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Tough, but often humorous talk as Madison Avenue confronts the subject of diversity


A typical meeting of the Advertising Club of New York usually doesn't begin with recitals from five urban slam poets, proceeds with a stand-up comedy routine and segues into frank, sometimes raucous discussion of divisive issues facing the industry.

But there was a good reason for the most recent meeting, held on Tuesday night, to be different from most others: The subject was that most perplexing and problematic topic, diversity in advertising.

"Creatively Incorrect" was the provocative title of the meeting, which drew almost 300 people to the Altman Building in the Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea. The room was so crowded that many stood for much of the two-hour program.

Crowded, too, was the platform holding the speakers, eight in all, who ranged from top agency executives to performers - or is that not really a range? Their points of view, however, certainly ranged widely, from confrontational to diplomatic. When comments generated heated outbursts, the tension was typically defused with humorous asides.

"We can't get away from the issue of institutional racism," said Anne Simmons, president at dRush, a joint venture of Deutsch Inc. and Rush Communications.

"But we also need to do a better job of showing the dollars and cents are there," she added, referring to the spending power of minority consumers. "Great ideas sell to everyone."

That is certainly true, agreed Federico Traeger, vice president and executive creative director at the Bravo Group, an agency owned by Young & Rubicam Inc. that focuses on Hispanic consumers, particularly as more campaigns are created to appear around the world.

But among general market agencies producing mainstream campaigns, "There's a little bit of a 'conquistador' attitude as they come up with ideas and then supply them to the African-American, Hispanic and Asian-American agencies," he added. "We have to work together."

The moderator, Macio Parilla, a comedian who is also a copywriter at the Uniworld Group, which specializes in ads aimed at black consumers, suggested there were limits to how much work clients will give ethnic agencies.

"The corporate executive doesn't want to sit with his cigar buddies and hear them say 'I see you have Negro.com Inc. as your general agency.'"

Esther Paik Goodhart, a Jewish Korean-American comedian, said that "it almost behooves agencies to take notice of diversity" simply because "America is changing, minute by minute."

Atsuko Watanabe, executive vice president and general manager of Admerasia, an agency specializing in the Asian-American market, echoed that, adding that Madison Avenue also should "commit to diversity" because "there are economic rewards to it."

Another speaker, Jamal Joseph - a writer and director who is a former Black Panther - agreed with that perspective, up to a point.

"People have to be brave enough to talk in a climate where so much money is being made about having a responsibility to do more than just sell and make money," Mr. Joseph said, adding: "No one comes from the ad world to talk to kids to say 'You know, you can be in advertising' and tell them why it's exciting and interesting. If you're serious, you'll reach out."

"Kids can touch the drug dealer," Mr. Joseph said. "They have to be able to touch the doctor, the lawyer, the ad exec."

Andy Berlin, chief executive at Berlin Cameron & Partners, a general market agency with clients like Coca-Cola and General Motors, said he feared that "advertising lags behind" society, because "clients feel pressure and agencies feel pressure even more."

"The truth is, we react," he added. "We tend to respond to people who approach us rather than approaching anybody, whether from Harvard or the Bronx."

Mr. Joseph disputed that perspective with these words: "How willing are people at agencies to challenge the thinking of clients who say 'Let's not rock the boat'? Clients need to hear it's time to get off the plantation, even if it's an electronic plantation."

Mr. Parilla, the moderator, kidded Mr. Berlin's being the sole white male speaker by directing tough audience questions to him "like you're Mr. White Guy Know It All."

Mr. Parilla, who is black, said that when he goes to work he "can't wear a suit, because there are brothers in my neighborhood saying, 'You're going to beat that case.'"

In a stand-up routine that tickled the audience, Mr. Parilla also offered a list of "10 things white people want in exchange for addressing the diversity issue." The fanciful list included this imaginary demand: "We want to know how ethnic agencies create advertising with the same budget we use for catering our meetings."

 

Stuart Elliott, The New York Times. March 30, 2000.

Copyright © 2000 The New York Times. All rights reserved.

 

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