Flaws and Gaps in Cyrus Mehri's Report on Racism in the Agency Business

Last Updated Jan 9, 2009 11:52 AM EST

Cyrus Mehri's report on race discrimination in the advertising agency business finds that blacks make 20 percent less than whites, and are under-represented by half at all levels of the industry. But is his report going to lead to the big class-action lawsuit that he's hoping to create? A close reading of the report reveals a number of flaws.

mehri.jpgMehri's press conference yesterday produced a predictable reaction. He got coverage in the N.Y. Times, Adweek and Ad Age. AgencySpy, in particular, completely freaked out:

The study found that over all, blacks are underpaid, under-hired an under-utilized in such staggering frequency that not filing a class action lawsuit at this point would be like America not sticking a bayonet up Germany's ass in WW2. It's gotta be done. Heads must roll, everything must change.
Mehri said in no uncertain terms today that he is building a class action suit.
The most obvious question here is, If the business is so bad, why has a discrimination class-action suit not already been filed? Mehri's report notes that there have been efforts to increase the number of blacks in advertising since 1947. The business revisited the issue in the 1960s, and in 2004, 2006 and now 2009. And still no suit.

In attempting to calculate its numbers, the report notes:

No reliable figures are available concerning the number of Black advertising professionals and managers employed in firms specializing in the African American market. Our best estimate places this number at about 1,500.
"No reliable figures are available"? That would seem to be a pretty big stumbling block to anyone attempting to show that blacks are employed in the wrong place -- minority agencies -- in the industry.

The remainder of the report relies heavily on statistics and estimates. Stats and estimates can be manipulated to depict almost anything. The report contains very few actual examples of discrimination.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Mehri's conference, according to AgencySpy, was where:

It was also mentioned that in order for change to come about, people need to stand up and share their stories, basically to feed Mehri's growing fire.
Good stories is how Mehri won his suit against Texaco:
Take the infamous Texaco tapes, in which managers at the company were heard disparaging black employees and agreeing to destroy potential evidence. It wasn't until a former Texaco employee contacted Mehri about the existence of the tapes and stories about them appeared on the front page of the New York Times that Texaco agreed to settle.
So what Mehri needs -- but doesn't actually have -- is a slam-dunk anecdote of outright racism at a major agency, preferably at the network level.

Perhaps that anecdote is conspicuous by its absence because, on Mehri's own numbers, agencies are actually starting to get their act together. On page 41 of his report, Mehri lists the hiring progress of agencies who pledged to do better in 2006. Of the 15 agencies signing the pledge in 2006, all but four exceeded their goals for hiring minorities. Among those that didn't, the percentage of minority staffers among their new hires was 14-26 percent -- still far higher than the report's own required levels for black representation in agencies. Blacks represent 12.8 percent of all Americans; the report suggests that blacks should make up 9.6 percent of the agency force.

Lastly, Mehri's report is riddled with basic errors, especially the misspelling of major advertising institutions:

  • "Advertising Week" (presumably Adweek)
  • "Young & Rubicon" (Rubicam)
  • "Omnicon" (Omnicom)
  • "Proctor & Gamble" (Procter)
Those errors don't invalidate the whole report, of course. But they suggest that his research isn't as iron-clad as it might be. And that would explain why the Times wrote this:
Mr. Mehri shied away from listing legal action as another way for the project to achieve its goals. He said he preferred a "collaborative process" rather than confrontation.
Collaboration is a lot easier if you don't yet have a case.