Take off your mask...and other lessons learned at the 3% Conference this year

I’ve attended my share of conferences, but nothing quite like this. This was my first 3% Conference experience and, much like the venue, the Chicago Navy Pier, the two-day event was vast and complex – a magnificent backdrop for the more than 1,200 attendees from across advertising and marketing to come together to talk, learn, and bring a feeling of hope for a better, improved industry back to our respective agencies.

Not only did I experience the 3% Conference for the first time this year as a guest, but I also had the privilege of speaking. I presented a PechaKucha-style session about being an Asian American female leader in an industry where there are few of us represented.

Part of my story, and the stories of many others at the conference, focused on the notion of the “self” – the ways in which we represent ourselves, our identities, and the subsequent roles we play to fulfill the expectations of others at our jobs and in our personal lives.

We sought and discussed answers to these issues and more; for example, when we have to dilute, compromise, and pigeon hole who we are, what kind of creative, profitable, strategic work do we give up in the process? And, how does this manifest itself further when we layer on the complexities of diversity and inclusion or the lack thereof in our industry?

This year’s theme, #BringIt, encapsulated the core spirit I experienced at the conference: How do we allow people to be their authentic selves in order to “bring it?”

Here are a few lessons learned that get to answering those questions.

Lesson #1: Take. Off. Your. Mask.

The masks we wear to benefit those around us actually cripples the creativity and innovation expected from our shops.

Wildfang CEO Emma McIlroy touched on these ideals during her keynote on day one. She spoke about the importance of keeping an open mind and using the words “Yeah, maybe,” to open doors that result in creative and innovative success, as well as character-building failure. You can nurture that “Yeah, maybe” challenger spirit, she said, by surrounding yourself with like-minded people.

Lesson #2: A voice isn’t a voice until it has been heard

Imagine seeing a panel of creative directors just shooting the creative sh*t like creative directors do. Or imagine seeing a panel of entrepreneurs talking about businesses they founded and technologies they developed because they wanted to solve a problem. Pretty typical, right?

Now imagine if those four creative directors were all black females. Imagine if that panel of entrepreneurs was composed of individuals who don’t identify in the gender binary or who are disabled?

At the 3% Conference, those imaginings became reality. A panel called Representation Matters, for instance, brought together a diverse array of voices from several different communities to discuss the importance of representation in the media and in business.

One of the most memorable aspects of this panel wasn’t just the conversation itself, but the visceral reaction of seeing people often labeled as “other” or “different” given a platform to speak and share their stories. The resulting response from the crowd? Sheer tearful joy. Moments like these clearly don’t happen enough.

Having diverse voices represented in the room mean little if they aren’t heard. Our industry must strive to not only drive representation, but also ensure that those represented have the power and the security to challenge and change our work in real and tangible ways.

Lesson #3: You’re not alone in your journey

To say that I felt at home in a room of a thousand strangers may sound like an oxymoron, but it’s the truth. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I walked into the conference that first day, but I was immediately hit with a palpable sense of longing and belonging.

The conference “vibe” brought the lessons speakers were sharing across themed tracks from creative, leadership, and how-to’s, to life. All of the sessions seemed to have a key message in common: protect and recognize the people who drive your success and mentor the ones that need it.

Sessions such as ‘Bystander Intervention’ spoke to the need to be allies and advocates for our colleagues in toxic situations in the workplace and how people can be empowered to have each other’s backs. A trio of ‘How They Do It’ PechaKuchas shed light on how to advance diversity through mentorship and how companies can scale initiatives through technology. ‘How Was Your Weekend,’ a video and session from Nicole Sanchez of Vaya Consulting and Heide Gardner, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Interpublic Group, talked about being a true leader in violent times in our society and how to practice empathy with colleagues who have the very issues that often are cast as “stories” on the news.

Always be you

The greatest thing about the 3% Conference was knowing that no matter why you came to the event, you could come as yourself. Though we all wear masks, we came as our authentic ourselves and “brought it” for two memorable days. And, we all left inspired to be our true selves when we headed back to our offices the following day.

Angela Yang is head of connections at T3

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