Amidst an ongoing reckoning with race in the U.S. and around the world, Black media executives have put the media and advertising world on notice. A series of statements from prominent Black media operators like Byron Allen and Sean Combs have taken advertisers to task for what they believe is a lack of investment in Black-owned media properties. Critics say that while big brands have for years pledged to diversify their marketing budgets, they haven't backed up their positions with actual dollars spent. As the decline of behavioral targeting throws more focus on context, those critiques are likely to gain steam.
With that in mind, we reached out to experts to learn how advertisers are taking advantage of Black-owned media and what types of changes Black media operators would like to see media buyers make. What we learned is that there are two key threads to the issue at hand. One thread concerns equity, and the need for brand marketers to live their stated values by investing more in Black-owned businesses, the other is about efficacy and the unique value that Black-owned and operated media properties can bring to advertisers.
What are the stakes?
The latest round of conversation about Black-owned media was kicked off by figures like Allen and Combs, who used their celebrity platforms to bring attention to the disparity between brands' statements and their spending. But Nakia Clements, Chief Media Officer at Decoded Advertising and a veteran media strategist sees the current movement as indelibly tied to the protests that followed the death of George Floyd and the wider conversation about equity in culture and business, as well as the increasing stranglehold of large digital platforms over the media industry.
"I think [the] George Floyd [protests] happened and there's just this new level of engagement that's required by brands and corporations now. That is the expectation. It's very difficult to get away with just being performative now. There's this whole movement that's not just looking at, how you use money with certain media that's targeted to us. But also at who's on your board? Who's your leadership? Who's in the ranks? Right? Who's in charge of the decisions?"
According to Clements, this new dynamic comes at a time when all media is under pressure from tech platforms.
"Money has been taken from a lot of other sites and advertising dollars have been shifted to the platforms. That impacts the whole industry and we've seen lots of media brands die or diminish, or just not be as impactful. And I think that has disproportionately impacted multicultural media."
How should brands meet the moment?
There's some debate over how brands under pressure should address these challenging industry dynamics, but most players agree that advertisers must invest more in multicultural media. According to Sherell Dorsey, founder and CEO of The Plug, a digital publication that covers the Black innovation economy, brands can reap greater rewards by investing in media that has diverse ownership along with diverse readership.
"At the end of the day, we are individuals who've built up a certain level of trust with our audiences and our members," Dorsey said. "In terms of loyalty, we have a deeper level of engagement. We know our readers, our subscribers in a very intimate way. These are folks who have started with us from the bottom, and so you get the richness and the soul of those particular subscribers who also are rooting for you when you do get a major brand deal."
For Nakia Clements, it's that intimacy with the audience that provides the context for more relevant and effective ad campaigns. But for a media brand to thrive long enough to achieve that level of authenticity it will require investment from brands.
"If you want to be relevant you should be looking at and working with brands that can offer authenticity." According to Clements, brand marketers "have to be comfortable working with these [media] brands or investing in helping move them along. Help them grow and commit to them so that they're able to get to that place where they get the scale that they need to deliver."
As media buyers looking to invest more heavily, and more authentically, in Black media and Black audiences, Clements and Dorsey offer a few tips.
● Remember that the "general market" is a thing of the past. The population and therefore the audience for any campaign is increasingly diverse. Your media plan should reflect that diversity rather than siloing it away under a separate multicultural spend.
● Look for publications that align with your specific audience and their needs. Working with new and emerging media platforms early in their lifecycle will not only help you to reach the audiences you need today, but also help those publications survive and deepen their relationship with their audience for the future. An investment now can create a stronger media partner tomorrow.
● Investing in Black and minority-owned media isn't synonymous with investing in Black or minority audiences. Black-owned media properties serve a wide variety of audiences and it's important for marketers to understand every facet of their customers' identity and the full context of the publications in which they plan to advertise. Mastering this context will lead to greater opportunity to connect authentically.