Black-Owned Media Outlets See Chance to Capture Ad Dollars Long Denied

In the space of just a few weeks, a group of Madison Avenue heavyweights — with names like General Motors, Interpublic Group and WPP — has made public guarantees of ad money for some of the industry’s smaller media outlets, all owned by Black entrepreneurs. Getting these companies to talk about ad spending in public is an amazing feat. For Byron Allen, it’s just a first step.

The media entrepreneur, who owns cable’s Weather Channel and recently added seven TV stations to his portfolio of holdings, says he has spent “12 hours a day on Zoom calls since March of last year” trying to get big advertisers to take Black-owned media more seriously. He isn’t done.

Corporate America thrives in part on spending by Black consumers, and Allen believes it ought to put more of its money into ventures that cater to that group. “At the end of the day, every corporation is going to do business with Black America the way Black America does business with them, and if they don’t, they are going to be held accountable,” he says in an interview. Allen wants advertisers and agencies to allocate between 5% and 15% of their ad budgets to Black-owned outlets — and that doesn’t include BET, which is part of ViacomCBS, or other companies that cater to Black audiences but are publicly traded.

In recent weeks, Target, Verizon and Procter & Gamble have also demonstrated new willingness to work with Black-owned businesses or forge partnerships with Black creative executives. Interpublic Group’s Mediabrands, a large buying agency, has pledged to hold a series of “equity upfronts” that put advertisers in discussions with media outlets that cater to people of specific backgrounds. Most of the activity comes after months of reflection across the U.S., with individuals and companies examining their actions toward minorities and multicultural audiences in the wake of the killing of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police. That may have helped accelerate advertisers’ interest, says Allen, but his efforts “were getting traction” before that incident took place.

Already, Allen and some other owners of Black media have shown what can happen when big companies decline to engage with their recent efforts. They placed an open letter to General Motors CEO Mary Barra in papers like The Detroit Free Press and The Wall Street Journal, calling for an increased allocation of ad dollars to their outlets. The large automaker, one of the nation’s biggest ad spenders, at first likened the move to “character assault.” But the group’s actions generated headlines. Within days, GM pledged to devote 4% of its U.S. ad spend on Black-owned media companies by 2022, and spend 8% by 2025. The company is also hosting an “upfront” for minority-owned media on May 14.

More agencies are paying attention. Interpublic’s large Mediabrands buying unit said last week it would spend “a minimum of 5%” of its clients’ ad budgets in Black-owned media by 2023. Dentsu said it would encourage its clients to reveal how much they spend on multicultural outlets. WPP’s GroupM said it intended to “invite” clients to spend 2% or more of their total annual media budgets on Black-owned media over the next 12 months.

“Too skinny,” says Allen of GroupM’s percentage goal. “You need to lean in. It needs to be better than that.” A GroupM spokesman said the company declined to comment.

The advertising industry has never been able to shake the impression that it’s not welcoming to people of color. Over the years, an advocacy group called The Madison Avenue Project has found troubling discrepancies in the way Black employees have been treated and hired by ad firms. Last decade, New York City’s Commission on Human Rights subpoenaed 16 senior executives from top ad agencies in a bid to probe the industry’s hiring practices. Last year, in the wake of Floyd’s death, some of the major advertising holding companies began to disclose the number of people of color they employed, vowing to be more transparent about it in the future.

But the recent pledges are about something in many ways much more tangible: committing what could amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars to smaller media outlets that have, in the past, had to wait in longer lines for meager amounts. “Every Black media person has horror stories on how we have been marginalized by these white-controlled ad agencies,” says Roland S. Martin, the popular commentator who is CEO of Nu Vision Media and distributes a news program via digital forums.

Changes in technology and the way people consume media could help spur more agencies to put Black-owned media in their consideration set. Most advertisers are still looking to reach large crowds through TV and other venues. But as digital media gives them the power to aim more precisely at specific swaths of consumers, the advertisers are growing more interested in reaching smaller groups of the people most likely to buy their goods and services.

For years, “the only currency that the large advertisers have operated on is Nielsen ratings and delivery,” says Rahsan-Rahsan Lindsay, executive vice president of ad sales and marketing for TV One, part of Urban One Inc. “If you aren’t large enough or can’t afford it,” then they are less interested in doing business — a significant hurdle for an entrepreneur just looking to get started, or even looking to keep meeting payroll.

The pressure on major advertisers to reach millions of consumers in an effective manner remains. “A large percentage of our investment is allocated to large, publicly owned media companies, but we are identifying and ensuring that there is a subset that goes to minority-owned media owners,” says Matt Sweeney, GroupM’s chief investment officer, in an interview. The company in recent days also unveiled an effort to support artists, creatives and production companies in creating content for underrepresented communities.

Some skepticism remains. Nu Vision’s Martin says mainstream advertisers often express willingness to start a conversation, but the talks often don’t last. “I have been on calls where the client says, ‘We want to do business with you,’ and they send me to the agency. The agency goes, ‘Oh, what are your metrics?’ You give them, and they create a scenario to tell you, ‘No.’”

Allen says activity will be easy to monitor. “There will be transparency because we will all see the dollars.”

The executive has challenged the media industry in the past. He filed a $20 billion lawsuit against Comcast in 2015, asserting the company violated civil rights law by refusing to carry his portfolio of seven niche cable channels. The matter made it all the way to the Supreme Court before the two sides settled.

He suggests Publicis Groupe could be in line to unveil an effort. A spokeswoman for the company’s media buying arm, Publicis Media, declined to comment. One media buyer familiar with some of the discussions about allocating money to multicultural outlets suggests some ad companies want to create programs to help, but also want to make sure they are built properly. This executive said no one wants to state an allocation goal in public that can’t be sustained over time, and also indicated some companies are wary of creating a public spectacle rather than an authentic business strategy that will last.

More advertisers and agencies will take part, Allen suggests, “one by one.”

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