For the Second Year, This Agency Owner Highlights Black Talent in Advertising

Derek Walker addresses staff diversity, or lack thereof, during Black History Month

Nina Austin and Malik Adan are two industry talent that Derek Walker is highlighting in February.
Nina Austin and Malik Adan are two industry talent that Derek Walker is highlighting in February. Derek Walker via LinkedIn
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To many people—and, of course, brands—Black History Month means revisiting the achievements great African-American leaders made in the past. But what about the here and now? And how does the celebration apply to the advertising industry itself, especially as it works towards greater inclusivity?

Derek Walker, founder of South Carolina agency Brown & Browner, got tired of hearing people in the industry wave away critiques about lack of staff diversity by saying they couldn’t find enough talent when it’s usually right under their nose.

“There’s a group of individuals who are already working, sometimes on the fringes, in advertising, who are experienced and can step in and do the job immediately,” said Walker. “And everyone says, ‘but I can’t find them.’”

For the second year in a row, the agency veteran is using the month of February to highlight black advertising professionals. Like an Advent calendar of talent, Walker profiles a different person each day—posting to Twitter and LinkedIn. They are art directors, creative directors, social media strategists, brand strategists and more. Thousands of likes and shares over the two years are adding up. 

“There’s a group of individuals who are already working, sometimes on the fringes, in advertising, who are experienced and can step in and do the job immediately. And everyone says, ‘but I can’t find them.’”
Derek Walker, founder, Brown & Browner

The professionals Walker profiles each February are already working in the industry. He hopes to not only bring people together through the project but also to influence industry hiring and promotion by pointing to their skills and experience. The project is a way of saying, we exist—and you can’t ignore us.

“It’s so important to highlight the black talent excelling in this industry because it shows young people of color who might be thinking about a future in it that there is space for them,” Oriel Davis-Lyons, creative director, Droga5, told Adweek. “That there is a path to follow and mentors they can reach out to. There’s no ‘old boys club’ for Black people, so we have to work harder to make the connections that can make all the difference in your career.”

The February profiles may seem like a fairly low-key social media project, but the response shows they’re filling a void. Alima Trapp, svp, strategic planning, Doner’s Detroit office, did more than allow Walker post her photo and bio. She got involved, offering to turn the month of profiles into an interactive digital calendar that will be completed after February ends.

Trapp told Adweek that the advertising industry presents stiff obstacles for black professionals. She pointed to several industry-wide problems, including what she sees as “true scarcity”—not only in underrepresentation, but a decline in numbers and diversity in human resources and talent acquisition, as well as a “lack of creativity and innovation in hiring practices and resources.”

The industry seems to fail most in retention. According to Trapp, part of the problem is “the limited cultural competency and support required to retain diverse talent.” She hopes that what Walker is doing will grow beyond February, escalating conversation, networking building, appreciation and understanding among peers and beyond.

Walker has his own ideas about why retention is a challenge when it comes to racial minorities, women, LGBTQ and disabled professionals and other underrepresented groups. He said it comes down to glass ceilings blocking promotions, and a sort of willful ignorance on the part of leadership.

“There was an agency at an event complaining that they couldn’t find senior-level Black talent they could promote to creative director,” Walker recalled. “At their agency, they had [a Black] acd who was and is creative director-level talent. The individual left that agency as an acd and went to work on the client side as a group creative director without skipping a beat. But they’d been passed over at the previous agency for the last four or five years.”

The same promotion obstacles, Walker says, are often faced by women creatives as well. Walker cited two female creatives who carry the weight of the work at their agencies and want to manage teams of their own but find themselves regularly passed over for creative director roles.

Known for speaking out about diversity issues in advertising, Walker sometimes finds that frustrated young people of color reach out to him for advice. Recently, he said, a young creative reached out to him after being called “arrogant” at work because they had told their boss that they believed a particular job could be improved. 

@MaryEmilyOHara Mary Emily O'Hara is a diversity and inclusion reporter. They specialize in covering LGBTQ+ issues and other underrepresented communities.