Diaspora

Advertising industry investment in Black-owned media progress checked – Crain's Chicago Business

Madison Avenue made sweeping commitments to support Black-owned businesses and media networks following the 2020 murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and other Black Americans. But now that the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag has stopped trending as widely and black-square profile pictures have been replaced, have brands and agencies made good on their pledges?  
“One-hundred percent I believe that the market has moved,” said Revolt CEO Detavio Samuels, a former Interactive One executive who was hired by Revolt in 2020 and elevated to lead Sean “Diddy” Combs’ media company in 2021.
“We’re pleased and continue to be impressed with the levels of interest and commitments that BNC and BNC GO are drawing from agencies and brands, many of which are purposefully reaching out to Black consumers for the first time,” said David Fitzpatrick, senior VP and chief revenue officer of the Black News Channel. “Every brand needs to demonstrate growth, and it feels like after decades of overlooking the audiences that we super-serve on a daily basis, companies are now looking at us as a priority demographic,” he said.
The 24/7 news network, which launched in early 2020, previously reported strong interest during its upfront presentations in 2021, with Fitzpatrick telling Ad Age at the time that demand was then “exceeding what our expectations would be for a start-up network.”
“This is the first year we really had a strong lean-in from agencies, a strong buy-in from the agencies, and commitment,” Lynnwood Bibbens, founder and CEO of out-of-home media company ReachTV, said in December during an Ad Age Remotely broadcast. And 2021 marked ReachTV’s first formal upfront presentation, he added.
“And I’ll tell you, it’s such a big difference because now I have predictable revenue,” said Bibbens. “Now I can go make original programming, and now I can go do certain things because I know what my revenue is going to be. And that’s the advantage when you bring Black-owned media into this and give them an opportunity to predict their revenue, they can then build their business. That’s why it’s so important.”
The Black-owned company, which operates nearly 2,500 TV screens in airports across North America and the U.K., had a successful year by almost any measure. In June, Bibbens’ company struck a major deal with IPG’s Magna to bring its clients sponsorships and integration opportunities. It also struck a deal with NBCUniversal that brings ReachTV into the media giant’s pitch to advertisers. 
But while Black-owned media leaders seem to have experienced a collective boost in advertiser interest in 2021, there’s still plenty of work that needs to be done, and at least one prominent advocate believes many of these promises fall short.
“They’re all behind and they’re all guilty. None of their numbers are defensible,” media mogul Byron Allen, who has been one of the advertising industry’s most outspoken critics, said of brand and agency pledges.
In March, Allen, the CEO of Allen Media Group and owner of The Weather Channel alongside other cable networks and media assets, issued letters of intent to various U.S. brands and their ad agencies calling for them to invest a minimum of 2% of their marketing budgets in Black-owned media or face legal action.
It’s a promise Allen kept on at least one occasion, initiating a $10 billion lawsuit against McDonald’s in May on the grounds that it systemically discriminates against Black-owned media companies. He also publicly called on the fast-food chain to fire CEO Chris Kempczinski following the release of insensitive text messages between him and the mayor of Chicago. But a California judge tossed the lawsuit in late 2021.
In May, McDonald’s promised to more than double its U.S. investment in diverse-owned media companies, production shops and content creators by 2024. Over the next four years, it plans to increase its U.S. advertising spending with platforms owned by Black, Hispanic, Asian American, female and LGBTQ people from 4% to 10%.
Allen said most of the pledges made by media companies over the past year are baby steps and aren’t enough. “Black people represent 13% to 14% of the population, we should have at least 15% of your budget for all the years we were excluded, for all the years of zero,” said Allen. “And pay me more than the white guys for all the years you didn’t pay me.”
As far as Allen is concerned—and what the wording of many advertisers’ investment pledges seems to align with—companies should primarily be investing in Black-owned media, rather than Black-targeted media, which in many cases boast a larger reach but are often not helmed at the very top by members of the communities they serve.
“We’ve had conversations around that … What our opinion is, is it comes down to those who are serving the audience in multiple ways,” said Louis Carr, president of media sales at BET Networks, which is owned by ViacomCBS and ranks among the largest Black-targeted—but not owned—media companies in the U.S. 
“Look at it like this,” said Carr, who pointed to a brand that’s day-to-day operations are run by a majority Black workforce and one that’s putting out content targeted at African Americans (BET was formerly a Black-owned business prior to its acquisition by ViacomCBS, then Viacom, 20 years ago).
And despite the business’s lack of a “Black-owned distinction,” Carr adds that advertisers have continued to lean in and recognize the value of Black-targeted media, as well, “not just from an optics standpoint, but from a revenue standpoint.”
The network sold out of ad inventory in its annual BET Awards in record time, adding 10 new advertisers to the mix. 
While media companies both owned by and catering to Black Americans with a national presence largely report that advertisers have been maintaining a healthy pace with their earlier investment pledges, the same can’t always be said for local and regional Black-owned outlets in the U.S., many of which say they’ve seen little to no renewed interest from brands in the past 18 months.
“Unfortunately … there’s been nothing new with the brands. With the agencies, we’ve had a few inquiries, but nothing that has actually transpired into anything,” said Tracey Williams-Dillard, publisher and CEO of the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, the state’s oldest Black-owned newspaper.
Founded in 1934 by Williams-Dillard’s grandfather, the storied weekly is headquartered in Minneapolis, which has become an epicenter of the Black Lives Matter movement following the police killings of George Floyd and Philando Castile in 2020 and 2016, respectively.
It’s also a major corporate hub, with the larger Twin Cities area playing host to the headquarters of Best Buy, Target, General Mills, 3M and many more. And those companies haven’t stayed silent about their diversity, equity and inclusion goals; in June, Best Buy vowed to funnel nearly 10% of its ad dollars to BIPOC media by 2025, while the latter two—both GroupM clients—publicly signed onto the agency’s minimum 2% media investment pledge that same month.
“We decided that one of the other avenues we could take to kind of further the discussion was to contact some of the corporations, some of the local ones,” said Williams-Dillard. “To date, again, nothing. Crickets.”
The Spokesman-Recorder’s somewhat stagnant advertiser growth has not been for a lack of trying, with the paper’s ad sales team confirming that they have attempted to contact and strike deals with several brands or their ad agencies, and while preliminary conversations have occurred between the paper and at least two U.S. agencies, they have yet to secure much in the way of firm ad commitments.
Sheletta Brundidge, founder of Minneapolis-based podcasting network Sheletta Makes Me Laugh, seems to have fared a bit better, confirming that she saw interest last year from some local advertisers including Mindshare client General Mills and Huntington Bank, which expanded into the Twin Cities earlier in 2021, as well as national ones including Comcast for its Comcast Rise small business investment initiative.
But Brundidge—who also serves as a podcast host and is Sheletta Makes Me Laugh’s only full-time employee—said she’d like to see more corporations live up to their pledges to support Black-owned media companies, including smaller properties such as hers.
For their part, despite some smaller media companies’ apparent exclusion, several advertisers from Target to General Motors that have made promises to invest in and materially support Black-owned media over the past 18 months report that they’re on track with their commitments—and in some cases, even ahead of schedule.
See Ad Age’s 2021 Marketers of the Year here.
“While we’ve committed to investing at least 5% of our annual media budget with Black-owned media companies starting in 2022, we’ve already started accelerating our progress,” said Maurice Cooper, Target’s senior VP of marketing.
“So far in 2021, we’ve invested four times more with Black-owned media than last year,” Cooper said in late 2021. “We’ve also doubled the number of Black media companies we partner with and added more internal resources to help support our efforts to further diversify our media spend.”
“We are seeing some companies moving from virtue-signaling to actual investment in BIPOC-owned companies,” said Melanie Figueiredo, the newly hired VP of advertising and sponsorship sales at URL Media, a network currently representing nine independent minority-owned media companies including the Haitian Times, Epicenter NYC and Philadelphia-based radio station WURD.
A reality for some small-scale Black publishers like the ones that are part of URL Media’s network is that for advertisers, it doesn’t always make sense strategically to place ad budgets with each and every minority-owned media company in the U.S.—though that can be remedied somewhat by banding together, as they’ve done.
“If [an investment] only makes one Black man richer or one company richer, did we really do our work?” asked Revolt’s Samuels, who emphasized the importance of commitments that can affect systemic change, rather than just throwing dollars around to various Black media leaders in the hopes of checking a box. 
“We’ve actually walked away from clients who just want to give us media dollars. If you are going to give us real money, you need to be doing real things for our community,” Samuels said. “The money is only part of the equation for me.”
Ethan Jakob Craft writes for Crain’s sister publication Ad Age.
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