New Beginnings: A Matter of Complexion

I am not one who believes that America has become post-racial because of the election of bi-racial Barack Obama as our President. Sadly, to get an accurate picture of how truly things are, issues of race in America must be viewed from life spent dealing with intellectual and socio-political truths.

Race matters in America. Honestly, that breaks my heart. For me, the racism in my profession has been both subtle and blatant. It has been perpetuated by prospective clients and by my professional brethren. Let me give you an example of a decision to reject my agency based on race. We’d been prospecting this particular company for weeks. I answered their brief promptly and professionally. We were readily familiar with the type of work they wanted. They were sent samples of our work in these areas.

After a couple of telephone conversations, the company’s CEO invited me to meet with him. When asked if we were competing against another agency and needed to pitch, he said: “Are you kidding, Bernard? No. Your work is better than (bigger name agency…and big-time agency). We want a long-term relationship.” I arrived early for the appointment and brought supportive materials. It took an hour to confirm that I had an appointment. The CEO came out, took one look at me and said: “I didn’t realize you’re black.” I reminded him that he felt my agency had the ability to deliver what his company wanted. His replied: “Well, your work will be substandard. I can’t waste my money.”

That was bad enough.

I attended a conference on marketing in the digital age, or something like that. There were big name industry people on dais. Wouldn’t you know it? Despite having whatever credentials I needed to get in the damn place, the mostly male and white attendees treated me like I was a fugitive from a chain gang. “You can’t possibly be an agency owner. There are no black—“ met a chorus of ss-ssh. “Oh. There are no black creative directors.” I asked them if they had heard of Jimmy Smith.

The population of the United States continues to get darker each year due to the influx and growth of Hispanics, the increasing numbers of blacks and of Asians. The ad industry and business community needs to understand that the dollars in these communities are of equal value to the dollars in the white community.

There is a prevailing myth that minority owned agencies cannot navigate the terrain of the “total market.” Look. What we do is sell products. That’s what an agency does — that’s what we do.

Industry publications such as Advertising Age needs to acknowledge people of color in the industry when they are saluting the, “the most influential this… the youngest that…the best small agencies..blah… blah… blah…” because seldom are these agencies anything other than white. Stop unbalancing the playing field and perpetuating misconceptions. It ferments prejudice.

I have been fortunate to have decent business clients that recognize my ability to put together campaigns that sell their products and help build their brands. Unfortunately, I also run into the people that think that I am playing ‘dress-up,’ when I put on a suit and pitch for their business.

I am not foolish to believe that the average small agency always has the same capabilities as the average large agency. However, if given the opportunity, a smaller agency might — I repeat – might eclipse the bigger agency’s work. Here’s the kicker. Some of these small agencies are owned and operated by people of color. The fact that we are shut out like I illustrated is not because of a failure of effort. It is simply because to some, race matters.

Catch you later,

Bernard Alexander McNealy

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