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Denver Marketing and Advertising Firms Have a White Problem

Teachings from a bad ad at RiNo's ink! coffee


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I’ve spent an unusual amount of time looking at the faces inside Denver-area marketing and advertising agencies lately. I’m launching a rebrand of my own firm, so much of it has been competitive web research. I also recently recruited two dozen panelists for a half-day event I sponsored with the Colorado American Marketing Association. Since I believe that events are more enriching with a variety of perspectives, and since I wanted to send a clear message that everyone was welcome, I was deliberate in filling the panels with a diverse group of marketing pros.

I have, as a result, scoured more than my share of About Us pages and clicked through to countless profiles associated with LinkedIn company pages.

I have to tell you, Denver agencies: You so white.

It was striking, the roster of Denver agencies. It’s as pale as our snowcapped mountains. Headshot after headshot, group photo after goofy group photo. Art directors, account managers. Creative directors, research specialists. Copywriters, UX designers, project coordinators, SEO specialists and CMOs.

So White.

And this isn’t just an optics issue.

On one agency’s About Us page I found a stock photo of a white guy in a Native American headdress, led by a headline that said “We’re not A**Holes.” The subhead on this page, “Our Politics,” is followed by a proud proclamation that “There are no chiefs here, chief.”

So it actually came as little surprise to me that a Denver ad agency created, approved, pitched and sold the idea of celebrating gentrification to a client. A client doing business in Five Points.

The conversation around the controversy has now shifted to Denver’s city planning practices. But all I come back to is the white faces that passed across my computer screen during my research. Like ghosts, they’re haunting reminders of why diversity matters.

If you aren’t able to take into account the values of the key stakeholders responsible for supporting your client’s brand, then you’re negligent. It’s not like the agency in this story missed a market segment. They ignored the stakeholders that make up a rich and celebrated cultural legacy in the place where their client does business.

This isn’t a mistake or a lapse in judgement.

It’s a systemic failure.

Would a more diverse team of marketing professionals have stopped this campaign from ever happening? I have no doubt that it would have. And the term “Team” is operative here. One person’s diverse perspective is often dismissed as having an agenda, as biased, or as playing a card of some sort. It takes more than a hire here or there to see the benefits of diverse thinking, benefits like, say, creating enough critical mass to speak out against racist ideas brought up in conference room creative sessions.

It isn’t anyone’s place to define the values for another person’s company, so I shouldn’t proselytize about diverse and varied workforces. In fact, given how little it appears other agencies care about this issue, it might be a key brand differentiator for me: As a white male owner of a marketing firm, it’s a priority for me to find and work with people who have different backgrounds than my own. It creates stronger value for our clients, and it’s a much more interesting space for all of us to spend our time. In other words, we’re happier as we work on more creative ways to manage our clients’ brands.

So let me just say that in an era when dialog around diversity has never been more in the mainstream, it’s my belief that a company — marketing or otherwise—should not be allowed to describe themselves as “disruptive,” “out of the box,” “innovative,” or even “creative” if they aren’t able to figure out ways to hire, promote and develop leaders from a wide and colorful variety of backgrounds, perspectives, persuasions and more.

Brands that hire agencies need to step up too, by the way. Demand proof that your agency’s ideas come from a pool of diverse minds. Let your agencies know that you expect them to effectively take into consideration the needs of all your customers when building and managing your brand. It matters to your bottom line (ink! Coffee is but your latest example), so choose your agency accordingly.

Creativity is the process of finding the relationships between seemingly disparate data. And creativity is the marketing and advertising industry’s currency. We traffic breakthrough ideas; it’s our trade. If you’re unable to break your own bubble of relationships, why should you be trusted to do it for someone else?


Aaron Templer is the founder of Three Over Four, a Denver-based brand and marketing firm and a 20-plus-year mainstay in the Colorado marketing scene. He is the past president of the Colorado American Marketing Association, serves on a national American Marketing Association’s council that develops and supports chapter leaders, and he speaks, teaches, and facilitates on the topics of leadership, branding, and marketing.

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