Black media owners remain skeptical despite investment pledges

Talks between media buyers and Black executives have yet to yield substantial change.
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Francis Scialabba

· 7 min read

After the murder of George Floyd and the societal, if not economic power of the Black Lives Matter movement, corporate America pinky-promised that it would open its hearts and minds, and most importantly, its wallets, to help close racial disparity gaps.

The ad world, one that eMarketer forecasts to be a $220+ billion industry in the US alone in 2022, is no different.

Now, media agencies are trying to step up to the plate and invest equitably in Black-owned media properties. Yet despite promises and pledges from agencies, Black-owned media executives haven't walked off with any tangible wins.

“We’re having performative conversations with them,” Todd Brown, CEO ofUrban Edge Networks, told Marketing Brew.

Urban Edge, a company that owns and operates an OTT channel and app dedicated to historically Black college and university (HBCU) sports, has held meetings with buyers and brands from IPG, Dentsu, and Publicis.

“What's happening right now is the recognition of the legitimacy of a category, which they've never even acknowledged,” Brown said. Despite pledges, he has yet to see any actual commitment or, more bluntly, a signed check. “We're getting a lot of promises, but no action.”

But that may change. GroupM is asking each of its clients to spend at least 2% of their annual media budgets on Black-owned media. IPG’s Mediabrands recently pledged to spend a minimum of 5% on Black-owned media across its client portfolio by 2023, and held its first upfront for Black-owned and targeted media companies in March.

While Dentsu hasn't made a specific pledge, it has established a division to consult with and support minority-owned media businesses and “establish client benchmarks to reach diverse media audiences,” a company announcement said. According to The Wall Street Journal, Dentsu has a “repository of around 500 media companies for advertisers to consider.”

But is all this too little, too late?

(IPG and Dentsu both declined to be interviewed for this story. When asked for a list of Black-owned media companies each agency works with, both agencies declined to share.)

In 2020, Black-owned media companies saw less than 2% of total ad spend, “despite Black consumers representing 13% of the population,” according to Nielsen Ad Intel research cited by Ad Age. This disparity has spurred media mogul Byron Allen—whose Allen Media Group owns The Weather Channel, local stations, and several other assets—to demand change. In March, he threatened legal action against brands and agencies that fail to allocate more ad dollars to Black-owned media. Last month, his company sued McDonald’s, alleging racial discrimination in ad spend.

“Every advertiser needs to pledge, needs to commit, a minimum of 2% of their ad budgets to Black-owned media. And if they don’t do a minimum, I think you’re saying very clearly to Black America and to Black American consumers that you don’t value us,” Allen told Ad Age in March.

On March 4, Munson Steed, publisher and CEO of Black lifestyle media company Rolling Out, took a meeting with Dentsu. Yet he said fewer than 5% of the meeting attendees had their cameras on. “They don’t care,” Steed told Marketing Brew.

As far as fact-checking whether individual pledges are met, Steed believes media agencies need to go as far as hiring a third party to audit and track their spending. “They need a diversity compliance officer outside of themselves to regulate their built-in bias,” he said. “It's a cultural bias.”

“We are having positive conversations. Now I need action,” Michele Ghee, CEO of Ebony and Jet Magazine, wrote to Marketing Brew in an email. “We expect brands to step up and honor their commitments to the Black marketplace using Black media as their vehicle of choice.”

Josh Rahmani, SVP of national and network sales for Urban One’s audio division, said that while he’s more optimistic than he was six months ago, and meetings have indeed picked up, spending has been piecemeal.

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“Some brands and agencies that have committed to big numbers are starting to slowly spend more, and we’ve gotten some incremental dollars from them, but not necessarily the huge dollars they say they are going to spend,” Rahmani said. “We’re continuing conversations in hopes that we’re going to get there.”

Allen said he fielded calls from Black-owned media representatives who said they were disappointed by IPG’s equity upfront. He described media agencies as being caught in “analysis paralysis,” asking Black-owned publishers to use “enormous resources” to justify their audiences. “What I found offensive is when they tell us to be patient,” he said.

Urban Edge’s Brown heard a similar sentiment at a meeting hosted by Verizon and Publicis for Black-owned publishers.

“They all talked in general terms about the status quo of the industry and this notion of ‘Kumbaya,’ you know, we're going to get around to you. And they were asking us to give them grace. We've been giving them grace for 400 years,” he said.

Money talks

The requests are simple: invest in Black-owned media specifically, not just “minority” owned, which can include white women, or Black-targeted—which would include BET, owned by ViacomCBS.

Black media owners say they're sick of hearing the same excuses. While some brands will readily write checks for untested media (uh, Quibi?), Black-owned media companies claim they don’t get the same treatment.

In some instances, a publisher will have to wait 90 to 180 days after advertisements have run to finally get paid for their inventory. “Who’s floating me for 180 days?” asked Brown.

Because they’re left chasing shorter time frames and smaller deals, they aren’t able to invest in their own staff, hire members of their own community, or even create the deeper brand relationships that go beyond display ads, let alone invest in more precise audience measurement tools that media buyers say they need for further investment.

“We have to respond to RFPs every quarter; it’s not investing. Give me a runway,” said Steed. “Most ad reps or media buyers are going to buy what they bought last year.”

In a statement, Dentsu said it hopes its new consulting division will enable publishers to make the “unique content creation” they’re looking for. In February, the agency partnered with Urban One for a nine-part audio series called “More Than That With Gia Peppers” that ran across its portfolio.

Still, often the industry's solution involves throwing cash into programmatic, a Band-aid that Steed said pays the least when compared to larger work.

Brands will “hide behind qualitative research” or pricing, Rahmani said. For example, a brand won’t spend on an audience that might not index above a specific salary, or it’ll avoid religious content, eliminating gospel from media buys. Or because there’s a premium cost to reach a specific audience, Black-owned media companies can’t compete on inventory or pricing with the likes of iHeartMedia.

“People who aren't as familiar with Black culture, they're just doing the general market. They’re just doing what they’re comfortable with and what they’re used to,” Rahami said.

Or they’re faced with blatant ignorance. Hardy Pelt, chief revenue officer of Urban Edge Networks, described a conversation with a media buyer who had hoped to include the HBCU Tuskegee University. He asked how she knew the university.

“She said, ‘Well, my family and I watched that movie and I thought it was great,’” Pelt told Marketing Brew. “And I kept thinking to myself, what Tuskegee movie is she talking about? She was talking about The Tuskegee Airmen movie.”

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