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Advertising’s most prominent Black executive says empty gestures aren’t going to cut it

Steve Stoute, founder and CEO of Translation, doesn’t mince words on the tough steps that his industry needs to take to make the right kind of progress.

Advertising’s most prominent Black executive says empty gestures aren’t going to cut it
Steve Stoute [Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for The Steve Harvey Foundation]

This week Translation founder and CEO Steve Stoute wrote an open letter to Bob Liodice, CEO of 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.

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“I have been a witness to countless band-aid solutions that never amounted to a committed effort to hold our engagement with African-Americans to the same KPIs [key performance indicators] that we, as an industry, put against the remit of other audiences,” Stoute writes. “Years of chasing the ‘multicultural,’ ‘total market,’ and ‘diversity’ buzzwords have not fostered a commitment to embody the lived experiences of the African-American audience. Hence, when hard times fall upon us, discerning a way to authentically relate gets very hard. But, that dynamic can be changed in strategic ways.”

Before founding Translation in 2004, Stoute was a music industry executive at Sony Music and Interscope Geffen A&M, producing albums for Mariah Carey and Nas, as well as executive producing the Academy Award-winning 8 Mile film and soundtrack. Stoute also serves as an advisor to SocialWorks, a youth empowerment nonprofit founded by Chance the Rapper.

I talked to Stoute about the letter, how the advertising industry’s approach to this issue needs to be changed, and more.

Fast Company: What made you want to write this open letter to the ANA?

Steve Stoute: I’ve been in the advertising industry for 20 years, and I firmly believe that it’s one of the businesses that actually incentivizes segregation through its segmentation research and practices. It’s a very influential industry that controls billions of dollars going into creative and media, and yet they’re not on the front line of changing the perception of how race is perceived in America.

So you have this industry that is creating these cultural images [but] isn’t leading or taking responsibility to do that as it relates to race, inclusiveness, and diversity. And to me, that makes no sense.

FC: It’s interesting because it’s a topic talked about seemingly constantly at industry conferences and events.

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SS: It’s fake! The industry is driven by whatever they can do to make money. I’ll give you an example: The industry has zero problem taking an African American, putting some money behind them to stand up their agency because they want to get a government contract. They want to get African American contracts. It’s like what carpetbaggers did, where they’d go to the South and stand up a politician to get their views across. They do that in advertising. They stand up an African American name, then use it to just get African American contracts. They don’t actually care about the business. They care about those contracts.

I bought myself out of IPG, I’ve seen it. I bought myself out, because I watched them do nothing except try to get Black contracts. There are companies that give out Black contracts, and there are these white male-dominated agencies, all of the holding companies, who in order to get more dollars in growth, stand up African American agencies not to support diversity and inclusion, but for the contracts.

This is the same industry that created and markets Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s! That’s the industry we’re talking about.

FC: Despite a lot of talk and some good intentions, there is a lot of contradiction. On one hand there are hiring initiatives and diversity strategies, while on the other you still have work that reinforces stereotypes and clichés, as well as a lack of diversity in leadership.

SS: Auto companies say they want to reach 35-year-old white women, and somebody punches in a code and off they go. But why are they trying to reach 35-year-old white women? It’s all built on the back of separation. And it’s run by a bunch of people who know nothing, nor give a shit about inclusion at all.

I know (Omnicom Group CEO) John Wren. He doesn’t give a fuck. He can say whatever he wants. They can have a diversity department, they check boxes, but there’s no real commitment. Zero.

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(S4 Capital founder, and former WPP CEO) Martin Sorrell didn’t commit. John Wren didn’t commit. (IPG CEO) Michael Roth didn’t commit. Dentsu didn’t commit. Again, they’re not incentivized to commit.

Now, you’d think the human beings behind these companies would commit, but no. Never. I’ll challenge any one of them.

FC: Should there be more pressure to commit coming from the brands themselves?

SS: Good question. The brands aren’t committed. The agencies aren’t committed. And thus the ecosystem isn’t committed. It’s never been.

FC: To Joe Consumer reading this, who regularly sees Black people in commercials of all types, what does that commitment you’re talking about look like?

SS: The outcry for equality, the headwinds against that is the first time someone sees something like, “Oh, Obama was president—that means it’s fine now.” Or, ‘I see Black shows on TV, that means it’s fine now.’

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You’re talking about a systemic problem that starts in neighborhoods, and in education. You’re talking about bias. I’ve come to the conclusion, unfortunately, that white people think bias and racism are two different things. Racism is the dark word. But bias actually has the same ingredients.

Seeing somebody move forward a bit has nothing at all to do with the truth behind the length of the marathon that needs to be run to get things equal. Michael Che has this bit where he says we can’t agree on anything, even with Black Lives Matter (and All Lives Matter), we’re negotiating the word “matter.” When you see these bumps, these spikes, and these one-offs, you have to think about the thousands and thousands of images, and how advertising and media is directed. When you see 10% of it with African American actors, how can you look at that and say, everything is fine?

Like I wrote in the letter, if you don’t see yourself in the problem, you’ll never be a part of the solution.

There are white people right now who are surprised at what happened to George Floyd. And I’m sitting here going, how can you be surprised?! You’ve seen it over and over and over even in just the last five years. On camera! Now imagine how many times it happens off camera.

FC: If an agency leader comes to you today and says, what should my first steps here be, what do you tell them?

SS: Look at the salaries you’re paying African Americans and women in comparison to what you’re paying their counterparts. Look at the ratio of brown people in your company, and ask yourself why you have so much less Black or brown talent than you do white men? You have to put KPIs on it.

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You have to look at that and try to solve it. You’ve got advertising conferences, I’m telling you, and it’ll be 1,000 people there with, like, 10 Black people. And they look at you like, ‘How did you get to this room?’ That’s the body language. Not in a negative way, but almost like, proud of me for making it to that room. And I’m thinking, half of you guys aren’t even that good!

FC: You’ve been in this business for 20 years. Has it gotten any better in that respect?

SS: Well, if you say it’s gotten better than everybody relaxes and says, “We’ve made progress!” But the progress is so far off what it needs to be that it hasn’t actually gotten any better.

FC: Did you see the open letter written by 600 Black advertising creatives this week? What do you think of the 12 suggested step agencies can take?

SS: I liked it and thought it was great that a bunch of young people from so many different agencies came together. That’s awesome. Some of the steps were very pragmatic and could be measured. Some were loose. But again, I’m more focused on the fact that young African American creatives from around the industry banded together to write that and it got attention. I’m going to connect with the organizers of it to ask how I can help them in any way.

FC: Do you think this is a potential watershed moment for brands and agencies and how they approach the Black community, audiences, and employees?

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SS: I think that there has to be a structured approach and that every brand and agency needs an African American strategy on how to set themselves up to new expectations from society. Those things need to have KPIs, and I think their results should be published.

And if a company isn’t up to that standard, it should be out there, and if people want to cancel them, so be it. If you’re not hiring enough African Americans, or bringing in enough African Americans into your ecosystem, then you should be canceled. Enough is enough.

FC: Translation was hired by the New York Knicks in January. The team has been criticized for, first, its lack of a statement in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, then for how late it was to issue an anti-racism statement. What are your thoughts on it, and was Translation involved with the response once the team did decide to have one?

SS: A few things here. Temperatures are high overall, everywhere. This isn’t a New York Knicks thing. Things are at a boiling point. I’m watching many organizations say nothing right now, and I’m watching organizations put out a tweet and writing a check for a donation right now.

None of those things are what you should be judged by. What you should be judged by is the action you do to show sustainable commitment for the organization against any bias, bigotry, or racism. It’s the sustained effort that counts. So asking a company to hurry up and make a statement, or hurry up and write a check is not going to solve the problem. What’s going to solve the problem is a committed plan that has KPIs against it.

That’s where my head is at.

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I don’t look at anyone’s statement in the first week, reacting to this as a sign of anything to come. The only way I want to know what’s to come is by seeing a plan and how they’re being held accountable to that plan.

We’re in the top of the first inning as related to this situation. I’m not looking at black squares on Instagram last Tuesday or tweeting Black Lives Matter to mean any organization is actually going to do something about it. And if anyone thinks it does mean that, they’re out of their minds.

Every organization should be held accountable for what they’re going to do to help fight this fight. That’s what I’m looking for. Whether it’s being mad at a lack of response or overexcited because of a donation and an Instagram post, neither are rational if you’re looking for an actual solution.

FC: Finally, back to your letter to the ANA, what would you like the impact of this letter to be?

SS: Bob Liodice and the ANA board members should be held accountable. If they’re the de facto governing body of the advertising business. They have the crème de la crème on their board and as members. They need to be held accountable for solving this problem.

I had a call with Bob Liodice, I know Bob, and I expect action from Bob. Period.

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The industry itself has failed miserably in this area, and they know that I know how badly they’ve failed in this area, because I’ve watched them do it for years. Now is the time for them to step up and rewrite history. And I want Bob Liodice, the ANA board, and the holding company heads to put forth a plan. A plan that is really signed with a KPI that they can look back on a year from now, two years from now, and publicly say they did it.

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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