By the time the Richards Group founder, Stan Richards, publicly apologized for calling a campaign idea “too black”, the damage had already been done. Staff were reportedly indignant at the leadership’s sluggish response, and longtime client Motel 6, for whom the campaign in question was being conducted, had decided to fire the agency.
The loss of a legendary customer (Richards Group and actor Tom Bodett coined the timeless Motel 6 slogan “We leave the lights on for you” in 1986) was quickly followed by a more well-known and more costly fallout than The Home Depot also severed the relationship with the agency.
Richards’ comment was made during an internal meeting with no customers in attendance, but the news still spread when staff demanded a substantive response, emphasizing that silent incidents can invade the public forum, even without traditional turning points how to uncover lawsuits.
For advertising industry diversity advocates, the moment is an important reflection for all agencies to take stock of how seriously they take inclusion in both the staffing and the words and actions of their leadership. And for some with first-hand experience at The Richards Group, there have been signs that the culture may change from the bottom up.
The fact that the problem has escalated by Richards Group employees “gives me great confidence in our industry and the next generation,” said a former agency employee who was laid off prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The younger generation is at a level where they will not accept that and will not stand up for it,” the former employee told Adweek. “I’m excited to see people say, ‘We can’t cover this up. we have to tell the customer; we have to apologize; we want change. ‘”
Adweek has reached out to three high profile advocates of diversity. The following are the lessons the advertising industry should learn from the Richards Group’s impact:
Founder and Chairman of the Marcus Graham Project
There are four words that any agency management should focus on when referring to their employees highlighting their alleged practices or behaviors: recognition, apology, change, and reconciliation.
How you navigate through each stage in those moments of reward is important. Every word is important.
Customers are obviously watching. We all watch. Long-term relationships are not immune to this. Even some of the best marriages end in divorce.
CEO and Founder, IfWeRanTheWorld and MakeLoveNotPorn
For years I have said that there is only one thing that makes the white male dominated holding companies and agencies in our industry take an active role in promoting diversity: an utter disaster.
What happened at The Richards Group sends a message to all of the agency’s executives: If you don’t act NOW to eradicate systemic racism – and sexism, ageism, skillfulness, homophobia; All of this is intersectional – from the top of your agency down at every single level it will blow your face and blow up your business.
As this episode shows, it can happen to you at any moment, starting now. So, do the job you haven’t done in decades and do it FAST, starting now.
Co-founder of Allyship & Action and founder of the Palette Group
The message is clear, the employees of your agency are done with performative statements from the internal management and the management on the customer side. Toxic behavior in the advertising industry has been rampant for eons.