Corporations have made—and sometimes struggled to keep—pledges to allocate more of their advertising budgets to Black-owned media companies since the 2020 racial reckoning of the Black Lives Matter movement. While spending with Black media increased in 2022 vs. 2021, it still only represented 1.16% of the $76 billion that advertisers spent last year, according to a recent AdAge report.
Programmatic advertising, a form of media buying that uses algorithms and automation to purchase digital ad placements, is one of the tensions at the center of this inequity. While this growing trend is being embraced by large mainstream media conglomerates, the approach is at odds with some minority media companies who favor a traditional direct sales approach.
The issue is the data. Programmatic platforms focus on attitudinal and behavioral audience data that can be quantified via artificial intelligence and machine learning. On the other hand, direct sales often favor identity markers such as ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation––the primary audience metrics of many minority-owned media companies.
Identity-based data has been the core of direct sales advertising for decades, and is still a viable model. When a major corporation wants to reach a specific ethnic or gender-based market, it can develop partnerships with media companies that serve a specific audience. But advertisers are finding it difficult to scale their media buys with some minority-owned companies as programmatic platforms usher in the rise of algorithmic buying––and with it, less dependency on identity markers and more focus on user interests and behavior.
“When [minority] media entities go and pitch advertisers, it’s often ethnically-focused. That can be good as an entry point, but usually there’s a ceiling associated with that,” Jeffrey L. Bowman, a veteran advertising executive and the CEO of Reframe, the first tech-enabled change management platform that helps build inclusive experiences at scale, said in an interview.
He and other Black media and marketing executives agree that a new approach is needed to solve this decades old-problem. But like many systemic inequities, different leaders offer a range of potential solutions. Some, like media mogul Byron Allen, have tackled the challenge through acquisitions and the courts. Others, like media collective and accelerator Group Black, focus on generating direct investment from advertisers.
Bowman says that new tactics are needed on both the demand and supply sides of advertising. “[Black-owned media companies] should talk about cultural impact as it relates to attitudes and behaviors, and how Black creators and Black media oftentimes go beyond race and go across multiple cultures,” he said.
The idea that Black culture drives global culture is not new. An oft-cited example of this cross-cultural impact is found in hip-hop. The music genre created by Black Americans now influences culture, fashion, language and business globally. More recently, the debate over the AAVE origins of what some misidentify as Gen-Z lingo or internet slang highlights that the parts of Black culture that were once on the margins are now in the center.
The multicultural agency UWG embraced this shift early on. “Our unicultural approach is to find out and focus on our similarities, not our dissimilarities,” Greg Edwards, President & CEO at UWG, said in an interview. “Not the things that make us different, but the things that make us all at our core very similar.”
The agency expanded its reach to South America, Europe, Africa and Canada with this philosophy. “We’re now in a place where the people who were property are now creating property. That is the future,” he said. “[We’re at a point where] it does not even require me to talk to clients about color, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or level of enablement. It’s me saying ‘Here’s your product and here are the people that make up the target for us to pursue. And my God, they are beautifully mosaic.’”
Bowman considers this approach one that other ethnic media companies and marketing agencies should lean into. He says that demonstrating cross-cultural impact based on audience attitudes and behaviors could not only serve as a solution to the scale problem, but is essential to the survival of minority agencies and media companies.
Bowman referenced the evolution of advertising over the last several decades. “It went from ethnic marketing to attitudes and behavior marketing over a period of 30 years. Now it’s going from attitude and behavior to neuromarketing,” he explained.
“Ethnic agencies have to begin to demonstrate how media acquired, from an inventory standpoint, goes across multiple cultures. If they can’t prove that, then [media buyers] are going to always keep them in the ethnic box and they’re going to miss another curve,” he said.
But neither Bowman nor Edwards let brands and big corporations off the hook. Both executives point to the need for corporate accountability and infrastructure to ensure equitable economic inclusion for minority media companies and agencies.
“Brands have to be accountable for their social and economic impact,” Bowman said. “There needs to be a scorecard associated with companies’ ESG efforts. There needs to be governance and oversight of the inequities associated with how these brands are not investing in [diverse suppliers].”
Edwards points to the need for equitable frameworks. “It’s one thing [for corporations] to have a conversation about helping people. It’s another thing to set up infrastructure to help them,” he said. “Corporations and communities have not had the hard conversation on infrastructure. The thing that will hold us steady and true is love. The thing that will drive our success will be infrastructure.”
Bowman is leading Using Media for Good, a new initiative that he hopes can serve as one solution to the infrastructure problem. By forming the media industry’s first certified and minority-owned coalition to buy and trade media in exchange for inclusive growth services, Using Media for Good aims to tackle the inequities in the US media and advertising industry and help corporations close the media buying gap.
“The ambition of the Using Media For Good coalition is to build a turnkey resource with services that accelerate closing the decades-old value gap between brands and certified minority-owned marketing service providers,” Bowman said.