Advertising’s Last Unicorns
Have you ever walked into a space where you were consistently the only black person in the room? If you aren’t black, have you ever taken the time to think about what that’s like? There was a point where I blasted Solange’s A Seat At The Table for about a month at work because I, in fact, had a lot to be mad about. For black women, as all POC in work environments— it’s safe to say that we all do.
When I tried to enter advertising as a writer, I was told to be a producer. When advertising said I wasn’t creative enough to be a producer, I was told to be an account person. I learned very early that this industry has a way of putting people in boxes while advocating for the alleged portrayal of true diversity. This industry has a way of telling people who can be creative.
Advertising — a multibillion-dollar industry; a system rooted in racism and capitalism, with the sole mission of funneling communications to you and me as you’re reading right now. Advertising — a multibillion-dollar industry that specializes in reading people, but refuses to hire the people that taught them what “reading” was.
As a brown man raised by a single brown woman, I learned very early that black women are the glue to the whole operation that we call life. They keep us honest. They keep us together. They elevate. Black women are producers, disc jockeys, gardeners, photographers, dancers. Black women are Harry Potter enthusiasts, binge watchers, true foodies, nerds. Black women are your Heads of Strategy, your Heads of Digital and Production. Black women are your Executive Creative Directors, CFOs, Group Account Directors. Black women are the unicorns that advertising needs to survive.
Over the course of time, it’s been prevalent that Diversity & Inclusion efforts have been somewhat effective. With programs like MAIP, Most Promising, & the Marcus Graham Project, agencies now have more ways to find young, diverse talent. The issue: there’s only really one artery pumping life into this machine and the heart’s failing in this system. You have programs geared towards finding talent as they start their careers. Great. But, where are the programs to educate that same talent to have more career opportunities beyond being an entertainer? Where are the training programs and mentorship programs for our women of color who are leading the industry?
I had the privilege of interviewing seven amazing black women. Seven women of different ages, backgrounds, cultures — all of them have had the opportunities to work in different departments for world-class advertising agencies; yet, they all have one conclusive thought about the industry, where it is, and where it needs to go.
When it came to collecting a consensus there weren’t too many varying opinions, but the answers were simple: Advertising isn’t changing fast enough; it still isn’t doing enough for people color and queer people of color; and, there needs to be a system in place that teaches our children about this career path. In turn, the effects trickle down into work environments. The result? The creative work is sacrificed because there’s a lack of integral diversity across the agency and across teams, company morale shifts in ways you can’t even imagine, and the idea of culture is traded off for profit margins and “corporate efficiencies.”
On change in the industry, Oletta Reed, a Marketing Customer Experience Professional who’s worked in advertising for almost 20 years, said it best: “The leadership is not taking it seriously and they aren’t forced to by their clients. Even if it’s a client’s demand, it’s brushed off as not being a real problem… It’s sorta been this way until recently… it’s prevalent in the teams, but it goes beyond what you just see on the day-to-day. There are still times when you have projects that require shoots and the production teams are all white. There are all white directors— usually men… There's a few companies that get it, but it’s a long road.”
To Reed’s point— the two-decade road has been a painfully slow one. Supported by Taylor Brodie, a Brand Strategist who’s been working in the industry for almost two years— she just thinks that the pace of change is a true reflection of the work produced: “It’s 2019. It’s time for Advertising to stop treating diversity as a checked box. Diversity may and does range among different agencies but if it were in the place it needed to be, we wouldn’t be seeing certain ads that we’re seeing today.”
And, that’s honest. What you put out is only a representation of what you have working within you. Look at the Pepsi Ads, the Mazda Ads. There are juxtapositions and concepts that make it to market that weren’t even tested or acknowledged by POC before the assets are shipped to market.
One varying voice, Caryn Rodgers-Battiste, has a unique perspective. As Vice President of Operations at her Agency, Bright Moments is a black-owned firm. Rodgers-Battiste noted that “you have to be intentional and purposeful about inclusiveness. Make sure the top team includes people of color. Managing that sense of inclusivity from the bottom-up. Have sensitivity trainings that include going into POC environments to get a better understanding of their culture. Incorporate diversity into your mission statement and vision statement. And, set up a system of intolerance towards insensitivity. Period.” That’s the only way it can change.
Rodgers-Battiste recalls a time where she was having issues on the client side with her agency: “I can recall threatening to fire my ad agency at the time because of their refusal to advertise to African Americans. Their reasoning was the buying power of African Americans and claimed the demo. was profiled as not being the target market. Now, mind you, the product was food.
Today, because of the many mediums people have in expressing their emotions, companies really have no choice but to show visuals in ads of a diverse society. The image of working at an advertising agency that is all about creativity, being open, being free. But, the agency still has serious prejudice issues towards a particular group of people. Makes absolutely no sense, but it is real. The desire for diversity in advertising should be intentional and purposeful because it is supposed to be who we are as a country.”
Coupling the agency’s slow desire to change, the idea of teams not having a synergistic diverse way of life results in work inefficiencies. It makes for awkward workspaces. Unlike Rodgers, being in an environment intentionally made by and for POC, most women often struggle with being the only Black woman on their teams— like Zalika Tyson, Media Supervisor, and Cheryl Faux, Strategy Analyst.
Faux’s take on being the lone ranger: “I am the only black woman in my office. It’s actually pretty sad how used to being the sole black woman I’ve become. It’s almost expected so if there is one (or two) black women in my office, I’d probably pass out.
Every agency I walk into, I’ve got my black radar on, searching for others that look like me. Think the most black people I’ve ever had in an office was 7 and that number drops DRASTICALLY when I look at black women… but I think the lack of diversity in advertising is laughable. We are one of the richest, most influential industries and our demographics can’t even accurately represent the populations we’re trying to reach.”
And, on top of that, you have to be perfect. You can’t be frustrated because then all of the white people think, “Oh, so-and-so is having an off day.” After all, you’re the only Black Person these people might actually see for an entire day— sometimes an entire week. Add on to that pressure with a hectic work environment, and you have just unintentionally perpetuated a sense of isolation and survival for all POC in your place of business. This is where the division kicks in. Often times its visualized as the one black person sitting by themselves for lunch. That person who doesn’t really come into conversations as often as you think they should. That person who might not be leading the way you think they need to lead. And for that black person— an overall sense of discomfort.
And when you’re the only one, the question of affinity comes up. Because now you’re in a place where there’s not even enough people of color to really create an affinity group. This creates a cycle. A cycle of tokenism. A cycle of ignorance. A cycle of complacency.
All of these characteristics are perpetuated by the agency’s white executive talent, tapping and selecting their friends or amicable white people who they could see as their friends to be department heads and team leads— while they should be striving to have environments of variance that spark conversation of discomfort that lead to overall effective change.
You have agencies who hire a black woman, and if that black woman identifies as queer— it’s almost as if a quota has been hit. The search for “diversity” slows down because we have a queer and a negro coupled into one person. Hoorah! But, this thinking is what got us here in the first place. Brodie says “I need it to be a standard.” Just like the standard for work is set to a bar, an agency’s integrity must do so when it comes to finding talent and staffing their leadership teams.
So, how do we get there? What can agencies do to start to reverse this system that’s been gridlocking change for the past 30 years? Kennedy Studdard, HR Analyst thinks that “[Agencies] should be more disruptive in how [they] recruit and keep diverse talent. Diversity doesn’t just mean a racial POV, it should be inclusive of all aspects. People forget what makes someone want to stick around – yes, pay and benefits are important. But, even if all of that’s there and you have a culture where the people aren’t encouraging, uplifting or empowering team members, people won’t stick around for a toxic work environment. [Agencies] have to remember that if 40 hours minimum each week are spent at the agency, the culture needs to be able to handle the outside situations people bring into the office.”
Reed notes, “Agencies need to engage women and POC for their point of view, don’t just tick a box and say you're inclusive just because you hired a POC. You have to also invest in building skills of women and POCs within your agency to increase the opportunity for them to become leaders.”
Brodie says that “agencies need to reach out to programs that filter that talent for you— MAIP being one of them. The Marcus Graham Project. There are numerous programs that are filtering talent for people of color and for black people and this is just one or two spaces of diversity.”
Lastly, Kalah Walker, Digital Strategist, and Reed agree that education needs to start early. In 1959, Marian Wright Edelman said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” It’s true. These agencies need to do a better job at branching out. Walker believes “we need to educate our sisters and brothers that advertising isn’t just creating ads with photoshop. You don’t have to be a designer, there are so many skills that apply to Advertising-- from Data and Analytics to Engineering, etc. Young black and brown people should know that this is a career path that they can be great at.”
In Homecoming, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter says, “As a black woman I used to feel like the world wanted me to stay in my little box. And Black women often feel underestimated.” The world that we all live in has a way of putting us in boxes. Structures have a way of putting people in lanes. From the time when we’re little to percentages that dictate how much of a race you might be to a man or a woman telling you what school you can or can’t pursue an education. Black people have been so used to checking off boxes, it’s kinda funny. But, when you take the time to engage people of color and queer people of color and teach them about new boxes they can check for themselves— you start to find a solution.
White people have to own that this is their problem to solve with our help. It’s their mess they’ve gotten us all into and it’s time for them to re-invent the concept of the boxes they’ve created. But they can’t do it by themselves. Each time a white person makes a decision to help a non-white person without consulting a POC, there is an issue. POC need to be the mirrors and leaders and visionaries that are put in place to evoke the change. Faux proclaims that it’s honestly easy:
“This may sound very simple, but that’s because the answer is simple – hire people of color, hire women, hire people with disabilities, hire people with different religions, hire people who are completely different from the founders of the company.
Once you hire them. Listen to them. Promote them. Give them leadership power. Because once you give them leadership power, they will make sure true diversity is within the agency walls. They will make sure diverse talent is never far from reach. And once they bring in more diverse talent, they will make sure that talent feels welcomed, feels safe, feels like they’re being heard, feels like they’re contributing. BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT WE DO."