What Comes After the Wake-Up Call Corporate America Needed?

Why it's so hard for companies and brands to get representation right

cartoon alarm clock going off with words above
Corporate advertising is experiencing a cultural shift, but are businesses prepared for the work ahead? Kacy Burdette
Headshot of Whitney Headen

I was a marketing intern when a CMO told me that marketing to Black audiences was a waste of time. 

I was a marketing manager when an executive insisted that a Black model we hired for a campaign shoot could be lightened. She said it would make her “more inviting.”

I was the head of marketing when a direct report told me that he was going to overstep my direction to get something approved even though I was the approver.

I was the CEO and owner of my own marketing firm when a potential partner told me they saw me as an expert only for multicultural marketing but wasn’t sure if that experience was applicable for general market clients.

Unconscious bias and lack of internal advocacy have affected me at every stage of my career, and while it may seem to many that these obstacles did not defeat me, they did influence what I was allowed to accomplish.

Corporate advertising is experiencing a cultural shift, and while I believe that this moment in history is the wake-up call the industry needed, I am also concerned that businesses are not prepared for the work they have ahead of them.  

How are you making sure that the people you have put in positions of power have the right emotional intelligence to manage their teams?

Are brands really ready to do whatever it takes to create truly inclusive environments?

Being a true agent of change in this industry will require businesses to uphold honest representation and inclusive allyship as a mandated companywide value. Checking the diversity box or meeting a quota is no longer acceptable. Businesses will need to have top-to-bottom diversity in order to survive the competition.

It can be disappointing or even defeating to think you were doing the right things only to be met with criticism. But fear not, everyone has the opportunity to do more right now. Becoming a true ally is an inside job, and the first step is admitting that there is a problem. With the introduction of digital and social media, marketers have struggled for years to keep up with trends and the conversations among consumers. The problem that many of them fail to realize is that it is impossible to be everything for everyone without inviting experts across all levels to help you get it right. In order to better serve the consumer, not only must you have individuals on your team who reflect them, but you have to be prepared to fall back and listen to them.

Why is it so hard for brands to get representation right? Why is data seen as inferior to personal opinions?

This isn’t a Black and white thing.  This is an everybody thing.

Hiring and promotion practices

Requiring a long list of qualifications and advanced degrees is slowly becoming a thing of the past. Did you know that they were also originally put in place to keep those who couldn’t afford graduate degrees from being able to achieve executive positions?

Managers tend to operate from a place of scarcity and need to let go of the idea that building up individuals is a threat to their power and influence in the workplace. It is essential that managers ensure diversity across every step of a marketing trajectory—from consultants, production agencies and entry level to execs, crews and talent agencies.

EQ test

Emotional intelligence is defined as the ability to understand, use and manage your own emotions in positive ways to relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathize with others, overcome challenges and defuse conflict. You cannot be a successful manager without it.

How are you making sure that the people you have put in positions of power have the right emotional intelligence to manage their teams? How do you evaluate whether or not they have unconscious bias which can drastically affect their team’s performance?

Everyone is not cut out to be a manager. Emotional stability is absolutely required for anyone who has the duty of managing someone else’s work life. Managers need to let go of any fear that they will be replaced and instead take opportunities to mentor and develop talent so they are prepared to step into a managing role when the opportunity arises.

Agency and outside vendor audits

With the evolution of the gig community, there are now more experts and experienced consultants from every audience sector. Do marketing directors actually know exactly who, within the outsourced agency, is working on their projects? How many media planners are regurgitating one-size-fits-all plans? 

Corporate leaders must be present in the agency selection process and aware of who is working on their business from top to bottom from strategy to production execution. Agencies should also hold the weight of creating diversified project teams that can speak to various audiences through personal experiences and subject matter expertise. 

Checks and balances

It is essential that companies have regular performance reviews with measurable results with scales that can be used across each department. Keeping accurate documentation of one-on-one feedback and encouraging corporate participation only helps this cause. Also, insisting on having regular outside assessments of your organizational structure and teams is a great way to make sure that what has been done is working and exposes what may need to change.

Bias training is typically not taken seriously. Participants are not being evaluated for the training’s long-term effectiveness and how it translates into their daily work life. Create internal and external evaluators to understand how your initiatives are working and commit to steadily improving as the landscape evolves.

A 2019 “Women in the Workplace” study by McKinsey and Company cited that while 42% of companies check for racial bias in reviews and gender bias in promotions, only 18% track outcomes for the compounding bias of race and gender.

Interpersonal accountability and cross cultural mentorship

Team members need to feel safe and supported in order to give honest feedback about the organization, their management and their counterparts. Creating anonymous feedback systems will allow the opportunity for people to speak up against bias that is happening in the workplace without fear of being isolated, ostracized or potentially targeted.

It is impossible to evolve if we only talk and associate with people who are just like us.  Corporations need to move beyond ERGs and begin fostering intersectional relationships across departments.  Embolden team members to connect inter \generationally as well as interculturally.

This list is just a start and creates an aspirational target for competitive creative leadership, social solidarity and redefined investment opportunities. Companies that can learn how to prioritize these tactics will benefit from having a diverse talent pool with a low turnover rate. Let go of the rigid hiring practices and simply commit to fostering relationships in and out of your organizations. 


Whitney Headen is cofounder and CEO of 19th & Park.
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