BET’s Head of Media Sales Says Diversity Needs to Be a ‘Business Decision’

When it comes to reaching the widest audience possible, BET President of Media Sales Louis Carr believes advertisers need to do a better job when it comes to diversity and inclusion.

“In 2020, you had a lot of marketers right after the situation with George Floyd and the Central Park Karen saying ‘We’ve got to do better’ — and some have, but most haven’t,” Carr told TheWrap for this week’s Office With a View. “There is data showing that consumers — especially young consumers and consumers of color — said, ‘We don’t want advertisers to sit on the sidelines anymore.’ Because advertisers ask them every day when they go down these aisles, ‘Choose me, choose me, choose me.’ And now you see a lot of those same brands acting like May 2020 never happened.”

That’s the kind of frank conversation Carr has grown used to having with peers in the industry, even as BET became part of bigger media companies — Viacom in 2001 and more recently Paramount Global. Along the way, VH1 became part of the BET Media Group, and now, adding more uncertainty to Carr’s job, Paramount is reportedly considering the sale of a majority stake in the business.

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Carr has seen plenty of change in his career, he told TheWrap. In order to grow, he said, it’s important to learn how to be “comfortable being in uncomfortable spaces.”

“Any time you go into an environment that looks different, naturally, you get a little uncomfortable. And Black and brown people have had to live in uncomfortable spaces from day one,” he said. Being able to “grow and flourish in that uncomfortable space” required looking at “the glass half full versus half empty,” he added.

He believes that part of corporate America’s ongoing struggle to embrace diversity stems from people viewing it as a social or political issue as opposed to a business issue.

“I think the real sort of battle is that people think if I diversify the industry with more people of color that I’m going to be losing something because they still view diversity as the right thing to do, not the right thing to do for business,” he explained. “So until they are able to jump that hurdle and understand it’s the right thing to do for business, then we’re still going to have the same issues that we have today.”

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How did you get started in media and advertising? 
I have a broadcast journalism degree from Drake University. When I got out of school, I couldn’t find a job in the industry outside of a small town. So I ended up coming back to Chicago and working in insurance for about seven years. And then my best friend asked me if I wanted to work at Ebony. And I said “No.” And he said, “Well, [come in] just for a job interview anyway.” And I had no idea it was with the founder and CEO, John H. Johnson. I got offered the job right on the spot.

Two years later, I got fired. [When TheWrap asked for more details on getting fired from Ebony, Carr said, “I cursed out my boss. Lesson learned was don’t curse out your boss.”] Then I went to work for Earl Graves at Black Enterprise. The same friend recommended that job to me. I spent about two and a half years there. Then the same friend said, “There’s a guy by the name of Bob Johnson, who’s gonna call you, starting a cable network called BET.” And everything else is history from there.

What were some of the lessons you’ve learned in your career? Are there any changes you had to make to excel?
There were a lot of things that I’ve had to change. No. 1, selling the Black consumer market. I realized early in my career being Black and having an opinion was not enough, that I had to have data and insights. So we started on this journey of trying to build a large repository of Black data and insights in the industry and we’ve done that.

If you go to my office at 1515 [Broadway], you’ll see in 24-inch letters on my fishbowl office the word “growth.” And that’s not just because I’m in charge of revenue, but that’s sort of a life mantra. You always have to grow as you navigate through life and your professional career.

What is your advice for people looking to break into the industry or advance in their career?
Be a great storyteller. I think life is all about stories. Whether internally or externally, you’ve got to be a great communicator because that’s the difference between whether you get the job or you don’t, you get the deal or you don’t. It’s about how influential and convincing your story is.

You have to have a belief in yourself, because there are going to be times that people don’t believe in you. People have told me. “The one great thing about you, Louis, is that even when I don’t believe, I do know that you believe.”

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What strikes you most about how the industry has changed over the years? 
The introduction of new platforms, whether that’s streaming or digital, innovation continues to happen there. But the understanding of marketers and how to engage people of color is still a challenge. The currency of Nielsen is still having the challenge of really capturing viewing of Blacks and Hispanics. We’re still pushing and telling the same stories that we told 20, 30 years ago.

When I started in the business, the African American consumer market had a value on an annual basis of about $500 billion. Now it’s $1.5 trillion. You would think that as that marketplace has grown, people would rush to that marketplace looking for opportunities to grow market share. But we still see that that is a challenge, and I think that is because of the lack of diversity in the industry.

Advertising goes through up-and-down cycles and we seem to be in one of those now — how do you advise people on weathering these storms, or external events like the WGA strike or reports of a BET sale?
We have to get smarter in understanding industries and clients — understand where they are in their cycle of business. What’s impacting them? What are the opportunities there? So I look at soft markets or headwinds as an opportunity for us to get smarter and for us to create a better partnership where the better they do, the better we do.

Of course [clients] have asked us questions about [the strike] and at this point we see no impact on our schedules, even through the end of the year. So we’re good.

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How were this year’s upfronts different from previous years?
The uncertainty of it clearly makes it a little different, a little more challenging. But when you’ve had a long career like mine, you’ve seen this before and you’ve been able to come out on the other side.

Whether it’s our new AVOD offering or how we are going to reposition or rebuild VH1, I think making sure that our clients understand even in these particular times, we are a growth engine, we present opportunities, we continue to reach and engage with our our consumers. We’re everywhere in every way, every day.

What do you say to critics who say consumers don’t want to watch ads?
They must have just been born yesterday, because there are an awful lot of ads in every particular platform around, whether it’s digital, streaming, wherever. Ads will always exist. When you think about where you get your messages about products and services, it’s going to be through ads. There will never be an environment where ads will not exist.

I think the real key is creating an environment where consumers can engage and accept the ads. And the next thing is having ads be good and relatable to particular audiences.

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