Nearly 50 years later, is Mad Men portrayal of diversity still accurate?
The much-anticipated series "Mad Men" returned Sunday night to record-breaking viewership. The season premiere, set in the mid-1960s, put a strong focus on race and showed, painfully, how bigoted and out of touch the advertising industry was. To be fair, the industry was reflective of business in general in this country, although adland seems to have lagged behind when it came to making the workforce more diverse.
We've seen in previous "Mad Men"episodes how intolerant the mainstream agency business was toward Jews, but at least they were somewhat in the picture. Blacks weren't present at all --not even in the most menial of positions.
So it's an interesting coincidence that, the day after we were smacked in the face by the previous generation's racism, Advertising Age reported on results of a survey on diversity in the industry. As the headline summed up nicely: Results of study called "very disenchanting, but not surprising."
The study done last fall and winter, with responses from 831 ad professionals, shows we still have much to do to get past the attitudes depicted in "Mad Men." Yes, society in general is much more understanding and appreciative of diversity. And many agencies, especially the larger ones, are no longer lily white male bastions. But the survey shows that, beneath the surface, all is still not great for minorities in adland.
Lack of diversity plays a role in minorities entering and staying in the agency business. Thirty-three percent of African-Americans and 21 percent of Latinos cited lack of diversity as an important reason for leaving the business, compared to four percent for whites.
It's a tough challenge, for sure, for agencies to attract and retain good minority employees. And it's important for reasons that go far beyond doing the right thing. As minorities are becoming the majority in this country, it is crucial that diverse perspectives that reflect the nation's demographics are part of the strategic and creative process in marketing. Just look at how many marketers have been embarrassed in recent months by poorly worded ads and graphics that showed a complete lack of awareness and understanding of some cultural sensitivities.
I think the process of bringing more diversity into the agency world must be multi-faceted. It has to be more than simply saying "We are an equal opportunity employer" and recruiting at historically black universities.
The effort needs to get to the high school and even middle school level, to let young people of color realize that they are welcome and needed in the business. Schools in urban areas with a large minority population need to be enaged by the ad community, to help show kids what ad people do, what skills are needed and that people who look like them are wanted and needed.
Here in New York, the Advertising Club has had diversity on its radar for some time, and they are taking some ambitious steps to do some of the things I mentioned above. Their have some initiatives that are pulling together ad agencies and media partners to reach out beyond white America.
It will take time, but the process of reaching out must begin in earnest and build momentum. It will require real commitment from industry leaders and from agency heads. As I said before... it's more than the right thing; it's good business.