Shante Bacon, the outspoken but engaging founder and chief executive of communications agency 135th Street, has worked with stars from the very heights of the entertainment galaxy. She’s plied her trade alongside actress and singer Jordin Sparks, music producer Jermaine Dupri, Grammy award winner Ester Dean, and delivered projects with cable networks such as VH1 and The Oprah Winfrey Network.
Bacon, a self-confessed mimosa lover and soon-to-be mother, joins The Drum’s executive editor Stephen Lepitak for the interview series A Cup of Tea With… Bacon discussed how the evolution of Black representation in advertising and her views on how business leaders can move forward during the pandemic.
Asked about how she believes business leaders should view recent months, Bacon offers a pragmatic response – suggesting that if someone hasn’t been affected by losing a loved one or caught the virus themselves, they should first be grateful for they have before looking at everything else. Here, she outlines her views on a number of topics around social and business matters.
On entrepreneurship during Covid-19
During 2020, every month we’ve lived a year. Whoever you were on February 20, you weren’t on March 20. Whoever you are on March 20, you weren’t on April 20. Whoever you were on April 20, you weren’t on May 20. I don’t know what to expect from month to month.
In New York City we’re the epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic in the States. It’s crazy. You’ve got lines around the supermarkets, you’ve got people looking at each other, they’re afraid to come near each other… the streets were empty. It looked like something out of World War Z. At that time, I wasn’t sure how I felt about this moment and how it affects entrepreneurship. In March it didn‘t feel good, then March into April – it did. However, with the George Floyd murder, his assassination and everything that has happened afterwards, now, when people ask me: ‘What has this time been like for you?’ The one word I come up with is ‘transformative.’
I say that because you can‘t think like the entrepreneur you used to be in February and March. You can‘t think like the woman or man or person or parent, or American citizen or a global citizen – you can‘t think in the same way as you used to. Things in this moment demanded change, drastic change. I feel like it’s a transformative moment. In March, agencies and businesses’ clients were putting them on hiatus, business was slowing down. The economy came to a screeching halt.
It’s not surprising that a lot of people would hit the panic button, especially when you’re an entrepreneur, because you don’t have a safety net. You don’t have some of the protections that are in place when you are employed. And when you have other people that you are responsible for, you want to make sure that you take care of everybody. It affected our business and I’m sure it affected a lot of agencies out there.
On the worldwide uprising against the killing of George Floyd
Then when you have what happened with George Floyd. That was like an earthquake that happened to everybody. And it’s not even been three weeks. It’s another moment where the world looks completely different than it did before . And that is not only transformative, but inspiring. When you’re a member of the Black community, things like this... it’s not new.
The horror of that video is traumatizing. You can see it in your head when you close your eyes. When you think about your little brothers, your nephews, the young men in your family who are out in the world every day, that is haunting. It’s so easy for someone to literally just snuff the life out of someone else with their hands in their pocket. Like it wasn’t nothing. There’s that part of it. But then the reaction is completely inspiring.
What was new was the global response this time. It was not just Black people out on the front lines saying this is unacceptable, it was everybody. It was young white people, young Latinos and young Asians and young people from the Middle East, everyone: Paris, Amsterdam, South Africa, London, everyone collectively saying ‘We see this and we no longer will accept the status quo. This is not going to work. We can do better than this as a human race.’ That is completely inspiring. This young generation is leading the charge.
On the rise in interest in Juneteenth
There’s the whole discussion amongst all my clients, and everybody’s asking: ‘What can we be doing for Juneteenth?’ The truth is that we need to look back at how we got here.
We got to the conversation about Juneteenth because the not-so-in tuned administration in the White House decided to schedule an event during Juneteenth, by accident. Then they did what they usually do, they dug their heels in and they’re claiming it‘s a celebration. When you dig into Juneteenth and the meaning of it and the Black Wall Street massacre, you realise that not only are there a ton of non-Black people who don‘t have any idea what Juneteenth is, but that there’s also a lot of young Black people who have no idea what Juneteenth is. It just isn‘t a high profile holiday. It’s not something that is taught in a lot of schools. It’s not something that‘s really known.
Now everybody is trying to start a conversation about federalizing the holiday and talking about it as a celebration of emancipation. These are new conversations that two weeks ago we couldn‘t imagine having. This moment is an exciting time to be alive, it really is.
Not only that people are competing to make changes, but especially in the marketing industry, people are competing to hurry up and be the person to make the biggest seismic change. That‘s new.
On the lack of movement in diversifying advertising
Sometimes it can get a little lonely from where I stand, being the only person willing to vocalize how I felt about the diversity and inclusion industry, about and it‘s it not being that helpful.
The truth is, is that, for decades, an industry has been created to specifically not create change. My problem with the diversity and inclusion industry is that it picks just a few people and rewards them for not rocking the boat and not causing radical change. They become pacified and they become fearful because they don‘t want to ruin their situation. One of my clients asked: ‘Should we set up a diversity department?’ And I said ‘No’, because there‘s an inherent handicap in the belief that you need one person or two people on the team to constantly remind everyone else that diverse voices deserve to be celebrated and amplifie. There is only one person in an organization who should be the diversity champion: the CEO. If it‘s coming from anywhere else other than the CEO, there are no consequences. There is no economic commitment behind it. It‘ss just not going to be taken seriously by department heads who know what their priorities are.
The role technology can have on raising up Black creatives
New platforms like TikTok are allowing young creatives to be able to speak out and actually share their work without the need for validation from a larger company. Those things are no longer necessary. As an industry, it‘s great that people of color are feeling more empowered to say what their reality is, what their experiences are and unapologetically name names.
There was a girl who posted something on Twitte about her experience at Pinterest – she said she nearly fell out of her chair when they put up ‘Black Lives Matter‘ on their website. Before, people would just keep that to themselves because they would be worried that they would be blackballed. We don't have that anymore. And that‘s the only way anything is going to change.