would have access to.”

It’s a conversation that will make you cringe. This will make you laugh. This will make you angry. It’s a conversation that should be mandatory not just for every ad agency executive but for every business leader in America.

Perry Fair doesn’t mince his words. As a Black man who has worked his way up in American ad agency and brand marketing, including positions as President and Chief Creative Officer of JWT Atlanta and Global ECD, and Director of Entertainment at McCann New York, he’s seen quite a bit. “I had a boss who would refer to me as his minority employee in a room full of co-workers,” says Fair in the first part of the series. “I had a boss say, ‘What’s up my ni**a?’ on my first day at work. I had to fly to another country to explain to a client that black people read books.”

As absurd as it all sounds in 2022, when he lists these racist encounters at work over the years, his ECD colleagues nod knowingly. VMLY&R ECD Sherman Winfield, Geer, Gray Group ECD Andre Gray, R/GA New York ECD and Head of Creative Shannon Washington, Ogilvy Global ECD Kaleeta McDade and Momentum Worldwide ECD Patrick Bennett: They all saw and lived versions of the same stories themselves Hearing them outline the challenges and obstacles they have faced both historically in their careers and in their day-to-day work will be eye-opening for many and affirming for others. They are not so outspoken and outspoken just to show sympathy, but to use their shared experiences to illustrate that a year and a half after the killing of George Floyd, a nationwide racial reckoning was sparked that prompted many companies to seek money and resources to provide for combating systemic discrimination and racism, there’s a heck of a lot to do.

I would note that these seven ECDs represent only the majority of holding company ECDs in the United States. There are more than 13,000 American advertising agencies, including agencies with black founders and creative executives. However, large holding companies still employ the most people in the industry and maintain the most relationships with national and global branded customers. A quick look at the holding company statistics reveals that their percentage of black employees is nowhere near as high as the 13% of black Americans who make up the nation’s total population. Last year the trade journal of the industry saying reported that 5.9% of Publicis’ 21,000 US employees identify as Black and about 6.5% of WPP’s 100,000 employees worldwide are Black. Only 3.9% hold managerial and managerial positions. At Dentsu, Black employees make up 6.7% of the total workforce and 3.8% of senior positions. At Omnicom, 3.1% of executives are black.

These low numbers are neither accidental nor the result of the conscious racism of a few individuals. It’s a systemic problem coupled with a serious lack of willingness to address it by many until very, very recently. Steve Stoute founded the award-winning Translation agency, sold it to holding company IPG in 2007 and eventually bought it back in 2011. I spoke to him in 2020 after he wrote an open letter to the Association of National Advertisers and called on the advertising industry’s leading trade organization to set real, measurable goals and actions for its members around diversity, inclusion and the overall treatment of Black people set people. What he said then still resonates Black Madison Ave conversation today. Read it again and remember it’s been almost two years. “They can have a diversity department, they tick boxes, but there’s no real obligation. Zero,” Stoute said. “The brands are not fixed. The agencies are not obliged. And that doesn’t oblige the ecosystem. It never was.”

This aligns with Fair’s experience at a former holding company agency, as he outlines in Black Madison Ave. “‘I’d go to global meetings and out of 82 offices I’m the only black motherfucker here from three tiers?'” Fair said. “CEOs, CCOs, CFOs – how am I the only black face when you have an office in Cape Town? Are you serious? Don’t tell me you can’t find us, this is the biggest line of bullshit on the damn planet.”

Representation at all levels is vital in advertising as this is an industry that creates millions of images and media that we see every day. and it informs how we, as individuals and as a society, see ourselves. In his 2009 book Madison Avenue and the Color Line, writes Jason Chambers, if one views advertising as a documentary, the 20th century was a time “when whites enjoyed the fruits of consumption, and blacks, if visible at all, served them contentedly on the fringes, only slightly out of sight or focus. This reliance on myths has meant that advertising has failed to challenge socially constructed ideologies about race. Rather, they reproduced those ideologies and helped reinforce them.”

In 2020, I spoke to Goodby Silverstein & Partners Creative Directors, Anthony O’Neill and Rony Castor, about how black leadership can have a significant impact on big branding – and the images they bring to the world . “When people walk into the casting room, there usually aren’t many people who look like Rony and I, especially together,” O’Neill told me. “The more people like us there, male and female, the more diverse the cast becomes. That’s what happens.”

There are dedicated people in organizations such as ad color, saturday morning coand 600 & risingwho have been dealing with this topic for years. the Black Madison Ave The series complements this work as a focused, surprising public record of the lived experience of black leaders—and how little has changed. Leaders in every industry need to watch this and reflect on the promises they have made about diversity, equity and inclusion and how all of these have not been met. Then get to work on the kind of equality and redistribution that needs to happen. Black Madison Ave should be a wake-up call for all corporate leaders


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