4A’s New Head of Talent Thinks It’s Time Agencies Realize How Gender and Sexuality Intersect With Race

Keesha Jean-Baptiste calls on ad industry to take action

Keesha Jean-Baptiste and Edward Frankel of Omnicom Health Group onstage at Advertising Week.
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The ad industry has made considerable progress in including more women and members of the LGBT community. But on matters of race, it still lags behind.

That was the consensus at last month’s Adcolor conference and many of the diversity-themed events at Advertising Week, including a panel led by the 4A’s newest executive, Keesha Jean-Baptiste, the former Wieden + Kennedy HR director who joined the organization earlier this summer as svp of talent and inclusion.

“I’ve been in the industry for 20 years … and the dialogue around the issues is still the same,” Jean-Baptiste said in a follow-up interview with Adweek. “Everyone drives in the direction of diversifying, [but] our challenge is that the system doesn’t yet exist to let people who are different sustain.”

She feels encouraged by “CEOs with action plans” requiring their agency partners to cast a wider net but noted, “I also see a hidden, sort of coded performance issue around people who look too different because they don’t fit.”

In other words, it’s one thing to hire more women, LGBTQ people and people of color, but it’s another thing entirely to make them stay and help shape the industry of the future.

During the panel discussion, Jean-Baptiste, Omnicom Health Group svp and director of talent acquisition Edward Frankel and Publicis.Sapient evp and chief client officer Marc Strachan considered how that might occur, with Strachan noting, “We do reactive hiring [to fill open positions] … and don’t even get me started on not bringing in people who don’t have the exact experience. Entry level is a great place to start.”

Keesha Jean-Baptiste

Frankel revealed that one of his first actions in the job was eliminating an internal “must-hire” list. In responding to Jean-Baptiste’s suggestion that “there’s a lot of privilege in the pipeline,” he said that company interns in many cases happened to be the children of executives on the agency or client side.

“There’s an awareness problem among people of color about what advertising is,” said VML director of inclusion and cultural relevance God-is Rivera, echoing an oft-repeated sentiment. She suggested agencies develop more active relationships with their surrounding communities and “hire based on potential.” As examples of that sort of initiative, Anomaly global talent director Allison Sabol pointed to a partnership with the Lower Eastside Girls Club and hiring a corner coffee shop employee “who had no marketing experience.”

Sabol told the audience that a member of Anomaly’s cultural awareness program recently said, “I don’t mind answering questions about what it’s like to be gay, but I just wish I didn’t have to anymore.”

Jean-Baptiste told Adweek the business maintains a blind spot when it comes to race, and she thinks change happens “on the micro level.”

“Who’s around you all day at work? Who’s your manager? Who’s allowing you to speak up in the room?” she said. She also said she looks forward to a time “when the gender conversation and the LGBTQ conversation intersects with race.”

“Most of the dialogue on diversity puts race [and] ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity into different segments—as if each is isolated,” she said. “When you use race as the lens to see gender, sexual orientation and gender identity, you see the real picture. And gender continues to be framed around a white experience which deserves to be heard yet not at the expense of discounting or ignoring the complexities women of color face.”

She concluded, “Let’s break down our gender ratios to see how those numbers look for women of color. Our challenge has to be advancing the play for all and not just for some.”