‘Build your village’: Shameka Brown Barbosa shares advice and thoughts on the industry ahead of 3%

Shameka Brown Barbosa

Ahead of this year’s 3% Conference in New York, The Drum is speaking with some of the panelists and speakers who will be taking the stage this year. We recently spoke with creative director Shameka Brown Barbosa, who will be speaking during the ‘Non-Linear Is The New Normal’ panel on Nov. 2.

At the ripe old age of 15, Shameka Brown Barbosa had already decided that she wanted to have a career in advertising.

Her interest in the industry was sparked when she saw VW’s iconic ‘Lemon’ ad at a career day at school, at which point she began to make plans to attend Syracuse University to major in advertising. Upon graduation from Syracuse University, she participated in the 4A’s MAIP internship program before ultimately deciding to go back to school to receive her master’s degree from VCU Brandcenter in Virginia, a move that landed her a job at FCB in New York in 1999.

At FCB, Brown Barbosa served as vice president-senior copywriter, creating work for the likes of Oreo, Samsung and Trane. She then went on to hold a number of other creative roles at other agencies in New York, including a stint as creative director at UniWorld Group and another as associate creative director at Y&R.

But her journey hasn’t been without bumps in the road. By the time she’d ascended to group creative director at Walton Isaacson three years ago, she’d had two children and was separated from her husband. The long days, fast pace and stressful work environment were no longer working for her and her family, which is why her layoff from the agency in April of 2014 ended up being a welcome breather that allowed her to reassess what she wanted not only out of her career, but out of life.

“It ended up being the greatest gift that I had ever received because I was forced to make that choice. Upon being let go, I decided that I was not going to jump back into a staff role,” she said. “I was just going to figure it out because what I was doing - while it may have looked like it was working - wasn’t. I was almost burnt to a crisp.”

Since then, Brown Barbosa has started working for agencies on a freelance basis, giving her more time to spend with her daughters and explore other areas she’s interested in. Apart from launching her own travel agency, she actively champions diversity in the industry, which is why she’s working on getting a nonprofit off the ground called Unicorn League that will focus on bringing together and uniting the industry’s disparate diversity organizations.

“It's been an eye-opening time for me to focus on things that make me happy,” she said. Below, find out more about her career, thoughts on the industry and advice she has for those just starting out.

What piece of work or campaign are you most proud of that you’ve worked on?

Back at FCB, I was able to work on the launch of Oreo’s first new flavored cookie. I think it was 2001. We launched Chocolate Creme Oreo, and it's still one of my favorite spots that I did. A kid grows into a teenager into a middle-aged man into an old man and opens the cookie, and the inside is chocolate instead of vanilla. He screams for his mom even though he's like 90 years old. It's nostalgic and near and dear to me.

Another one I did at UniWorld was for Time Warner Cable. It's one of my favorites because it was an example of a tiny assignment that grew into a multimedia campaign. We were targeting college students and introducing Time Warner Cable as a cool option as a service provider. We presented great work and clients bought it all: TV, pre-roll (although it never aired), and swag. I also earned my promotion to creative director because of this campaign. Its success is proof that there's no such thing as a small assignment. If the clients really love the work, it's possible to sell more. That was one of those moments where I was like ‘okay, I'm where I'm supposed to be.’

The last one wasn't actually an advertising project. For the last couple of years, I was co-lead of the 3% blog for the conference. They invite guest bloggers, and in 2016 I helped recruit writers and non-writers. I worked with them to get their recaps up and onto the website, and it ended up being a really terrific recap of the conference and probably one of the best non ad-like objects that I've been a part of.

What do you think advertising agencies should do to make themselves more diverse and inclusive?

For me I think it's a retention play. You get more support as an intern than you do as a junior. And I think that's a huge problem.

I had the benefit of MAIP, but a lot of agencies have their own internship programs in the summer where [interns] may be partnered with a mentor inside, or they have a project that someone is helping them shepherd through. But once you're hired, it's sink or swim.

Not that you need hand-holding, but you kind of need somebody to care that you're there. You get that as an intern, [but] you don't really see that as a junior. You're supposed to be able to hit the ground running, know what you’re doing, be able to deliver and do it for cheap. That's what's supposed to happen, and I think a lot of people get lost in the pipeline.

Heide Gardner [IPG’s SVP-chief diversity & inclusion office] said the pipeline is very leaky, and it is. You do have people of color coming into the business. Question is, are they staying? The answer is they are not.

My daughter who is 11 came to me this year and told me that she wanted to be a creative director like me. My heart skipped a beat and then I immediately felt nauseous, because I'm like, ‘oh my God. She can't come into this.’ I'm not a dream killer by any stretch - I want her to believe that she can do anything and be anything - but it really got me thinking about what I can do.

What are some of the things you’ve been doing to tackle this problem?

I have partnered with a start-up employer branding agency called Grammar that was founded by a very dear friend of mine. The goal of this group is to provide clients with research-driven talent strategies, creative solutions and the metrics they need to measure engagement to begin to develop these types of programming and initiatives that will get people there and help them stay.

I’ve [also] identified an executive coaching program at Columbia that I want to participate in next spring. I've always mentored, but it's always been on a very limited, one-on-one basis. I want to help more people, so a company that I just founded called The Only One There is a coaching practice. Now I just need the coaching training, but I feel like that would be a way for me to help people that are like me but also not like me - people of color, women, LGBTQIA, moms who are typically seen as ‘the other’ in agency spaces - and give them the support they need to really realize their goals and help them find the best fit for their skills and talent.

I'm in the process of creating a nonprofit called the Unicorn League, which brings all those people together and kind un-silos the experience. We're all kind of going through similar things, being "the only one there" in our department. I'd love to create creative opportunities for those who simply just don't get them in typical agency environments. That may come through Grammar or it may come up through another entity, but I feel like it's important because I'm only an alumni of MAIP, and I don't really know the members of AAF or Marcus Graham [or] even AWNY. Even in the space of diversity, there should be some type of umbrella. I would love to figure out a way to bring more people together and have a more inclusive conversation, and the Unicorn League I think could do that.

Apart from diversity and inclusion, what else do you think needs to change in the industry?

The need for face time drives me crazy, because we are in such a technologically advanced time where you don't need to have me at [a] desk for me to do my job. I feel like that is an antiquated way of doing business. From an entrepreneurial standpoint, I understand - you’ve rented the space, you need people in the space, and you know you're paying rent for this 30,000 square feet of office space. I get that, but it feels like it's time for the agency world to become a lot more nimble and recognize that people work in a various amount of ways. As a creative, my ideas don't come when I'm sitting at a desk in an open space with headphones trying not to hear the conversation next to me. For almost two and a half of the last three years where I've been freelance, I’ve worked remotely.

I feel like a lot of agencies need to look at the way that they are doing business and the requirements put upon the people that work there. I think a lot of weight is put on an address, and it's really unfortunate because I don't know who works best in that environment with those limitations.

What's one piece of advice you would give to women of color who are thinking about going into advertising or starting a career in advertising?

Build your village. Start building your village and identifying those people who you will be able to call upon. I think the number of personal relationships that you need to succeed and not only to make it through, but to stay, is really underestimated.

You need to surround yourself with people who have those same goals. Because honestly, if you're a woman of color, your family probably doesn't understand advertising as an industry. You will probably not have the emotional support that you would have had you chosen another career path, because people just don't understand it. So you'll be at a disadvantage. As you make your way through, there will be many highs and many lows, and you’ll need the village. You may not be able to turn to your family because of that general lack of understanding of what it is that you're up against. So it will be very important that you have colleagues and friends and people that you've met along the way at conferences.

Wunderman proudly supports The Drum’s 3% Conference coverage. We believe true diversity does not check boxes, it checks itself. http://wunderman.com/

Minda Smiley

Minda Smiley is a reporter at The Drum covering creativity and advertising. Based in Philadelphia, she primarily covers independent agencies and B2B marketing. She also oversees The Drum’s “Independent Influence,” a weekly series that spotlights the work, perspectives and inspirations behind independent agencies. During her time at The Drum, she has covered industry events including SXSW, ANA Masters of Marketing, 4A’s Transformation and C2 Montréal. She is a graduate of the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism.

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