The recent outcry over the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless other Black men and women both known and unknown has forced formerly “apolitical” brands and advertising agencies to reflect on how they should respond to the racism pandemic, both internally and externally. Many participated in #BlackOutTuesday, several have opened their purses and donated millions to causes committed to addressing injustice and police abolition, and some have even made Juneteenth a company holiday. But Black advertising professionals want more than symbolism and one-off actions.
Nathan Young, group strategy director at Minneapolis-based Periscope, lives four blocks away from where Floyd was asphyxiated by now-dismissed police officer Derek Chauvin and was compelled to do more. A weeklong effort resulted in over 600 signatories (see the full list of signatories here) representing Black talent from nearly every major agency in the country coming together as a collective to pen an open letter, “A Call for Change: Black professionals in advertising demand urgent action from agency leadership,” that outlines the steps agencies can take to make the industry more equitable.
“As loud as these protests are, it is impossible to overstate the pain that has been felt by your Black colleagues as the still-fresh wounds from Ferguson, Baltimore and countless other flashpoints of racial violence were once again re-opened,” the letter states. “We hurt because we have seen this movie before. We hurt because we expect that, once again, when the streets have cleared and the hashtags have been retired, little will be done to address the systemic racism and economic injustice we face each and every day.”
The letter provides 12 steps agency leadership needs to take immediately:
- Make a specific, measurable, and public commitment to improve Black representation at all levels of agency staffing, especially Senior and Leadership positions
- Track and publicly report workforce diversity data on an annual basis to create accountability for the agency and the industry
- Audit agency policies and culture to ensure the environment we work in is more equitable and inclusive to a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives
- Provide extensive bias training to HR employees and all levels of management
- Extend agency outreach to a more diverse representation of colleges, universities, and art schools
- Expand residencies and internship programs to candidates with transferable skills who may not have taken a traditional educational path toward advertising
- Create, fund, and support Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) for Black employees
- Invest in management and leadership training, as well as mentorship, sponsorship, and other career development programs for Black employees
- Require all leadership to be active participants in company Diversity & Inclusion initiatives and tie success in those initiatives to bonus compensation.
- Create a Diversity & Inclusion committee made up of Black and NBPOC employees to help shape diversity & inclusion policy and monitor its progress
- Establish a diversity review panel to stem the spread of stereotypes in creative work and ensure offensive or culturally insensitive work is never published
- Introduce a wage equity plan to ensure that Black women, Black men and people of color are being compensated fairly
How the letter came together
Like many modern-day efforts, the impetus to demand decisive action from agency leadership was borne organically. It began with an informal conversation between two industry friends— Young and Bennett D. Bennett, principal and content lead at New York-based creative consultancy Aerialist and former staff writer at The Drum. “I saw the protest situation start to unfold in real time on Twitter and kept an eye out for agency pros in the area,” Bennett said, noting that he had covered Twin Cities agencies like Colle McCoy and Periscope in the past. “[Young] had replied to a tweet I made, and we connected through there.”
Young had expressed to Bennett that, even amid the uprising in Minneapolis, he felt powerless when it came to making a difference. The two brainstormed the best approach to making an impact in an industry that’s still predominantly white and still deeply entrenched in the “old boys club” mentality. Young suggested an open letter, which made “tons of sense” to Bennett, who had heard of a similar approach taken by agency Saturday Morning. “Even that was just four brave Black men wanting to start an external conversation. This feels more holistic to the wider Black advertising community, so many representing the ‘only’ or few at their agencies,” Bennett said.
The idea was put into practice quickly. A flurry of DMs and emails were sent out on June 1, bringing in an initial wave of 20 interested Black professionals, who in turn brought in a second wave of 30 professionals, with a third wave of 50 professionals following suit. A survey was then sent to the group to crowdsource the key topic areas for an open letter.
“We were able to find consensus on nearly all of those statements very, very quickly,” Young said. Though he pointed out that the Black experience is not a monolith, he found that there was little variance between the lived experiences of all of the Black professionals in the U.S. agency world. Many had expressed distress toward the “profound monoculture” within the industry, observing how alienated they felt—even with “diversity and inclusion” initiatives—and how tired they were of empty promises from agencies.
“We are tired of op-eds. We are tired of think pieces being put out there about diversity and inclusion. If for every hour of time that was spent writing an op-ed or writing a think piece, you were instead thinking about the types of policies that we can put in place here and putting those into action, I don’t think we would be in the situation that we find ourselves in today,” Young said. Ultimately, after decades of talk about diversity and inclusion, Black advertising professionals want the industry to walk the walk, and addressing the 12 demands in the open letter is a meaningful start.
The community made edits to the open letter’s draft until they aligned on a message that conveyed the systemic changes they wanted to see to reform practices and improve diversity and inclusion for Black and non-Black people of color in their workplaces, as well as for women, nonbinary, LGBTQ+ and disabled colleagues who have made similar calls for change.
According to Bennett, in the short-term, the letter sets a tone of accountability and asks for transparency. “Top media companies, brands, tech companies lay these ethnicity numbers bare, but agencies don’t and give zero reason as to why. And long-term progress cannot happen without first publishing them; when you do, then you have something we all have a hand in finding solutions for at every step,” Bennett said.
“I think it’s unfortunate that it has taken this tragedy that has kind of gripped the nation right now to get agency leaders to pay attention,” Young added. Had agency leadership engaged in meaningful dialogue with their Black and non-Black person of color colleagues earlier (and had continued to engage on a regular basis over the past decade), Young believes the industry would be in a much better place. “There’s a saying in this business that it’s all about the work, the work, the work. And for me, that has blinded us to the reality, which is that in this industry, it is about—or it should be about—the people, the people, the people. This industry tends to hide behind work.” Young wants agency leaders to trust the creatives of color on their teams to not just hold up the standard of artistry, consistency and quality control, but to advance it.
“But now that we have their attention,” Young said, “we’re going to make it clear, as a collective, the exact steps that we want agencies to take to remedy the systemic racism that exists in our industry.”