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'We made mistakes' – inside Brand Advance's struggle to build a vital diversity network

Inside the surging demand for diversity network Brand Advance: 'We struggled, we made mistakes'

The death of George Floyd and the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement forced the ad industry to confront its all-too-narrow view of the world in 2020. To reach overlooked audiences, agencies and brands turned to a fledgling media diversity network which has enjoyed explosive growth ever since. But even after a 20-fold increase in its headcount, Brand Advance is still soul-searching. The Drum finds out why.

Chris Kenna was serving with the British Army during his second tour of Iraq when a bomb exploded and flipped the military vehicle he was in. The blast put him into a coma for eight weeks. Upon his recovery, he left the army, came out to his family as gay and started to think more about the world his children were inheriting; in particular, how there was more media tailored for his white child than his mixed-race one. It was a realisation that would eventually lead Kenna to make a profound impact of his own on the advertising industry.

After a decade working in production, out of home, and then later in media at Gay Times, Kenna was spurred to start 'diversity media network' Brand Advance. It launched in 2018 to connect advertisers with under-served audiences.

The exuberant founder took the company's compelling pitch to the stages of Cannes Lions and Dmexco, where it was resonating with audiences until the plug was pulled on festivals by the onset of Covid-19. But when, last May, the world watched in horror as yet another Black man, George Floyd, died in police custody, agencies and brands made promises to their distraught customers and staff, and suddenly lots of companies needed support in reaching diverse audiences.

They turned to Brand Advance.

The company had just five staff at the start of the first lockdown in March 2020. It rapidly scaled into media buying, planning, consultancy and latterly creative in conjunction with GSK and Brixton Finishing School. Every time an agency asked for a service, it rushed to meet demand and swelled to more than 100 staff today. It's still hiring in senior roles too.

Kenna reflects: “2020 was when the marketers admitted ‘You told us about this problem last year, now it has blown up in our face and you have to help us do better’. Black Lives Matter first happened four years ago. It was a Black problem then. But now, it is an everybody problem. Society is changing and we're all changing.”

And it did. Brand Advance was one of the leading voices informing brands that their ad money was only reaching a portion of the public. Stories and titles tailored for people of colour, or LGBT+ audiences, were disproportionately denied ads by over-zealous brand safety tools overloaded with clumsy protections against terms like 'lesbian', 'Black Lives Matter' and 'same-sex'. Blunt force keyword blocking made an already challenging publishing environment even more difficult for titles conducting any conversations of worth around race and sexuality. Eyes were opened, and some brands went one step further than unblocking by actively supporting these titles through the Brand Advance network.

Ad spend through Brand Advance increased by 1,438% in 2020, admittedly from a small base. It projects a further uptick in growth of 203% in 2021. Since 2018, its work has included helping transform Amazon’s Alexa into Alex for International Transgender Day of Visibility; getting Covid-19 messaging out to BAME networks in the UK; livestreaming a virtual Pride party; and supporting Clear Channel to promote Black History Month. There have been successes, for sure, but growing pains too.

Kenna admits that so accustomed as he become to being interviewed about diversity alone, it's a surprise to be quizzed on business performance.

“In the last few years, nobody's actually asked me about the business, they've asked me about what it's like being gay in business, what it's like being Black in business, what it's like being a gay Black Rangers FC supporter in business, but no one has asked about the business.”

So we did.

Culture clash

There have been teething problems at Brand Advance. The explosive growth during the pandemic has taken its toll. And that's evidenced on Glassdoor. One former staff member called the organisation “toxic” and blamed Kenna. Others took exception to his style of leadership. There's been a high turnover at the firm.

Kenna acknowledges the criticism. “It's been difficult. I don't think leaders say that enough. It’s difficult to grow a team that’s never met each other. You don’t even have the ability to have a five-minute chat with the new person to talk them through the industry acronyms.”

Brand Advance, by its very nature, believes in the strength of its diversity and has been hiring staff to represent any culture or demographic clients could possibly want to talk to. 43% of staff are Black, brown or multi-ethnic, 38% are female and 19% identify as LGBQT+. The rest of the industry pales in comparison.

But for that reason, many staff have been hired from outside marketing. "We have a problem – we don't have a lot of people in our industry that look like us," Kenna says. The company's pace of growth means they have had to learn quickly, he adds, which has made for a tough environment for some staff.

And there was another unique demand from the organisation.

Kenna says: “Our [cultural] differences are a superpower. We want you in that Zoom meeting because of your differences. For example, we may want to have the perspective of an Indian person, or a Black person or a disabled person in any given meeting. One staff member thought that was discriminatory.”

He offers an example of a difficult conversation. "Yes, I did call you into that meeting because you are Indian. Let's not have them in that meeting talking about what’s good for Indians. You tell them. That has been my biggest learning curve. Not everybody is on this path to what I think is righteousness.”

Differences may be a superpower. But differences of opinion on appropriate representation have resonated. Kenna is joined in his conversation with The Drum by Eberé Anosike, diversity insights consultant at sister brand DECA media consultancy. She's a social science and data expert, and very much feels the need to stand up and be heard.

“When there's been no, or very little, representation of a group in the industry, we need this positive discrimination or satisfaction or affirmative action. We need to be doing it until we get those numbers to where that one person isn’t representative of the entire group.

"We haven't had those voices in these spaces, it just hasn't happened. And we know the difference you get just by adding one piece of cultural insight to these discussions."

On the recruitment front, Kenna believes he would have had an “easier” 2020 if he’d opened up to the deeper, less diverse talent pool currently afforded by the ad industry.

“They all attended the same university and do the same things, it would have been the easier option, but we didn't take that. We have struggled and we've made mistakes and now we know how to fail fast.”

Kenna speaks of failures and mistakes more than many agency heads would. Especially those in demand by “pretty much every agency group and most of the big brands”. Thousands of hours of Zoom calls have taken their toll on the still-young group.

But Kenna’s got a single-minded military mindset towards tackling the challenges at hand. He talks about the huge diversity chasm that saw many huge agency networks to enlist a tiny start-up like it was a river-crossing exercise.

“We just need two barrels, a plank, and some rope,” he says.

“As an industry, we’re very good at making problems sound complicated because that's how we sell them to our clients, if we didn’t it’d sound too easy and they’d try to do it.”

Success and succession

At the moment, Kenna believes Brand Advance “doesn’t really have a competitor”. In many ways, until it does, the company's work remains unfinished. “We’re growing so fast so we can’t learn from anyone else’s mistakes. We have to take the path and learn from it. There's no one to ask help from.”

At the same time, Kenna’s insecure about ceding any advantage to a late mover. Who remembers Friend’s Reunited or Bebo, he asks. This fear of an incoming Facebook has seen Brand Advance accelerate faster than it perhaps should have.

“In 10 years, we may not be the biggest agency doing this, but we may have made all the mistakes so that no one else has to. We made the change. I can leave the world, knowing we have made a little bit of difference.”

If the network holds to its ethos, Kenna’s voice will be joined in chorus. If he exploded onto the scene, others can pick up the pieces and advance the cause.

“I know everybody's honest in this business. Well everybody tries to be honest. Well, we at least kid ourselves that we are being honest if we're not actually being honest. But Brand Advance is honest. I tell you why I build the business, I talk about my kids and the troubles of life. I brought in the people and they have made it work. I have not made Brand Advance work, I'm just very good at selling it."

And when it comes to selling, there are dollars to be made for brands that can speak authentically to a historically untapped audience, as Kenna's colleague Anosike explains.

“People are still kind of hung up on the idea that diversity is a social or moral quest, or the right thing," she says. "Our job is to help people understand the return on investment and the actual economic benefits of it. We’re showing people where revenue is being lost every year. Sure, it is good for the social landscape, and that is definitely a driver, but we need to show that there is an economic return too. We’ve now gone past the stage of allyship and awareness."

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