When Walter Geer looks around, he doesn’t see a lot of people who look like him. As a Black executive creative director at the WPP-owned advertising agency VMLY&R, Geer rarely sees another Black face at his seniority level. In fact, when he started actively looking into just how many Black executive creative directors (ECDs) there are at holding company-owned agencies, he only needed two hands to count them.
So when New York Festivals gave Geer a platform, he immediately knew what he wanted to do. He made some calls and quickly gathered 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 an open, candid conversation about their career path, their day-to-day jobs, and how the advertising industry needs to evolve in its approach to Black voices. The two-hour conversation was filmed and split into three episodes. It’s called Black Madison Ave.
“My thought was to give people access, to allow them to be a fly on the wall,” Geer tells me. “Sitting in on a conversation that, quite frankly, not many people would have access to.”
— Walter Geer (@3rdGeers) March 10, 2022
It’s a conversation that will make you cringe. That will make you laugh. That will make you angry. It’s a conversation that should be required viewing not only for every single ad agency exec but for every corporate leader in America.
Perry Fair does not mince words. As a Black man who has worked his way up the American advertising agency and brand-marketing ladder, including to such positions as president and chief creative officer of JWT Atlanta and global ECD and director of entertainment at McCann New York, he’s seen some stuff. “I’ve had a boss call me his minority hire in a room full of my peers,” says Fair in part one of the series. “I’ve had a boss say, ‘What’s up my ni**a?’ on my first day of work. I’ve had to fly to another country to explain to a client that Black people read books.”
As absurd as all of that sounds in the year 2022, as he lists off these racist encounters at work over the years, his fellow ECDs nod knowingly. VMLY&R ECD Sherman Winfield, Geer, Grey 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’ve all seen it and lived versions of the same stories themselves. To hear them outline the challenges and barriers they’ve faced both historically in their careers, but also in their everyday work, will be eye-opening to many, and affirming to others. They’re not being this frank and open just to commiserate, but also to use their shared experiences to illustrate that a year and a half after George Floyd’s murder sparked a nationwide racial reckoning that led many companies to pledge money and resources to fighting systemic discrimination and racism, there is a helluva lot of work to do.
I will note that these seven ECDs only represent the bulk of holding-company agency ECDs in the United States. There are more than 13,000 American ad agencies, and those include agencies with Black founders and creative executives. However, major holding companies still employ the most people in the industry and have most of the relationships with national and global brand clients. A quick look at holding company stats reveals that their percentage of Black employees is nowhere near the 13% of Black Americans that make up the country’s general population. Last year, the industry trade publication AdAge reported that 5.9% of Publicis’ 21,000 U.S. employees identify themselves as Black, and approximately 6.5% of WPP’s 100,000 global employees are Black. Just 3.9% are in senior and executive-level positions. At Dentsu, Black employees make up 6.7% of its total workforce, and 3.8% of senior roles. At Omnicom, 3.1% of executive managers are Black.
These low numbers are not by accident, nor a result of the conscious racism of just a few individuals. It’s a systemic problem, combined with a severe lack of willingness to address it by many until very, very recently. Steve Stoute founded the award-winning agency Translation, sold it to the holding company IPG in 2007, and ended up buying it back in 2011. I talked to him in 2020, after he wrote an open letter to the Association of National Advertisers, calling on the advertising industry’s leading trade organization to set real, measurable goals and actions for its members around diversity, inclusion, and its overall treatment of Black people. What he said then still resonates with the Black Madison Ave conversation today. Read it back, and remember it was almost two years ago. “They can have a diversity department, they check boxes, but there’s no real commitment. Zero,” Stoute said. “The brands aren’t committed. The agencies aren’t committed. And thus the ecosystem isn’t committed. It’s never been.”
This tracks with Fair’s experience at a former holding company agency, as he outlines in Black Madison Ave. “‘I’d go into global meetings, and out of 82 offices, I’m the only Black motherfucker here from three levels in?” said Fair. “CEOs, CCOs, CFOs—how am I the only Black face, when you have an office in fucking Cape Town? Are you serious? Don’t tell me you can’t find us, that is the biggest bullshit line on the fucking planet.”
Representation at every level is crucial in advertising because this an industry that creates millions of images and media we see everyday; and it informs how we as individuals and society see ourselves. In his 2009 book Madison Avenue and the Color Line, Jason Chambers writes that if you look at ads as documentary, the 20th century was a time “in which whites enjoyed the fruits of consumption, and Blacks, if visible at all, contentedly served them from the margins, just slightly out of view or focus. This reliance on myth has meant that advertisements have not challenged socially erected ideologies about race. Rather, they have reproduced those ideologies, and in so doing, helped to reinforce them.”
Back in 2020, I spoke to Goodby Silverstein & Partners creative directors Anthony O’Neill and Rony Castor about how being Black in a leadership position empowers them to impact major brand work—and the images they put out in the world—in a significant way. “When people walk into the casting room, there’s not typically a lot of people that look like Rony and me sitting there, especially together,” O’Neill told me. “As you get more people like us in there, male and female, you’re going to have a more diverse set of people cast. That’s what happens.”
There are committed people at such organizations as Ad Color, Saturday Morning Co., and 600 & Rising, among others, who have been working on this issue for years. The Black Madison Ave series complements this work as a focused, startling public record of the lived experience of Black leaders—and how little has changed. Leaders in every industry need to watch this and think about the promises they’ve made about diversity, equity, and inclusion, and how it’s all fallen short. Then get to real work on the kind of equality and redistribution that needs to happen.