Artist Shantell Martin Criticizes McCann for an Offensive Email About a Black Lives Matter Mural

Request for a "relevant" BLM art commission on a Microsoft storefront goes viral

London-born, New York-based artist Shantell Martin called out McCann and Microsoft. Connie Tsang

As protests against racism and police brutality continue around the world, brands are evaluating where they can make a difference. As protesters challenge institutions on how they address race, advocates are looking toward brands as a place to help drive society forward. From donations to public statements, corporations have entered the conversation about race, whether by choice or not.

For its part, Microsoft was unwittingly (and quickly) thrust into the spotlight after artist Shantell Martin posted an email from Adweek global agency of the year McCann’s M:United, the agency’s practice for the tech behemoth. With the sender redacted, the M:United employee asked if she would like to partner for a mural in front of Microsoft’s store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Martin said she didn’t share the email and speak out in an effort to “attack anyone,” explaining, “As a caring, professional, hardworking artist I’m pointing out something that is systematically wrong so that hopefully this will make a change.”

She explained that “at least three” other artists had reached out after her post to share that they received the same exact email and to express “disgust” at what they deemed an offensive message. People who work in advertising or had worked at McCann also reached out to express their exhaustion at the issue of agencies exploiting artists and were happy to see Martin address it.

“I’m sharing this in hopes that we can create a better story from this,” she said. “This is quite layered. We have a history of agencies consuming cultural relevance. The end result is that they end up exploiting a lot of artists. There’s the exploitation of culture, creativity and artist. Then there’s the other layer of exploiting a moment and people’s stories. And historic, systemic racism being a part of that, too.”

“Then there’s the exploitation of saying that this won’t be relevant after Sunday because they want their money to be a part of this moment and a part of these protests so it appears that they’re doing the right thing,” she added.

In addition to M:United seeming to suggest that protests against racism and police brutality wouldn’t be culturally relevant after this weekend, Martin pointed out that M:United didn’t see her as an individual, just that the agency was reaching out because she was a Black artist.

“I know I’m Black, I’m reminded of that every day,” she said.

“This might not be relevant for someone next week because they’ve forgotten about it and are working on this new thing,” she said. “Unfortunately the reason we’re in this situation is because people deem our voices irrelevant and our lives irrelevant. There’s been a constant lack of acknowledgement and accountability.”

Originally from the U.K., Martin also spent five years in Japan before moving to New York. She has been based in the U.S. for around a decade. No stranger to working with agencies and brands, Martin said she’s executed a lot of murals for agencies, including one hanging in the first floor of VMLY&R’s offices in New York, as well as working in the past with Mother, UTA and WME, as well brands including Airbnb, Facebook and Twitter, and stressed that she has had good working relationships with agencies and brands in the past. She works across mediums and industries, also serving as an adjunct professor at NYU, and is a visiting scholar at MIT and a Columbia fellow. She has current or upcoming shows of her work at the Denver Museum of Art and the New Britain Museum of Art in Connecticut.

After the post was shared on Twitter, McCann Worldwide CEO Harris Diamond and Microsoft global CMO Chris Capossela quickly—and publicly—apologized for the email.

@zanger Doug Zanger is a senior editor, agencies at Adweek, focusing on creativity and agencies.
@ErikDOster Erik Oster is an agencies reporter for Adweek.