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Publicis, Omnicom merger likely to renew focus on lack of diversity in ad industry

By Ken Smikle
(July 29, 2013) When conglomerates Publicis and Omnicom announced plans to merge into the world's largest advertising holding company, it was generally viewed within the industry as a positive -- almost inevitable -- development. The merger, if approved, will bring together more than two thousand agencies, 130,000 employees with $22 billion in combined revenue.

The merger comes at a time when clients are challenging agencies to prepare for a future driven by mobile media and "big data."  Traditional agencies are far behind Google, the current leader in the soaring digital advertising arena, which had more than twice the annual revenues of its new, would-be competitor, most of it from advertising.

The size and impact of the newly formed Publicis Omnicom is sure to bring the long standing issue of diversity in the advertising business  -- or the historic lack of it -- back into the spotlight. Numerous efforts to bring more people of color into advertising have been attempted for years, but despite commitments made by general market ad shops of all sizes, little has changed. Both Omnicom and Publicis have in the past been the targets of critics who say neither has done enough to improve opportunities for African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians.

Last year New York City comptroller John C. Liu asked the four ad holding companies to comply with the city's requirement to disclose data on the diversity of their employees. The request was in connection with pension fund regulations. While Interpublic and the WPP Group cooperated, Omnicom and Publicis refused to provide the information. Firms in other industries, such as financial services, complied with the request.

"I doubt whether anyone at these companies has given much thought to the effect their post-merger corporation will have on the interests of ethnic media or diverse talent -- although those interests stand to be seriously affected, and probably not positively," said Adonis Hoffman, a lawyer and adjunct professor of marketing, advertising and public policy at Georgetown University. He is a former Congressional and FCC attorney and general counsel at the American Association of Advertising Agencies.

Ignoring the New York City Comptroller was not the first time that Omnicom had ignored requests for information about the diversity of its workforce. As Advertising Age reported in 2012, "Six years ago, when the [New York City] Human Rights Commission made its requests for diversity figures, Omnicom also played by its own rules." The conglomerate issued a statement at that time on its refusal to provide data, which said:

"Data is neither informative nor is it a reliable measure of our commitment to equal opportunity employment. We do not believe that disclosing it will meaningfully further the goal of workplace diversity. To the contrary, this information, which is susceptible to misinterpretation, could be manipulated by those with interests adverse to Omnicom's and harm the company."

Omnicom's current corporate Website mentions nothing about the role of diversity to the firm's core mission, while tells those clicking its "Careers" link, "We invest in our people, and empower them.  And we recognize that it's the diversity, creativity, energy and dedication of our employees that deliver our strength." [Publicis Groupe has a 49 percent stake in Burrell Communications, one the nation's leading and oldest African-American advertising agencies.]

If it is not known how important professional talent of color is to the future of plans of Publicis Omnicom, it is clear it considers global markets of black and brown consumers key to its objectives for growth.

In a New York Times story this week, Publicis CEO Maurice Levy cited a recent $15 million investment the company made in a new mobile polling company as important to its focus on emerging markets in Africa. "Everyone is fighting very hard and trying to find solutions to get these next billion consumers," Levy said.

"In the grand scheme of things concerning this $22 billion merger, the issues of diversity, inclusion and minority media are probably way down the corporate agenda," said Hoffman. "Unless the regulators, policymakers or vocal interest groups raise those issues, there will be little, if any, discussion of the impact on consumers' interests, especially minority consumers' interests."

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