My racial and cultural heritage is broad and diverse. Born in Canada I was raised in Germany and spent my formative years in the UK. While I now live in Berlin I only moved here in 2018 and prior to that lived and worked in NYC for close to 14 years.
As any person of colour I have had my own experiences and encounters with racism. Confronting stereotypes on a regular basis is disheartening and frustrating. Being labelled “too difficult”, “Argumentative”, “Angry”, “Aggressive” or “having too much attitude” will sound familiar to any Black Women or Man. These personal accusations are felt deeply, shape your thinking and behaviour, and worse your confidence and belief in yourself.
In the summer of ’05, I moved to NYC. While I had visited the city on many occasions and thought I knew it well, I was totally and utterly unprepared for what awaited me.
Race and Racism has permeated every walk of life in America…all-pervasive it is simply everywhere…You encounter it when you walk out your door…switch on your computer…go shopping, take the subway, go to a doctor or hospital. It joins you in a job interview or when you meet with a client…I think it is no exaggeration to say that racism IS America.
Already traumatized by the disproportionate loss of lives in the African American community as a result of Covid-19, the killing of George Floyd on May 25th was a highly traumatic and cathartic event. It united and galvanized not only African Americans but any and every person of colour across the globe releasing a flood of conflicting emotions…sadness, frustration as well as long-simmering anger.
Sadly the advertising industry, the creative industry as a whole, has a poor track record when it comes to employing minorities. I often found myself being the only person of colour in meetings, even often on the streets I lived. In my professional life during the almost 14 years stateside I can probably count on two hands the encounters I had with equals of African, Caribbean or African American descent. People of colour remain significantly underrepresented throughout the advertising industry in particular. Back in 2006 the NY Human rights Commission actually subpoenaed the heads of the largest agency networks in an attempt to remedy this with little success. In a survey from 2010, the number of people of colour in advertising agencies was an abysmal 5,5% and I doubt that figure has significantly changed since. That said, look around you and draw your own conclusions.
I am afraid that I also need to dispel that myth that NYC is some sort of beacon of enlightenment in America. Racism is alive and well it’s just more covert and actually somewhat insidious. NYC has one of the most segregated school systems in the nation.
4 out of 5 children live below the poverty line and of these kids, the overwhelming majority is either Hispanic or African American.
Agencies and individuals need to utilize their power and influence to a greater extent and begin to have a dialogue about these issues and how to provide a permanent and lasting solution. Many brands celebrate black culture in their Marketing and Advertising, but often their track record employing and promoting people of colour within their organisation is dismal. It is no secret that in particular, Adidas America has not performed well in this respect, with fewer than 75 of the nearly 1,700 Adidas employees in Portland identifying as black(NYT June 19, 2019). In the same article Zion Armstrong, the President of ADIDAS AMERICA stated
“…that Adidas did not have a race problem…he said, the company’s demographics reflected those of Portland, which is 77 per cent white and 6 per cent black, according to 2017 Census Bureau statistics. When asked why more black employees were not being promoted, Mr Armstrong said there simply were not any who were ready…”
An odd statement is given that many of its staff relocated to the city to work for the company. Adding insult to injury, ADIDAS is also the home of YEEZY and IVY PARK which is disappointing.
There is no quick fix for this problem. While money will go a long way to remedy this horrible and depressing state of affairs it will not suffice and action is desperately needed if people want to affect change in earnest. I think our industry, advertising, music, fashion, can help immensely in this process and bring about change. This is no simple task, but, that said, it is also an opportunity to breathe new life into what we do and inspire us to bring purpose and empathy back to our Industry and our work.
Below you will find a call to action signed by 600 Black Professionals from the agency world published on Tuesday the 9th of June. It is something I would recommend anyone in or outside the advertising industry should read. I also feel it is important to reach out to any minority staff you may have. We, Black people, are not OK right now and I think speaking and talking to one another and opening a door for a dialogue is a good place to start. Ask us how we feel, I assure you, many of us are happy and willing to share our experiences and what we feel has to change. This may be uncomfortable experiences but they need to happen.
I’d like to finish on a conciliatory note but right now I find that pretty hard. I think the past 2 weeks has given everyone a window into what it’s like to be a black person in America. But when the protesting stops and we all go back to work I assure you that things will be quite different than before.
Of one thing I am sure, no one in the black community wants to ever again watch some thug in, or out, of uniform kill one of their loved ones in front of a worldwide audience on social media ever again.
A Call for Change
Black professionals in advertising demand urgent action from agency leadership.
The recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery have shocked the nation and brought millions of Americans to the streets in righteous protest. As loud as these protests are, it is impossible to overstate the pain that has been felt by your Black colleagues as the still-fresh wounds from Ferguson, Baltimore and countless other flashpoints of racial violence were once again re-opened. We hurt because we have seen this movie before. We hurt because we expect that, once again, when the streets have cleared and the hashtags have been retired, little will be done to address the systemic racism and economic injustice we face each and every day.
Over the past week, we have seen messages of solidarity sent out by several agencies and agency leaders. Though we are encouraged by these messages, their words ring hollow in the face of our daily lived experiences.
After decades of well-intentioned diversity & inclusion efforts, we have seen little progress in making Black voices a more representative part of the creative process. We have seen even less progress in ensuring equitable representation of Black professionals in senior and leadership positions. And because this industry does not release or track diversity numbers, it is impossible to tell what, if any, progress has been made.
Worse still, there is a “boys’ club” mentality that remains pervasive in this industry. The same elitism & discriminatory behavior that has restricted women from advancing in the workplace, has resulted in an oppressive mono-culture that stifles the growth of Black agency professionals and restricts our ability to express our true selves.
We are asking all U.S. advertising agencies to take the following actions to address the systemic racism that is afflicting our industry:
Make a specific, measurable, and public commitment to improve Black representation at all levels of agency staffing, especially Senior and Leadership positions
Track and publicly report workforce diversity data on an annual basis to create accountability for the agency and the industry
Audit agency policies and culture to ensure the environment we work in is more equitable and inclusive to a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives
Provide extensive bias training to HR employees and all levels of management
Extend agency outreach to a more diverse representation of colleges, universities, and art schools
Expand residencies and internship programs to candidates with transferable skills who may not have taken a traditional educational path toward advertising
Create, fund, and support Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) for Black employees
Invest in management and leadership training, as well as mentorship, sponsorship, and other career development programs for Black employees
Require all leadership to be active participants in company Diversity & Inclusion initiatives and tie success in those initiatives to bonus compensation.
Create a Diversity & Inclusion committee made up of Black and NBPOC employees to help shape diversity & inclusion policy and monitor its progress
Establish a diversity review panel to stem the spread of stereotypes in creative work and ensure offensive or culturally insensitive work is never published
Introduce a wage equity plan to ensure that Black women, Black men and people of color are being compensated fairly
Though advertising agencies boast some of the most politically progressive business leaders in America, agency leadership has been blind to the systemic racism and inequity that persists within our industry. Many gallons of ink have been spilled on op-eds and think pieces, but tangible progress has eluded this industry for too long.
We, the signatories of this letter, are calling out for change in the form of direct action. We stand in solidarity with our women, non-binary, LGBTQ+, disabled and NBPOC colleagues who have made similar calls for change.
Show us you’re listening. Take decisive action now.