What Ad Professionals Can Do to Foster Positive Change in the Age of Trump

An open letter to all of us

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On Wednesday, as in many days over the past year, I woke up from a fitful night of sleep.

What has happened to our world? To our strength in unity? To our freedom from oppression that we have fought for (and for which many of our brothers and sisters are still fighting?) My head is spinning, worried for our country, our friends and our family members. What will we tell our children?

I’m sure many people feel the same way—it’s a feeling that does not resolve easily.

At the same time, I woke up to news that Walmart, Intel, Under Armour, Merck and many other companies and CEOs have taken a stand against this administration. For that I feel grateful and a semblance of pride.

This industry has not historically been equitable or just. We have too few women, people of color, LGBTQ, people who have reached a certain age, veterans and people with disabilities. We continue to struggle with systemic issues that, to be frank, have excluded many people from leadership positions or left them to accept unequal pay or go without work. This is its own form of more easily hidden white supremacy.

While we are not directly involved with Trump’s administration and cannot make a big statement by quitting, we can start today by noticing and openly considering our own actions that stand on the side of such supremacy. I am humbly taking stock of mine.

Here are some things to look for.

Hiring

It’s quite common to hear “I hire on talent. I don’t even see color” or “I just picked the best from the portfolios I was given” as a response to a lack of diversity in our industry. This is not enough. First, people tend to pick work that resonates with them, shares an insight they have or a life experience they understand. When the hiring managers all come from similar backgrounds, they are more likely to side with makers who share that point of view. And so, like hires like.

Access

“I had an unpaid internship when I got started. If you’re hungry enough, you can make it work.” “How bad do you want it?” These are things I’ve heard a few times about low pay at the internship or entry level. It’s important to understand that this leaves behind many people who come from circumstances that an upper-middle-class professional may not relate to. One’s desire for the job may not be the factor here—it could be basic living. Perhaps they’re supporting extended family members, a person who needs extra care. Perhaps they have no back-up plan, nowhere to live, no safety net.

Access is also limited by these factors: applicants must have a college degree; applicants must have attended a portfolio school. Portfolio schools are extremely expensive and geared, again, to the upper middle class. In certain areas of our business, college degrees might make no difference at all.

Access is also about seeing yourself represented. When you don’t see yourself, you cannot fathom how the industry could ever include you. This perpetuates the lack of equity, and we must hire differently if we ever plan to make meaningful progress.

Casting

It’s not just about who creates the work we make but how our brands show up in our creative work. It has become acceptable to laugh and call multi-racial casting “Benetton casting,” and perhaps that’s because it is done in such a perfunctory and insincere way.  The people are props, not heroes with true stories to tell.

How about the term “urban?” At one of my former agencies, we had a client call someone out for being “too New York-y” because they felt this person’s Jewish heritage was unappealing. Or another common trope is “ethnically ambiguous.” And what about casting people to play blatantly stereotypical roles? These are all topics for us to pause and consider.

Holidays

As an industry, we should absolutely stop celebrating Columbus Day. We should also move to a floating holiday system that allows each employee to take time off for their holidays, not be mandated to follow the Christian calendar.

Systems

Another major issue is the loaded phrase “white privilege” and our collective unawareness or denial of its existence, which helps no one. Many of us put ourselves through college or worked three jobs to get started, and so privilege may not seem to be the right word.

However, if you used the flesh-colored crayon to draw or wore a flesh-colored band aid or nude color pantyhose, if you bought your shampoo in the regular section of CVS, if your favorite movies and books all featured characters of your own ethnicity, it’s important to realize all of these choices were made for a white world.

Take a moment to think about all the ways the system has been built for white people. We benefit from and create for that same system every single day.

Actions

Maybe the biggest problem lies in assuming that good intentions are good enough.

You might be posting on Facebook that you stand with the #resistance, but is it enough for everyone to know you’re speaking up? No, that is absolutely not enough. Facebook is an echo chamber of people with shared views trading chants and affirmations. Don’t mistake intention with making a difference. We must constantly fight against the small things and the big things alike.

I am pledging to not just have good intentions, but to take meaningful actions. To awaken to the privilege I have. To build a company and a life that stands on the side of equality and justice for all people.

Sometimes I will fuck this up for sure, but I will depend on my friends, co-workers and family members to call out my micro-aggressions and judgments all the same so I can take responsibility.

Change is not easy, but when you believe in a just world, that’s the price you pay.

Lisa Clunie (lisakclunie) is the co-founder and CEO of Joan.