Delivering an Authentic Black Experience in Advertising Means Reflecting the Real World

This can only happen if agencies allow marketers to feel fully comfortable

a bunch of raised pink, brown and tan hands
Agencies need to have campaigns that reflect the real world, which only happens when their internal makeup reflects the real world. Jake Olimb

Authenticity at work can mean different things to different people.

We believe it’s the ability to put your best self forward, being true to your values and not having to sacrifice your integrity and who you are. When you are around people who are like you, it’s a lot easier to be your true self. But when you are different, then it can be challenging. It’s especially challenging for black people, as our difference walks in the door with us and carries a set of stereotypes that we are still fighting today.

As black people, we are inclined to bend, fold or otherwise mitigate our blackness to fit in. We hesitate to wear ethnic jewelry or wear our hair in braids for fear of standing out or making someone else feel ill at ease.

In our work in advertising, we are encouraged to express our opinions. Consumers are savvier than ever and are demanding honesty and integrity from brands. We have a responsibility to our clients and our organizations to speak up and question work that does not fit the values of our agencies and clients. However, when you are not feeling like you can be yourself, you hesitate and speaking up becomes really hard.

We have a responsibility to deliver work that is reflective of the real world.

Every decision we make comes with a price. We believe we can be black and authentic in the workplace. However, we also recognize there is a (professional) tax for showing up as our true selves.

The tax might be missed opportunities, such as not being invited to the table as quickly as you should be despite having earned the invitation. People may not like or accept who you are. You may feel lonely, isolated, uncomfortable and find yourself constantly challenging the status quo, which can be incredibly exhausting.

But once we get used to bringing our truest and honest selves to the workplace, it becomes a lot easier. We become stronger, more confident, more powerful and, ultimately, happier.

So, how do we encourage more authenticity at work?

Before we can do that, it’s important to understand what authenticity is not. Authenticity does not give permission to be disrespectful or hurtful. It’s not about getting something off your chest or expressing every passing thought that you have. It’s about making sure you are being cognizant of other people’s feelings in a particular moment. Being authentic is not about being unfiltered. Unfiltered and authentic are not the same thing.

Everyone deserves the right to show up as their authentic selves. But let’s be real: There is a balance. Being able to read the room plays a critical role in how you manage authenticity in the workplace. No one is suggesting political suicide, but adjusting your authentic self may be required depending on the situation. This is true for anyone across any industry.

To be authentic, it’s important to share your personal story with colleagues. Connect with people who remind you of how great you are, wear what makes you feel good, speak up in meetings and know and honor your values. Encourage others to find their voice. And remember that you were hired for the job you hold for a reason.

In the advertising industry, we have a responsibility to deliver work that is reflective of the real world. We can’t do that if our companies and the cultures we build inside of them do not enable people to feel that they can be their true selves.

If you’re a leader, do not be afraid of uncomfortable conversations. Listen to opposing viewpoints. Be curious. Lead with authenticity. Let people know who you really are. When people see you living your values, it gives them permission to do the same. Support a culture of kindness and civility that values inclusion and diversity because when workplace cultures invite and encourage different views, backgrounds and experiences, they grow stronger, are more profitable and the work improves.

Our collective differences are what make our companies powerful, and the ideas we bring to the table are what keep our clients coming back. That’s an idea worth celebrating.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 24, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@AdrianneCSmith Adrianne C. Smith is the first global director of inclusion and diversity at WPP and founder of the Cannes Can: Diversity Collective. She has been an advocate for 20-plus years.
@judyjacks7 Judy Jackson is WPP's first-ever global head of culture and is driven by bringing out the best in others while maintaining her authentic self.