A Black Woman Amongst Mad Men

There have been several recent articles on a "controversial" email sent by a Creative Director in a major advertising agency in San Antonio, Texas. The email is referred to as the 'ghetto day email' and reads as follows;

Also please share with the teams that today is officially Ghetto Day in the [San Antonio office], and we're inviting our Big D homebitches to cycle in and pop a freak with us. Ghetto music Malt 45s at lunch, ghetto terminology, and of course, drugs and prostitution are legal all day until close of business. Word, my cerebral gangsters.

While many of my peers were horrified by this email, I didn't have the reflexive shock and incredulity you'd expect it to evoke. It gave me the feeling you have when you hear a familiar voice from long ago. Ah yes - my old friend the ad agency - you haven't changed a bit. Advertising is still an industry where a few people who regard themselves as enlightened progressives wear their ideology as a free pass. Creatives painstakingly injecting a positive black image into their ads to satisfy diversity, all the while marginalizing that very image that works right beside them. They routinely exchange remarks that would be classified as subtext racism if they hadn't come from guys sporting Apple watches and $300 shoes. Marveling at their clever use of prose in an email that spews the same unambiguous racism of the red necks in the fly over states they so frequently love to decry. Jim Houck's invective email isn't typical of the conversations found in the hallways and conference rooms of major market agencies. However, the environment that made Mr. Houck feel comfortable pressing send is a part of the advertising industry DNA.

I recall the Mad Men episode where Dawn, the black secretary, was moved to the front reception desk. Upon seeing Dawn in her new post, the agency figure head Bert Cooper said, "I'm all for the advancement of colored people, but I don't believe they should advance to the front of this office." This is the culture of many large agencies. They lack the self awareness to correct themselves. Armed with my One Shows, Archives, Caanes, Addy golds and best of shows, Print and Art Director annuals I just couldn't seem to advance to the front of the office.

Being a creative in advertising is difficult for anyone. Being a woman or black is uniquely arduous. While I was raised with the understanding that hard work and talent are the requirements for success, I also learned a few requirements along the way. I learned to tolerate the halted laughter as I entered the room. I learned that sometimes the best chance at getting an idea out the door was to have my partner present. I learned that I must be seen at my desk while others can squander the day at the ping pong table. After over a decade spent as an art director I created lifelong friends and mentors. I was embraced by so many talented people who were supportive and kind.

People who were equally appalled by the bigotry that was more tenuous than an email, but equal in its message. You wear your achievement and uncommonness with pride. Just when you feel like you've won the battle between perception and reality your partner quips, "for a black chick, you're awfully talented" followed by the, oh here we go, eye rolls from the CD's once you dare to bring it to light. You endure the racial ridicule for far too long, far too often, because you love advertising. You take it to HR in hopes that it will help, because you love advertising. You keep your head down as you coincidentally go from working on national spots to coupons, because you love advertising.

So many of us who were all too familiar with the business that only takes action when their shame goes public. For those of us who surrendered but refused to accept defeat, we take our ball and start our own game. We build our own agencies to create a culture where hard work and talent will determine success. We are a growing alliance of blacks and women who leave the agencies we once dreamt of being a part of. We share our war stories and join forces, because we love advertising.

Kim Wright

Co-Founder / Creative Director
Bridge 13 LA