When industry veterans Yadira Harrison and Shannon Simpson Jones founded Verb, a brand consultancy/experiential agency hybrid, in 2018, they combined talents to offer clients expertise for mainstream and multicultural campaigns. In two years, the co-founders have overseen creative campaigns and activations for brands like Lyft, Netflix, CRWN magazine and Nielsen at Cannes Lions.
Before launching Verb, Harrison and Jones met while working at Civic Entertainment Group, where they were vice presidents overseeing the marketing agency’s Airbnb account. They each have about 15 years of experience in the events and marketing industry, with Harrison previously leading advertising and marketing for Macy’s parade and entertainment division and Jones holding director and management positions at various agencies.
Holding executive roles at Civic, Harrison and Jones bonded over issues at forefront of the advertising industry: lack of diversity, marginalization and inaction from leaders.
As protests against police brutality and racism continue across the U.S., last week numerous agencies posted messages of solidarity on social media. This week, 600 Black advertising professionals demanded urgent action from leadership, asking for more than just vocalizing support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Here’s what Harrison and Jones shared about their experiences in the industry, why Black-owned agencies shouldn’t be pigeonholed, and what they’d like to see from high-profile agencies and clients moving forward.
Feeling left out at the top
Harrison and Jones said they identify with senior-level Black executives who leave predominantly white companies because they don’t feel they can truly excel in those spaces. While getting their titles at Civic was a major accomplishment, they didn’t feel as if they were truly empowered to use all of their talents.
“Even if we were managing some of the largest accounts in the agency, there were still opportunities we weren’t afforded, meetings we weren’t invited to, and there wasn’t really a good explanation for why,” Jones said.
Harrison added that sometimes they were also singled out for certain meetings because of their backgrounds.
“Even with the titles, there were still some unique situations that those titles didn’t afford me,” Harrison said. “These were some of the things Shannon and I bonded over—not being invited to certain meetings or only feeling like you’re getting asked because of your Blackness or your ‘culture’ to bring to the meeting.”
Black-owned agencies aren’t interchangeable
When they launched Verb, Harrison and Jones decided to get clients by referral only, as a way to quickly land mainstream projects. They noted that being referral-only has helped them avoid being completely pigeonholed into multicultural projects—which is common for Black-owned agencies that often get the same RFPs.
“It seems like if you are Black-owned, you’re put in the same box because you’re interchangeable. But we’re not a monolith,” Harrison said. “We have very unique points of view. Some agencies are more entertainment focused, some are more avant-garde, some are more influencer-based. There are so many different avenues and aspects to all the work we do.”
Being a Black-owned agency, Harrison said they are still willing to bring an eye to culture for brands. For their most recent campaign, Verb teamed with HBO’s multicultural marketing division to produce “Gathering the Pieces,” an ongoing digital event series for Black and queer people promoting the network’s new series I May Destroy You.
Jones added that being granted a wider breadth of projects is unique for a Black-owned agency, and speaks to why agencies and clients should also begin hiring Black people and POC in more than just D&I-related roles.
“It’s about not limiting their services for just culture campaigns or a response to Black Lives Matter,” she said. “That’s a great start, but that certainly shouldn’t be where the conversation ends.”
Give Black talent a seat at the table
Harrison said she feels Black people often leave larger agencies or production companies because they feel overlooked. She said agencies need to simply start looking at who’s in the room when pitch meetings are being held.
“When there’s an ad campaign or creative that comes up, are there people speaking to it that have a different point of view, and are you listening to that point of view? Are you allowing them to lead and putting them in front of the client?” she said. “Agencies need to think about visibility and safe spaces to have dialogue, and giving folks opportunities to be part of these major projects and not relegated to something secondary.”