Why Multicultural Shops Have An Advantage

From AdAge  As U.S. Population Shifts, General-Market Agencies Need to Do Their Homework

The advertising industry still refuses to make good on old and oft promised diversity initiatives. The industry may ignore the lack of diversity and the dearth of women in upper management, but it will truly put itself in peril by ignoring the cultural shift taking place.

America is expected to become a nation where the majority population will be non-white by 2050; but the cultural impact is way ahead of schedule.

No one is better suited than the current-day multicultural shops to tackle the marketing needs of the future. It will require massive rethinking and retooling, but they already understand the code-switching nature of dialing into niche cultures while also communicating to the general culture.

Despite the election of Barack Obama, America has proved to be anything but post-racial. Many factions throughout the states have in some ways dug themselves in deeper to cultural roots.

Still, we've seen advertisers attempt to cross cultural lines and promulgate notions of one-world advertising.

Some cases have been successful. But the cases where agencies haven't done their in-depth homework into cultural sensitivities, the results have been nightmarish.

For example there was the Nivea "Re-civilize Yourself" ad in 2011. The ad portrays a black man tossing a disembodied head that is afro-coiffed and wearing facial hair. To the uninitiated it seems like an innocent concept. But within the African-American culture the afro is such a classic representation of so many different enduring cultural hallmarks it almost defies definition. It denotes black power, freedom of choice, self expression, beauty, defiance and strength -- just to name a few things. For a grooming product to attempt to market itself to an African-American audience in such a manner was unfathomable. There have been many other brands that have made similar gaffes: Summer's Eve's sassy black talking vagina; Pine-Sol's subservient cleaning lady; Popeyes Southern sounding "Chicken Queen" and countless others. I am certain most of them were done innocently enough. And many of you reading this may not even be aware that these efforts rubbed people the wrong way.

But today's social-media landscape lends itself to hearty and mercurial retribution. Two words: Black Twitter.

Multicultural agencies -- or ethnic agencies, if you will -- are rarely caught off guard by their campaigns. They've not only done the cultural research, they've lived the life. Many ethnicities in America live in varying degrees inside and outside of the mainstream. We dwell in the dominant culture for large portions of the day. At other points we switch modes of behavior, verbalization and social norms. To put it simply, we slide between two worlds and understand them both very well.

Conversely, too many "general market" advertisers and agencies don't know what they don't know. This isn't a point of strident ignorance on their part. It's not borne out of maliciousness. But the fact is, since they live their entire lives in the dominant culture, they don't have to know about the other cultures. Until now. This puts general-market shops at a rather large disadvantage and gives an edge to multicultural shops.

There are a number of such shops making inroads into bigger accounts and offering smarter, broader, better fitting marketing. Shops like Walton Isaacson, LatinWorks and GlobalHuealready have a smart mix of employees and have had success in both markets.

I think of them as ultra-cultural marketers. They have the ability to deeply permeate more than one market to great effect.

Of course, general-market shops could hire and foster these particular skill sets; but after decades of promises that still hasn't happened.

At the same time, some multicultural agencies are looking to go general market. The smart ones will prepare themselves as the general market is coming to us.

Craig Brimm is a 17-year advertising professional; he blogs at

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