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‘Address the fire, not just the smoke’: a message from Black ad leaders to ad agencies


By Rebecca Stewart | Trends Editor

October 30, 2020 | 10 min read

The Drum hears from Black advertising leaders who started out in the industry in different decades about what has – and hasn’t – changed in the years since, and what advice they want agency bosses to heed in order to truly change ad land for the better.

‘Address the fire, not just the smoke’: a message from Black ad leaders to ad agencies

‘Address the fire, not just the smoke’: a message from Black ad leaders to ad agencies

At the start of 2020, we asked Black creatives and advertising leaders who joined the industry in different decades to tell us their story of what it’s like to be Black in advertising.

They revealed that acceptance, tolerance and appreciation did not come hand-in-hand in with entry, regaling stories of how they took a seat at the table, met the glass ceiling and handled racial aggression and microaggression from white co-workers along the way.

Last week, following on from a summer in which Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests became a focal point for the entire world, we invited some of these industry luminaries to join a discussion as of our Agencies 4 Growth Festival on what has – and hasn’t – changed since they walked through the doors of a creative agency.

Hosted by 600 & Rising founder Bennett D Bennett, the panel walked us through their individual journeys, contrasting their lived experiences in the 80s, 90s and 00s, and explored the outlook for Black advertising professionals in the 2020s.

For ad agencies — oft criticised for the 'male, pale and stale' approach to leadership and a lack of diversity within their walls — the BLM movement has forced those at the top to hold a mirror up to their own policies around diversity, inclusion and supporting Black talent.

In the summer, Black advertising professionals demanded urgent action from agency leadership to tackle "the systemic racism” afflicting the industry. In recent months advertising’s biggest businesses have made a series of long-term pledges to address racism, inequality, discrimination and micro-aggressions within their own organisations, and elsewhere.

However, with progress still too slow it’s not enough. So, as part of our panel discussion we explored what more Black leaders believe agencies could do to step up to the plate in 2020 and beyond to enact real change and stomp out racism.

You can read their thoughts below. Scroll down to the bottom of the page to watch the rich discussion in full.

Shameka M Brown

Shameka M Brown

Shameka M Brown is co-founder and executive coach at The Only One There. She began her advertising career at Foote, Cone & Belding (FCB) in 1999 and has since held senior creative roles at agencies including UniWorld Group and Young & Rubicam. Since 2017 she has been managing partner at The Adversity Group, a minority advocacy group of companies and sole proprietors. After an unrequited, 20-year love affair with advertising, she now supports those doing the work and brandishing her creative voice more strategically. Here, she offers advice to agency leaders on allyship.

“It’s time for ad agencies and media companies across industries to take a real hard look at what they’re doing. They need to ask questions about what their culture is currently about and what they want it to be about.

“In June, everybody woke up – the consciousness of the world was awakened and then the news cycle changed. So the world is no longer on fire, but my question to agencies is: are you still committed to the very things that you seemed to be responsive to?

“It comes back to organizations themselves. They need to decide what side of history they want to stand on. Are they OK knowing there has been a systemic issue and pervasive problems that they have the ability to change if they look at it from a long-view?

“Anyone who is out addressing the smoke and not the fire is going to miss it and the next time there’s another cultural upheaval, they'll be right back where they started. It’s just time for [advertising bosses] to get real, about whether they value the people that work within their organizations, and commit to greater development for the people who are those gatekeepers.

“Those gatekeepers can be allies. There’s not that many Black or Brown people in positions of power who can make those decisions and make those calls. So we need [those allies] to get everybody on board including their leadership teams.

“Are we really trying to change the face of the industry as clients are demanding it? Because that’s also what’s happening; clients are demanding the change and it’s time for ad agencies to own it and do what they need to do to sustain it.

“The answer isn't running out and hiring 10 Black people, a lack of Black people coming into advertising is not the issue. Black people are not responsible for why you are in the position you are in. Take a hard look inside. Not everybody is willing to.”

Valerie Graves

Valerie Graves

Valerie Graves has been chief creative officer at UniWorld and Vigilante/Leo Burnett agencies, senior vice president of creative services at iconic Motown Records, and creative consultant to President Bill Clinton. She has more than 20 years’ experience as a creative director of award-winning campaigns and events for Fortune 500 corporations ranging from General Motors and Ford Motor Company to Bank of America, AT&T, Burger King and Pepsi. She explains why Black advertising professionals should never conform to anyone else’s system.

“I'm not the world's biggest fan of the term ‘inclusion’, because it seems to imply that you have something and I'm asking you to include me in your thing. This is where human nature enters into this discussion. [People in senior positions think] ‘Oh, I want to give you my thing. Why should I give you my thing that I built? Why should I let you ever become chief exec of my company?’

“I don't know exactly how you address this. That's beyond my knowing. However, I do know this: advertising used to be hostile to Jewish people. It used to be hostile to Italians. And then in the 60s, along came Della Femina, and Bernbach. And we all know those names now.

“The difference between that and the era in which I came into advertising is those guys changed the business. They changed what advertising looked like, they made it hipper, they made it more ethnic. When African American people came into advertising the 70s, they were expected to change, we were expected to change.

“And I that’s part of it, too, is in conforming to someone else's system, there's a Heisenberg uncertainty principle. You want to look, want to examine something and you shine a light on it, but by putting a light on it, you change the way it behaves.

“When you put Black people in general market or white agencies, they act different than they would at agencies like UniWorld, or Vigilante, even though at both shops (and especially Vigilante) we truly were multicultural. African Americans were equal at the table and we felt comfortable to speak our minds and we were in leadership positions. It made a difference.

“[As a Black advertising professional] you can stay in a general market agency and you can have impact mostly as an individual. But what I find more often is that people are a little bit changed, because they conform [to what’s around them]. That’s human nature. You don't want to be the only person in the room with your point of view.”

Derek Walker

derek walker

Derek Walker is the “janitor, secretary, mailroom person and owner" of Brown & Browner advertising. He has worked in the industry for almost 30 years, in senior creative positions at agencies such as TBWA and RadioShack and is an occasional columnist for The Drum. His advice to agency bosses? Give up your power or lose something brilliant.

“I’ve sat in those rooms and the tone of voice has been mine, not [that of the white people around me]; it’s been as Blackity Black as it could ever be. That’s my personality.

“You’re right, some of us do change but [sitting in a chiefly white agency] actually had a different effect on me. It made me Blacker than I would have been if I’d gone to a Black creative shop, because I was acutely aware now that if I don’t speak my voice then things won’t happen.

“We have been asking the candidates and the people affected by [racism] to change, this has been about the ‘victims’ – I hate to use that word but that’s pretty much what we’re looking at. There’s an abusive relationship where we tell the victims of racism that if they comb their hair right they might not get beat on. We’ve never asked the abuser to change or evolve.

“[Agency leaders] are either serious about changing or they’re not. When leadership looks at the processes they have in place [they must see they’re] creating an environment that keeps people from growing and prospering and having their voice.

“We have this culture of not asking the leaders to fix themselves, because they’re not seen as being broke. They're leaders. How dare you say the leaders are broke.

“But if you really want to see change, right now, while everybody's heart is open, start looking at your hiring processes. Look at your internal processes for engaging talent – and I'm not just talking about creatives, I'm talking about everybody that walks through your door. How do your evaluations work?

“Has anybody called for an audit of an employee performance evaluations, to see how your Black and Brown employees are being evaluated, versus how your white employees are being evaluated? If you lay those job reviews out next to each other, I’m going to put money on it, you'll see a pattern, an internal one.

“I agree with Valarie – nobody wants to give up the power. But guess what? You either give it the power, you'll lose something great.”

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