Advertising Shifting Away from “Multicultural” Agencies, Marketing Practices

by Latoya Peterson


In the ad world, “multicultural marketing” and “narrowcasting” is out. The “best ideas” are supposed to win business and carry the day.  So how does that suddenly translate to “give larger, less diverse companies all the work and hope minority shops partner with them?”

Last week, Ad Age published a summary of the Association of National Advertisers’ Multicultural Marketing & Diversity Conference, where the writing on the wall was clear: niche marketing is out of fashion.  In some ways, this idea could have been a good thing.  After all, a lot of the “diversity” ideas coming from advertising outlets are patronizing, at best.

When asked whether he had considered working with a Hispanic shop rather than Ogilvy for the effort, Mr. Yokoi said, “I don’t want to disparage anyone, but we had been working with a Hispanic agency and the creative wasn’t working. It didn’t jibe with our general-market strategy.”

How? “Every Hispanic ad had a picnic” with a revolving cast of Latin musicians, he said. “It was almost patronizing.”

Certainly, minority owned businesses can spread stereotypes and rely on lazy marketing like any other agencies.  But the conclusions early on in the article gave me pause:

Speakers were almost universal in their belief that narrow-casting one group, such as African-Americans or Hispanics, is missing the point. Teresa Iglesias-Solomon, VP-multicultural and Latino initiatives at Best Buy, said the company had a tendency to break out three groups: women, Latinos and business owners — but she herself could have been lumped into all three categories at once. The point, she said, is that there are commonalities within each target group. “We need to make sure we are looking at the whole customer.” For example, moms have similar interests whether they are African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic or Caucasian.

That kind of insight was the impetus behind OgilvyCulture, a new “cross-cultural strategic-service practice” now launching from the WPP Group agency.

“It is not multicultural advertising, which tends to focus on specific ethnic markets,” said a spokeswoman. Instead, “cross-cultural marketing has the objective of developing one brief for clients designed to communicate across different cultures by celebrating shared values and insights.” […]

“It gives us the capability to have a single voice to the consumer,” said Jeffrey Bowman, director of OgilvyCulture, who presented at the conference with his client, Ruy Yokoi, brand manager at Unilever.

Reading through the ideas and anecdotes presented, the overall message was clear: there is no need to specifically target racial and ethnic groups, and by extension, minority owned ad shops would need to partner with with larger, less diverse agencies in order to win business.

Luckily, HighJive and Pepper Miller were able to point out the underlying issues: this is yet another push to undermine minority owned advertising shops and minimize the impact of consumers of color.

Pepper Miller has been in the ad game for more than 25 years.  In her dissent, published over at The Big Tent, Ad Age’s diversity section, Miller calls out the subtext with her headline: “Marketers to Ethnic Shops: Play Nice While Your Business Dwindles to Nothing.

Miller explains:

Today, general-market agencies have all the power — the budgets, the media buys, the strategy and now even the ethnic segments. And they wonder why ethnic agencies are angry? Please.

Few ethnic agencies have the opportunity to sit down and collectively work on the multicultural strategy. Instead, they are given “assignments” — not the business — and are often asked to adapt the general-market strategy to ethnic audiences.

And I love State Farm’s Pam El, but when she says, “There’s enough business for everyone,” I have to ask, Pam, where? Have you not seen the empty ethnic agency offices, and seen the claw marks on RFPs as ethnic agencies scuffle over the sliver of potential business that was once a slice?

Plus the euphemistic buzzwords really tell the fate of ethnic agencies and ethnic marketing. Cross-cultural is in. Cross-cultural = (new) mainstream. Cross-cultural = one size fits all. Narrowcasting is out. Narrowcasting = targeted ethnic audiences.

Highjive also digs in, noting that marketers and clients are concealing a few other factors:

• Clients are so full of shit it’s downright offensive.
The few clients who engage minority agencies are doing so for professional or political reasons—that is, it’s either a business decision or a tactic to satisfy corporate supplier diversity initiatives. And if it’s the latter, clients must realize corporate supplier diversity initiatives will never be satisfied by only employing White agencies where exclusivity persists. In fact, partnering solely with White agencies displays total hypocrisy when considering the diversity pledges on nearly every major advertiser’s website. Besides, how can “cross-cultural marketing” be delivered by agencies where candidates with culture are crossed out during the initial hiring process? It would be great if these corporate maneuvers led to increased diversity at White agencies. It would also be great if pigs could fly. Place your bets on flying pigs appearing before the existence of an inclusive Madison Avenue.

• White agencies are so full of shit it borders on criminal
. Plus, clients are guilty of conspiring with them to hold back minorities. When multicultural work is up for grabs, White agencies are free to compete for it. When general market work is up for grabs, minority agencies aren’t invited to pitch. It’s ludicrous to say, “…bring your best stuff to the table and it will work out for you,” when minority agencies aren’t allowed to come near the table. Clients should either level the playing field—equal resources, equal budgets, equal access to strategies and information—or shut the fuck up.

• The ANA is so full of shit it’s almost comedic
. This latest controversy was sparked by discussions that occurred at the ANA Multicultural Conference. What is Bob Liodice’s position here? The man went on record by publishing 10 Industry Challenges Successful Marketers Have Overcome that included:

    Multicultural marketing exploded in the 1980s as the need to create more tailored advertisements based on cultural differences became increasingly essential. This growing emphasis, combined with media proliferation, has challenged marketers to align their brands closely with varied cultures. The next step in marketing’s evolution is to shed the arrogance of the “general market.” Marketers must avoid simply translating English ads into other languages and create campaigns targeted specifically for certain ethnic markets. They must also be acutely aware of cultural sensitivities that may be pertinent to their campaigns, embracing the many facets of multicultural marketing from start to finish.

Liodice’s Theory of Evolution doesn’t exactly match the revolution highlighted in the Advertising Age report.

, HighJive’s blog, as been around since 2005, and boasts over 6500 posts examining diversity in the Advertising industry. To steal a line from Sunshine Anderson, Highjive has heard it all before. In the days since the summary was published, Highjive has made a point to call out the hypocrisy inherent in touting “diversity” as a brand goal, yet working with an industry that has received major scrutiny for failing to maintain a diverse workforce. They call out Diageo and Harley-Davidson, gets on Deutsch for “creating clichéd, contrived crap for the ADCOLOR® Awards,” and goes off on Madison Avenue’s ubiquitous, yet ineffective, diversity initiatives:

As always, these minority youth outreach programs are commendable. But why the hell doesn’t anyone ever announce a major initiative involving minorities of legal drinking age? Does diversity not apply to colored people with a high school diploma or college degree? Additionally, why do all of these educational efforts never consider schooling the existing White executives on diversity?

Ultimately, the issue here isn’t that the ANA Multicultural Marketing Summit was trying out a different idea – it was that they were pretending that taking measures which would funnel work to predominantly white agencies and flatten the understanding of minority demographics was somehow leading the way on diversity.

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Racialicious is a blog about the intersection of race and pop culture. Check out our daily updates on the latest celebrity gaffes, our no-holds-barred critique of questionable media representations, and of course, the inevitable Keanu Reeves John Cho newsflashes.

Latoya Peterson (DC) is the Owner and Editor (not the Founder!) of Racialicious, Arturo García (San Diego) is the Managing Editor, Andrea Plaid (NYC) is the Associate Editor. You can email us at

The founders of Racialicious are Carmen Sognonvi and Jen Chau. They are no longer with the blog. Carmen now runs Urban Martial Arts with her husband and blogs about local business. Jen can still be found at Swirl or on her personal blog. Please do not send them emails here, they are no longer affiliated with this blog.

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