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In 40 years not much has changed, says author of 'Black on Madison Avenue'

“We don’t hire Negroes in account management. Our clients would simply not accept it.”

That was an actual encounter experienced by Mark Robinson, author of “Black on Madison Avenue,” who went on to have a successful 40-year career in account management at agencies including the now-defunct Lintas, Grey, Uniworld, Carol H. Williams and Spike/DDB. Robinson, a guest on this week’s Ad Lib Podcast, says he walked out of that interview at now-shuttered Dancer Fitzgerald Sample after being instead offered an entry-level job in the media department. 

“I was surprised I had the courage to actually turn her down,” recalls Robinson, noting that his interviewer told him, “‘You’ll find the same answer wherever you go.’ That was very much the way it was back then.” 

But then and now aren’t all that different. Robinson says not enough has changed in the ensuing decades. “We have not made substantial progress,” especially when it comes to Black representation at mainstream agencies, he says. Places like “McCann, Y&R and BBDO have more or less the same number of minorities working for them as they did 20 or 30 years ago.”

But it wasn’t just at general market agencies that he encountered racial bias. Robinson, who is light-skinned, says that in his initial interview at Uniworld with a director of client services he was turned down because “you are really not Black enough.” Robinson says he was told, “‘You spent too long at general market agencies. You are going to come into Uniworld and want to do things the white agency way.’”