Editor’s note: ThinkLA’s DIG (Diversity, Gender, Inclusion) initiative has been created to celebrate and work towards greater diversity in Los Angeles. ThinkLA and The Drum are pleased to highlight African American leaders in the Los Angeles marketing community, their thoughts on the industry and how to build greater momentum for all.
Chris Denson, director, Ignition Factory
Who was your role-model when you were younger?
I'd have to say my mom. She grew up in the projects of Detroit, and didn't even go to college until after she had me, her 3rd child, at age 33. She then went on to teach fashion design in high schools and colleges, and own real estate, and became a life long learner taking classes in everything from belly dancing to Spanish (which she speaks horribly, by the way). I think that's where I get my passion for exploration from, and also realized that it's never too late to learn a new thing...or recycle an old one.
What was your first job in advertising?
My first "real" marketing job was when I became the marketing director for the New York Film Academy. They had never had a marketing director so I was the first one, and it was a wide open playing field. I love being first, because no constructs or rules have been established, and in the creative business, that's fertile ground for great ideas. This was also at a time where Facebook had just started to no longer require a .edu email address to be on the platform, and social media was just really taking off. So it was an exciting time in exploring possibilities.
What is most rewarding aspect about your job? What makes it all worthwhile?
Because my team works on innovation solutions, I love that we get to inspire each other and our clients every day. Our job is to scour the land, seek out new applications of technology, culture, and social behavior, and then take what we find and convert that into both education opportunities, and creative ideation. So essentially, we get to explore, and bring back the best of what we find to the agency and our clients.
What's the best compliment you've ever been given?
Probably that I make people feel comfortable. I hear it often. Ironically, it's usually not from the person I made comfortable! It's some observer nearby. I genuinely enjoy hearing people's stories and perspectives, and I tend to smile and ask a lot of questions. It works well in business to gain insight on where a colleague or client is coming from both personally and professionally.
What advice do you have for young black people in advertising?
My personal motto is: "Change the way you look at things, and the things you look at will begin to change." Appreciate any perceived challenges as opportunities to sharpen your excellence. Because of the challenges we sometimes face, it often forces us to be better communicators, work harder, look at the world differently, and seek out inventive solutions. Eventually, it all becomes second nature, and you magically find yourself sitting above the fray. Secondly, realize that all people struggle. For some its race, for others it's gender, for others it's height, or weight, or an accent, or financial status, etc. So, universally speaking, we are not alone in the continued effort to improve ourselves and change the perceptions — when necessary — of those around us.
How can we support more diversity in advertising?
Just keep highlighting stories of great people doing great work. 24/7, 365. Sometimes, when we highlight people only during a holiday or a season, it actually elongates the social perception that there's a difference between a "them" and an "us." Cool people doing cool stuff is universal and timeless. So I think showcasing a person's expertise alongside a faces and names we hear often, levels the playing field, and begins to change the psychology around diversity. Personally, I actually signed a pledge a couple years ago, that I would not speak on panel unless there is a woman on it.
What's something about yourself that would surprise people
I'm actually on a masters's swim team. I've been a swimmer since I was 5 years old. To this day, I practice with a team about 2-4 days a week and compete in meets a few times a year. I recently swam in our regional championships and placed top 5 in the 6 races I swam in. Definitely not afraid to get my hair wet.
What should our industry be talking about in 2017?
We should be talking about the innovator's mindset. We should be empowering and encouraging people to be curious about how the world works and how it will work in the near future. We should seek to connect dots that in ways that have never been connected before; and further, seeking to connect dots that have never been connected before.