Black Former Wieden+Kennedy Employee Critiques Agency’s #BlackLivesMatter Statement

By Patrick Coffee 

brandon burns 2Wieden+Kennedy’s decision to replace its homepage with a statement on the #BlackLivesMatter movement last week has earned attention and/or praise from quite a few observers and media outlets including our parent company, AdAge and even the Washington Post. This despite the fact that the agency never promoted or discussed it directly.

The message, which started as an internal email written by a black employee, remains on the site as of this post after Hill Holliday removed a similar statement from its home page.

One observer, however, is not quite as impressed.

Brandon Burns is a copywriter and experience designer who has worked for Leo Burnett, MRM//McCann, Proximity BBDO and — until earlier this year — Wieden+Kennedy Portland.

Today he published a must-read Medium story in which he simultaneously praises W+K’s move and claims that several agencies he worked for previously “engaged in actions that broke the federal laws prohibiting discrimination in the workplace.”

What does that mean?

“…while my personal career has been net-positive, along the way I have lost jobs to objectively less qualified candidates, I have fought, and won, a case of racial-based wage depression, and I’ve even had to report a manager to HR for harassment, only to be fired by the accused 24 hours later.”

Burns then asks a big question: will W+K’s tacit support of #BlackLivesMatter change the fact that the vast majority of its leaders, creative and otherwise, happen to be both white and male?

Those looking for a straight-up takedown will be disappointed. Burns acknowledges the agency’s own efforts to address this discrepancy, writing:

“As a hiring manager, I worked very closely with the in-house recruiting team; I am well aware of their valiant efforts to find new talent of all races and genders. Yet, nevertheless, when they share the portfolios of the best candidates with the Creative Directors — 93% of whom are white males — it is, time and again, the white male candidates who are pursued and hired.”

Burns also very clearly states that no one at W+K has exhibited racist tendencies to his knowledge. But he blames humanity’s inherent tribal sensibilities for the ad industry’s overwhelming whiteness, writing, “The creative director always has a reason why he hired, promoted or gave preferential treatment to someone who happens to look like him.”

He goes on to suggest several ways in which any given agency might move from sentiment to action on the diversity front, listing blind portfolio reviews, regular standardized performance reviews, and universal metrics for raises and promotions. His main idea is that agencies define “success” more objectively in order to avoid the sort of (often unconscious) motivations that lead white men to hire and promote other white men.

Burns’ post may be the best-written take on the diversity issue that we’ve read in recent months. It ends by encouraging white people within the agency world to simply try and understand minority perspectives rather than reverting to “Wait, you think I’m a racist?!” It’s a tough lesson to learn, because no one wants to be the person who admits to such a deplorable bias.

A W+K spokesperson declined to comment on this story, just as the agency did not discuss the site itself.

(Image via LinkedIn)

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