Staring down safe: how I’ve found the courage to think and work like myself

Kristina Jenkins speaking at the 10th Anniversary Awards Gala of the Marcus Graham Project

I’ve dreamed about being in advertising since March 31st, 1982. My 8th birthday.

So, where does a little girl from Freeport, Long Island, get the idea in her head and heart, that she is going to grow up to be an advertising executive? My parents encouraged me in countless ways and instilled the grace and grit that I would need to succeed in this industry, but my career in advertising was not their idea.

I got the idea, believe it or not, from E.T. and the Reese’s Pieces candy he loved eating. My mom took me to see the movie to celebrate my birthday and when the final credits started rolling, I turned to her and asked if she could please take me to the store to buy some Reese’s Pieces. When I took my first bite I didn’t like them at all (yuck - M&Ms tasted so much better I thought), but I kept eating them because E.T. did.

I KNEW the influence the movie had on me and I was fascinated. I wanted to be part of creating that type of influence one day. Advertising seemed like a way (at least to my 8 year old self) to do that and so here I am.

What did E.T. teach me? Even if you don’t see yourself in the place you dream of being a part of that doesn’t mean that you won’t get there. I never saw a Kristina Jenkins in any of the cultural expressions of who worked in advertising. I rarely see her today. But I’m here in the place of my dreams.

E.T. also taught me that inspiration resides in the most unexpected places like aliens and in candy. It doesn’t matter where or who your dream comes from, it’s where you take it.

Years later, at my very first job on the West Coast, I was given two pieces of advice on what it would take to be great in this advertising. They couldn’t have been more different.

1) Develop a signature strategic style all my own and become better at it than anyone.

2) Live and love anything and everything about the category you work on (at the time, it was cars). Make sure you read all the books, reports, blogs etc. that everyone else does, so that you know what they know and will be taken seriously.

Well, cars weren’t something I lived and loved. I was a New Yorker who was new to Los Angeles and missed taking the train (and the pizza). Being a follower who thought the way everyone else did didn’t sound like a path to greatness. Even though I was young and hungry, I found the courage to stay true to myself and think and work like myself. I began to imagine what my style could be.

For help, I turned to worlds that I loved being a part of; worlds like sneakers, fashion, hip-hop, rock and roll, New York City, Caribbean culture, restaurants, street art, skate and surf photography.

Then I noticed something. By starting my strategic process in places that had absolutely nothing to do with the topic I was thinking about, it unlocked bold and fresh ideas. It showed me that different worlds have more in common than one might think. There was plenty that a luxury car brand could learn from an apparel brand like Supreme, or Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope strategy that I learned about in the documentary When We Were Kings.

I also noticed that my ideas stood apart from everyone else’s. Everyone else noticed too. Some people embraced my style and supported me in thinking different. But a lot of people were afraid of my style and tried to stop me from thinking this way.

I will never forget when I was told to take a hip-hop example out of a presentation I had done. Why I asked? “The audience we are presenting to, will be turned off by it.” I was told.

I was hurt. Hurt, because what I heard was that I needed to take myself out of my presentation and that the audience would be turned of by me. I knew if I stopped being who I was, I would stop being great at strategy. At that moment, I made a promise to myself that I would only work in places that allowed me to be myself and that when I ran a strategy department, I would encourage people to put themselves in their presentations and then some. I put images of Jay, Kanye, Beyonce, Barack and Michelle in every presentation I did for years to remind me that visionary people often encounter resistance, but they keep at their vision, even if that means recording an album with their jaw wired shut.

A few months ago, I had a stare down with safe. I was sharing an idea with my team that I was very inspired about. I just knew everyone was going to be as excited about what I wanted to do as I was. My idea was bold, rebellious, something I’ve worked my entire career for the opportunity to do. But the team wasn’t excited at all. Instead, they were resistant. What happened next surprised me. I left the meeting, went into my office, sat in a piercing silence and started to cry. Why the tears? Was it because no one else could see the possibilities in this idea that I saw?

I thought to myself that I had two choices. I could take the safe route, go against everything I believe, follow the ideas of others, give people the comfortable and the familiar that they craved. I was tired, so since this would require less work, it was sounding pretty good to me.

But was that who I was? Did I come this far, did people sacrifice so much for me choose safe?

Or I could choose to trust my gut, stay true to what I believed, be prepared to do whatever it took to keep moving the idea forward and figure out a way to help the team feel more comfortable with an idea that made them uncomfortable. I chose to keep moving the idea forward.

What did a stare down with safe teach me? We don’t always get to choose what happens to us, but we do have a choice when it comes to how we react. Encountering resistance can lead us to being brave in ways we’ve never imagined and propel us toward new possibilities. Finally, we all need to find inspiration in unexpected places, to build our own worlds and to find the opportunity in disappointment and challenge.

This commentary is adapted from a speech given by the author at the 10th Anniversary Awards Gala of the Marcus Graham Project at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. on July 1, 2017. The Marcus Graham Project is a non-profit organization whose mission is to “nurture, mentor, and train multicultural professionals to pursue careers within marketing and advertising.”

Kristina Jenkins is chief strategy officer at Zambezi. She tweets @KJxCulture

Kristina Jenkins

Kristina Jenkins is chief strategy officer at Zambezi

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