07/26/2011 10:45 am ET | Updated Sep 25, 2011

Mad Men About Diversity

Munson Steed has more than just a unique name. He has developed an original "blueprint" to change the way Madison Avenue looks -- from a cultural perspective. And that's not the easiest thing to do given Mr. Steed's busy schedule. He's the owner of Steed Media Group, the publisher of Rolling Out magazine and the director of the Madison Avenue Initiative (MAI) -- a division of Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network -- designed to promote minority recruitment and engagement within the media industry. But some in the advertising and production fields could argue that lack of minorities is more of a budgetary issue than a race-related one.


Last weekend, I had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Steed via phone about challenges facing minority job candidates in the media field and what his organization hopes to accomplish. Steed was passionate, candid, and at times puzzled by some of the questions I asked. This comes at a time when Rev. Sharpton has been considered as a full-time host for a MSNBC show. That could lead some folks to wonder if the efforts are sincere or come with a hidden agenda.

For one thing, this is not the first time that diversity on Madison Avenue (New York's advertising mecca) has been challenged. Last October, Christopher Nelson took a deeper look into what is being done to make boardrooms "more colorful." However, Munson Steed wants more than a blog or a write up about this issue and he spoke liberally about what matters to him in our interview:

What is the true goal of the Madison Avenue Initiative?

We want to increase, in an equitable way, the participation of African Americans as well as the entire urban culture of Hispanics and Asians, that will produce our equitable share of creative services, PR space--in terms of employment, production, and all of those areas that we have such a lack of representation in. All of those areas could be a real place for our young people to be employed, to increase their skill sets, and have more job readiness. But they are not recruited based on the practices that are discriminatory in nature in the industry.

How would you respond to your critics? In terms of your relationship with Rev. Al Sharpton, you have critics out there who consider him a shakedown artist or race hustler.

I think, at the end of the day, every corporation has a lobbyist that's in Washington, that has a special interest group. We don't call special interest groups from any of these corporations "shakedown artists." I think it's a lack of understanding of what a person who lobbies for the communities does. Much of your unemployment has doubled for young black males and black people in general. And this person is talking about equality in the entire industry. That's not a shakedown. We have some expectations of corporate America and it's a problem that this last generation doesn't get. You shouldn't choose a company that doesn't sponsor any scholarships for African-American colleges.

Why would you consider drinking a soda from a company that is not sponsoring a major African American event? Essence has Coke. What is a more national figure than that which Pepsi has for the whole company? We need to ask: How many science scholarships is Google giving?, How many African American sales people are on Groupon? When people say that, I don't know if they're naysayers but we have a lack of expectations and understanding. For people to say you're shaking somebody down, if you're asking for some kind of reciprocity, it seems as if when African Americans ask for anything, then all these other issues of shakedown come into play. If we had access to the capital that many other companies have, we wouldn't have to ask anybody for anything.

Because you have your own company (Steed Media Group), would you separate that from this initiative or do you feel it would be ethical to include it?

I think it gives you a degree to critique. I mean, many of the people who consult or lobby have some awareness. I'm not advocating just for myself. It's a billion dollar issue. It's not a little issue, a multi million dollar issue as it relates to me. It's not just about advertising, that's what I want you to understand; it's about employment.

When I'm at an insurance company, sitting with their multicultural team -- they don't have one African American on their multicultural team. That says something about their commitment. These are facts that somebody needs to know. I want some young African Americans to be employed in the industry, it's not about me. When I sit back and I'm asking for jobs, I don't need a job. I want more young African American entrepreneurs.

What would you say to people who say why can't people black people themselves start their own companies? You have some black folks who believe in "doing for self."

Capital is clearly part of the issue. If you have companies that are not doing business with you, they are growing the other companies. That's what young brothers don't understand, young sisters -- you're growing your company because somebody is spending money with you. These companies are getting hedge fund money, these companies are financing, and advertising could just be a good idea. Somebody gets 2 to 10 million dollars for a good idea? Many of them are publicly traded off the pension funds of African Americans. These are holding companies that spend billions of dollars.

One of the excuses that companies have used is that billing hours are down because people aren't watching advertising. Do you think some companies are not hiring blacks because they don't have the same budget as before?

No, the budgets for them haven't changed. Did they recruit you?

No they didn't. That's why I'm working for myself.

Then you're an example of what I'm talking about. How do you not hire people like yourself? How come no head hunter has found you?

That's the million dollar question. (laughs)

And that's the thing, so if I'm lobbying and Rev. Sharpton and I are asking the question for you, I don't want a job. I want an opportunity so that I can hire more people, create more great programs, You have way too many African American firms who are still offering the same thing. [They seem to say] "Let's do a music contest" and not an intelligence contest.

What would you say to advertising agencies who say that our taste in media is different? Do you think these companies are using stereotypes about us to keep us out of the boardroom?

I think you make a good point. Nobody has said it. We have to say as a community either we're gonna stand up or lay down. We're looking forward to a campaign in November 2012 dealing with the images. But many of the images are created by Madison Avenue.

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Final Thoughts

Mr. Steed has the right intentions and I applaud him for that. I just feel that all Americans are realizing that if "they" won't hire you, you have to hire yourself. I appreciate what he is doing for minority college graduates like myself. It's just that our economy is moving more towards entrepreneurship and less dependence on corporate jobs. If you look at institutions like the Kaufmann Foundation , there is a lot of information for disadvantaged groups of people to use for their own personal benefit.

Maybe Rev. Sharpton will use his clout at MSNBC to inspire more young men of color to get into the business. I just hope that we aren't being used as pawns for the personal benefit of others. That is NOT the way the game should be played.

If they won't let us on Madison Avenue, we can bring advertising to our own communities. The concept of "doing for self" started way before The Honorable Elijah Muhammad introduced it to the followers of the Nation of Islam. Instead, it is a human ideal for those who truly want to survive out here.

It takes a true "Mad Man" (or Woman) to use the same creative skills needed in the agency world to open their OWN doors when all the others seem shut.