DEBORAH AMOS, host:
This we're, looking at how companies try to make their workplace more diverse. Today, we'll hear what happens when an industry doesn't try hard enough. And that's the claim some people make about the advertising business. Gone are the days of the three-martini lunches and chain smoking in the office, as shown on the TV series "Mad Men." Critics say Madison Avenue is still decades behind the rest of corporate America when it comes to the issue of race.
From member station WNYC, Lisa Chow reports.
LISA CHOW: At 43, John Osborn is at the top of his game. When he was a rookie at the big ad agency BBDO, Osborn worked on a memorable TV ad for Pepsi, featuring Ray Charles.
(Soundbite of Pepsi TV commercial)
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. RAY CHARLES (Musician): Taste it. It's right.
Unidentified Group: (Singing) Diet Pepsi, uh-huh. Uh-huh.
CHOW: That was in 1991. Osborn rose quickly through the ranks, and now runs BBDO New York.
Mr. JOHN OSBORN (President, BBDO New York): A lot of my career has been, frankly, luck and being at the right place at the right time.
CHOW: That's a common refrain from people have achieved success, but critics of Madison Avenue say Osborn has an advantage that has nothing to do with luck, timing or talent: He's white. And so are almost all executives at the country's top ad firms. And Cyrus Mehri says that's a problem. He's an employment lawyer whose specialty is workplace discrimination.
Mr. CYRUS MEHRI (Employment Lawyer): It's kind of a freeze frame. It's kind of like if an anthropologist wanted to come back and see, well, what was discrimination like in 1970, you've got it right here in the advertising industry.
CHOW: In the past, Mehri has sued Coca-Cola and Texaco on racial discrimination charges, won huge settlements from each, and forced the companies to change the way they hire and promote employees. He's turning his attention to Madison Avenue and the lack of African-Americans in top management positions.
And Mehri isn't the first to look for discrimination there. In 2006, New York City's Human Rights Commission investigated BBDO and several other ad firms and found that blacks made up two-and-a-half percent of their managers. And in the core areas of creating the ads and managing the accounts, the number of blacks was even smaller.
Mr. MEHRI: I think they just haven't had the leadership from the top yet. And so you need to have a CEO who believes in the case for diversity as a business necessity and a fairness necessity, and who will bring about accountability measures to bring about change.
CHOW: Now, just because there are a lot of white executives in advertising doesn't mean lawyer Cyrus Mehri has a case. But some of those white executives do acknowledge the industry has been a closed one for a long time.
John Seifert is the CEO of North America at the advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather.
Mr. JOHN SEIFERT (CEO, North America, Ogilvy & Mather): We go to certain universities. We hire people with certain skills. We develop and promote in a way that was not necessarily keeping up with the pace of new requirements. And so, we have legacies to deal with.
CHOW: But today, Seifert says more than half of the college grads accepted into Ogilvy & Mather's one-year associates program are minorities. And at BBDO, John Osborn says more than one-third of the managers hired last year were minorities. But neither agency would say how many blacks or minorities work in the critical creative and account management departments. CEO John Osborn says still, they're making progress.
Mr. OSBORN: Diversity at BBDO, safe to say, is not only nice to do. It is absolutely the right thing to do, and it's our top priority going forward. It's really celebrating the differences that ultimately unite us all.
Mr. SANFORD MOORE (Activist): They give all these platitudes. They'll get up and do mea culpas. You have all of these pious remarks.
CHOW: Sanford Moore is a long time critic of the industry. He worked at BBDO in the 1960s, and says the industry has been fighting these issues for decades. He has a folder of old newspaper articles.
Mr. MOORE: Here is a headline for April 26th, 1968, "Advertising: A Plea To Hire More Negroes," you know. It's called the great moral issue by Ogilvy & Mather chairman. Forty years ago, okay. And what it boils down to is in 40 years, they have not seen fit to hire black people.
CHOW: Sanford Moore, who's black, says he left BBDO on his own volition and his claims don't add up to a lawsuit. For that to happen, lawyers would have to find African-Americans who were frozen out of jobs, and they would have to show that the advertising industry should have more black employees based on the available applicant pool.
Mark Dichter defends corporations against discrimination suits.
Mr. MARK DICHTER (Attorney): There are disparities that suggest there's a need for further investigation. But it's a long way from that to proving that there was actual discrimination that the companies could be ordered by a court to make changes.
CHOW: Lawsuit or no lawsuit, the man who's interested in bringing a class action case against Madison Avenue, Cyrus Mehri, says there's a lot at stake here.
Mr. MEHRI: This industry is one of the industries that shapes America's hearts and minds more than any other. I mean, think about what children see, how many ads are on an hour of TV that they see.
CHOW: Mehri says one way to change the industry is to require managers to interview at least one minority candidate for every job posted.
Mehri persuaded the National Football League to adopt a similar rule eight years ago called the Rooney Rule. Yes, the industries are different, but Mehri says the results have been gratifying: five of the last six Super Bowl teams have had either a black head coach or a black general manager.
For NPR News, I'm Lisa Chow in New York.
AMOS: Tomorrow, coaching for minorities as they move up the corporate ladder.