Venables Bell & Partners CCO Apologizes for Digitized Blackface Image Posted in 2015

The agency, which recently hired a diversity adviser, says it is committed to addressing systemic racism

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Venables Bell & Partners has recently hired a diversity and inclusion adviser. Venables Bell & Partners / Canva
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Will McGinness, chief creative officer at agency Venables Bell & Partners, apologized for a photo of himself in digitized blackface from 2015, which had remained live on his Instagram account as recently as June 15. McGinness’s Instagram page now appears as “unavailable,” indicating he has deleted his account.

“It’s disappointing when you see someone in this position so unaware of how his interactions affect others,” a former VBP employee told Adweek. “I’m not mad, just hurt. Discovering those things, thinking you’re assessing things one way and actually seeing the unconscious bias is demoralizing.”

McGinness, who is white, told Adweek the image in question was created using a face-editing app that generated images from different decades.

“I posted one on Instagram that in retrospect was incredibly offensive,” he said, adding that he hasn’t used the account in years. “That doesn’t excuse it, and I’m deeply sorry that I would post something so unquestionably offensive and insensitive.”

“I didn’t realize five years ago when I posted it that it could be seen in a negative light,” he added. “How did I not understand that? The reality is that I didn’t think of it because I didn’t have to, and I feel that is where the problem really lies. I’ve never intentionally had any sort of racial bias, but I realized that my inherent privilege as a white man has meant that I’ve been able to avoid recognizing and addressing unconscious bias.”

Dealing with unconscious bias

San Francisco-based Venables Bell & Partners, whose biggest clients include Audi, Chipotle and Marriott, has consistently been one of the agency world’s higher profile creative shops, winning the Cannes Lions Titanium Grand Prix in 2016 for REI’s “Opt Outside” campaign. That year, VBP was also named Adweek’s Breakthrough Agency of the Year.

The agency’s founder said he hopes McGinness’s Instagram photo and subsequent apology will motivate other agencies to address their issues of racial insensitivity.

“If this misstep in a post that was made five years ago is the impetus for others to follow our lead to create real change, then so be it,” VBP founder and chairman Paul Venables told Adweek.

Venables said that VBP “condemns racism in all it forms,” adding, “As the guy who founded the agency, I personally take full responsibility for any issues we have [as well as] for the progress we make and we need to make.”

"If this misstep in a post that was made five years ago is the impetus for others to follow our lead to create real change, then so be it."
Paul Venables, founder, chairman, VBP

Venables said that systemic racism was “absolutely an issue” not only at VBP but across the ad industry, and with Silicon Valley more broadly. He stressed VBP’s progress with gender diversity and in supporting the LGBTQ community.

The former VBP employee who criticized the post to Adweek said that while McGinness and others at VBP had good intentions and weren’t “outwardly racist,” there was “a ton of unconscious bias” at the agency, without the active learning necessary to combat such attitudes. “It’s telling that their social media presence hasn’t included a statement on Black Lives Matter,” they added. “There’s a hesitation to not enter the waters because there will be backlash. But not making a statement is making a statement. There’s a culture of fear with agencies that if they say something, they’ll have to come up with results.”

Cheryl Ingram, who joined VBP as diversity, equity and inclusion adviser, a part-time role with a long-term commitment, two weeks ago, explained that the agency is in the process of creating such a statement but wanted to be able to outline concrete actions and “make sure it’s authentic.”

“The real work for all of us is rooting out microaggressions, however unintentional, and creating real, sustainable change,” Venables said. He explained that the agency had addressed the recent murders of George Floyd and others via a series of emails, town hall events and an agency-wide Zoom call, which included 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence in honor of Floyd.

An email from agency partner and COO Kate Jeffers last week announced Juneteenth as a holiday and offered an additional two days off during the summer.

VBP has only a handful of Black employees out of a team of 150, with none in the creative department, according to the former employee.

“I knew there was an issue with VBP’s attention to hiring,” they claimed, describing a “repetitive pattern of not bringing on Black employees or giving them resources to succeed.”

How VBP is addressing systemic racism

McGinness said the agency was putting in place measures to address its diversity issues.

Will McGinness

“We’re looking at hiring and how to revamp the recruiting process to put visible diversity into the creative department,” he said, including formalizing a mentorship program for high schools and trade schools in underprivileged communities and looking beyond portfolio schools to get more creative about how the agency finds talent.

He added that VBP is also reexamining its approach to selecting production partners and making casting decisions, and is creating a council to ensure the work the agency creates doesn’t inadvertently support any racial stereotypes.

The former employee described feeling frustrated at the lack of progress around the issue: “They’ve lost a lot of great talent, and I think that’s probably the case across most agencies. I know the experience at VBP is not unique.”

VBP leaders insist that Ingram’s arrival marks a new conviction for making progress. Venables explained that Ingram reports directly to him and acts as a member of the agency’s executive team, adding, “It’s no longer just a subset of human resources.”

Some steps VBP is taking to address systemic racism include a third-party diversity, equity and inclusion audit, assessing “where bias, micro-aggressions and potential racial bias exists” and redefining the qualifications it considers for potential candidates to minimize bias, Ingram explained.

Venables said VBP tracks diversity information, claiming 40% of new hires in 2019 were people of color. He said that VBP has had programs in place for several years, including a requirement to consider candidates of color for every open position and semiannual compensation analysis to address any pay disparities.

“None of us believe we were doing enough,” Venables said.

@ErikDOster Erik Oster is an agencies reporter for Adweek.