BEE myths & facts in adland
by Jarred Cinman (@jarredcinman) Last time, I wrote a general introduction to black economic empowerment (BEE) in the South African advertising and marketing sector. This time, I bring you a collection of BEE myths and facts.
Previously, I tried to make a case for why it’s is the right thing to do, as well as to give some guidelines on how to achieve success. In the course of doing that and over the past years, I have heard a lot of people say things about BEE which is not true — and not enough people saying things that are true. So keep this article handy for the next uncomfortable dinner party with your ill-informed relatives.
1. BEE is “reverse racism”
Myth or fact: MYTH
Racism is not simply defined as “decisions made on the basis of race”. There needs to be some disadvantage or prejudice implied, and the intention at the heart of BEE has nothing to do with degrading white people.
Even the term “reverse racism” is riddled with problems. Why is it only racism when applied to black people? Is there something special about being white that we can only experience racism in its reverse?
BEE is about mitigating racism of the past and its consequences. It is based on a desire to eliminate race as a factor in why people have the opportunities they do. The end product is a fair consideration for everyone, not that white people end up disadvantaged in the way people of colour have been.
2. Black people and people of colour are paid, on average, less than white people
Myth or fact: BIT OF BOTH
In some instances, people of colour are paid substantially more than white people for the same job. This is simply a matter of supply and demand: if you want a senior black creative director or client service director, there aren’t that many of them. Thus there is competition among employers to attract these people, which leads to higher salaries.
This is fairly common, even at somewhat junior levels in the business. As a talent business, creative agencies want to attract the best and with a small talent pool they have to — and are willing — to use money as a magnet. However, there is a tendency for junior staff, as well as interns and the like, to be predominantly people of colour. This reason is obvious: it’s much easier to find and recruit juniors of colour; and a key way to meet BEE points’ targets in some categories. As juniors in the agency, they are paid less than their colleagues — perhaps little enough that advertising comes to be regarded as not a viable career option.
There certainly may be a mercenary aspect to this recruiting strategy, where young, black people are hired as cheap labour as well as an easy way to look like an agency which understands and is equipped to produce culturally appropriate advertising. Transforming the agency, though, from the bottom up and progressing people through the ranks is a valid strategy that is often and unfairly dismissed. It’s worked particularly well for the progression of women in the workplace, for example.
3. The advertising industry is still mainly white-owned/controlled
Myth or fact: BIT OF BOTH
Control and ownership are two entirely different things. A slew of BEE deals over the past decade have seen a significant amount of equity transfer into the hands of black people. This has taken many forms, ranging from direct control to share trusts to broad-based ownership schemes (of the type deployed in my agency group).
On paper, at least, black people own a sizeable chunk of the advertising business in the country.
Control is a different story. For that, you need to look at how many people of colour hold senior (and other) management roles within the industry. And you also need to understand how global businesses exercise control via share trust schemes.
When looked at through that lens, things are a lot less convincing. A lot of the local industry remains run by, and presided over by, white people — and a lot of white men at that. There are some meaningful and notable changes afoot — the launch of Black Powder from the ashes of The Jupiter Drawing Room (Johannesburg) is one; Ogilvy has had senior black management in place for some years; Joey Khuvutlu is now MD over at HelloComputer Joburg; and there are some interesting shifts over at Collective ID, ex-Ireland\Davenport, (among others).
But these are, sadly, the exceptions that prove the rule. A lot more needs to be done to progress black people — and to retain them.
4. People of colour are difficult to retain
Myth or fact: FACT
Although this does turn out to be true in practice, the reality is that it’s a seller’s market. We have generally done such a poor job of attracting good black talent into the ad industry, making compelling enough reasons for them to be loyal to a single business on the one hand, and having an unprecedented demand for exactly that talent on the other, that great people tend to be highly mobile.
We regularly see staff offered 50% or 100% more money to move — numbers that are hard to ignore. Of course, we could just continually pay everyone more, but businesses don’t work that way. Like everyone else, we have to juggle the need for performance and profit with the need to diversify our staff base, drawn from a talent pool (at least at a senior level) that is too shallow.
I put a lot of the blame here in two places: a shockingly inadequate educational system over an entire generation, and the failure of the ad industry to present itself as an attractive place to work (financially and otherwise).
5. Hiring lots of black staff leads to a transformed business
Myth or fact: MYTH
This is a rookie mistake to make. First, from a BEE scorecard point of view, and as explained last time, transformation needs to cover lots of different areas. Employment equity is only one.
Secondly, even employment equity demands diversity AT ALL LEVELS of your business. You can’t merely populate your junior levels with lots of colourful people and be done with it.
And, lastly, transformation is deeper than just colour. Having the right staff makeup turns out to be only the first step in the transformation of organisational culture. It’s just as easy to have lots of people wandering around that feel powerless, misunderstood, out of place and freshly embittered.
The real work ahead — in this industry and many others — is to embrace “blackness” not as a colour but as a mindset and worldview. To do that, we need to unpack the essence of what an African is, what we all bring as a unique ingredient to the global melting pot, and how we can shed our Anglo-Saxon skew.
Some failures are certain; this is thin ice and rocky ground. But we have to start being honest with each other, really listening and making changes that not only materially but socially and psychologically improve people’s lives.
- Jarred Cinman:
- TJ Njozela: Agency Life: The black elephant in the room — part 2
- TJ Njozela: Agency Life: The black elephant in the room — part 1
- Big Q Transformation series:
- Mxolisi Goodman Buthelezi: Transformation isn’t dancing for chicken, airtime or policies
- Monalisa Sibongile Zwambila: Transformation needs buy-in on the demand side
- Grant Sithole: Transformation — the proverbial workhorses have bolted
- Zibusiso Mkhwanazi: Transformation — clients must take road less travelled
- Masego Motsogi: What we need to achieve true transformation
- Sbu Sitole: Concept of transformation not embraced by our industry
- Ahmed Tilly: “Some” transformation is simply not good enough
- Ivan Moroke: Transformation apartheid plagues SA ad agencies
Jarred Cinman (@jarredcinman) is a longstanding member of the South African digital industry, having founded one of the first professional web service firms, VWV, in 1995 and the chair of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) South Africa until 2016. These days, Jarred is co-chief operating officer at VML Y&R Africa Group.
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