People of Color Need to Be Given a Chance to Succeed in Adland Rather Than Just Fulfilling a Quota

Despite loving black culture, advertising hasn’t exactly hired black talent accordingly

two people on different clouds shaking hands
No one should be put in the position where they're filling a role because diversity is a hot topic lately. Getty Images

It’s been an interesting 25-plus years as a black man in Adland, a journey that’s taken me around the world and brought me both to the agency- and client-sides of the business. I suppose I could sum up my experience by remembering that while Martin Luther King Jr. beautifully urged that we “be judged by the content of our character,” Malcolm X’s mantra of “by any means necessary” resonates just a tiny bit more with me.

By this I mean that it’s been an imperative for people of color in this industry to keep trying, striving, navigating, staying energized and breaking through stereotypes by any and all means necessary. Like a shark that may die if it stops swimming, we must always keep pushing forward, relentlessly and with purpose.

Growing up in a very racially-tense London in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I saw “the look,” the fear, the very deliberate lowering of expectations of our capabilities. These things shaped my perspective and strengthened my resolve. It’s important that we are inspired rather than downtrodden by bias and doubts. Easy to say, but not so easy to do back then. And it still isn’t today.

Although it’s 2019, being a black man in Adland where the major figures don’t look like or identify with me, these same feelings can resurface. You look around for other black executives, but often find that you’re the only one in that meeting or boardroom. And the higher you go, the more you find yourself alone in your daily work.

But there is a glaring ironic contradiction: Adland loves black culture. Our dialect, style, music and general aesthetic—the aura of “cool”—are all heavily leveraged by brands and advertisers. Black culture is pervading in binding the younger generation. So why is it that that most directors, creatives, strategists and writers delivering these ideas often don’t look like us?

It’s important to note here that when I say “us,” it is wider than just the lack of black representation in our industry. We’ve undeniably got work to do as it relates to recalibrating and giving the brilliance of all minorities a chance to shine, LBGTQ, women, Asian, Hispanic, etc. It’s imperative that we dedicate time to ensuring that our industry fosters an underlying culture and casting that allows everyone to feel a stronger sense of belonging.

And while we in Adland love quoting diversity and inclusion strategies, reports and stats to prove that things are changing, I believe in the saying “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Press hold on the reports for a second, and let’s ask a simple question: Has the foundational culture in Adland truly become inclusive?

It’s imperative that we dedicate time to ensuring that our industry fosters an underlying culture and casting that allows everyone to feel a stronger sense of belonging.

Not yet, is my answer.

So, what can we do? How can we change things?

As an industry, we must:

Move beyond the diversity and inclusion conversation

Reports, seminars and conversations don’t mean as much as open doors and present opportunities for people of color. If you have the ability to change things in your agency, work to actively increase the opportunities for minorities. Then the reports won’t be needed because the change will be visible.

Reach out and connect

Seems really simple, but the next time you pass a black employee, stop and have a chat. We, as the clear minority in the office, sometimes find it difficult to spark conversation. We are too busy analyzing the situation in our minds, telling ourselves to be seen and not heard. By you making the first move to talk, share and vibe, you will build bridges. Showing genuine interest is a great first step.

Attract more talent through grassroots initiatives

Right or wrong, many minorities look at our industry and think, “That’s not for me.” Support the work of organizations like the T. Howard Foundation, which is inserting minorities into the media industry. But we need more initiatives like this, and we need truly woke ad agency execs that support them. Do your own grassroots outreach to community colleges and activate in local communities. I guarantee you’ll find a few diamonds in the rough.

As minorities, we must:

Bring our whole selves to work

No matter what, you must stay true to yourself. It’s the only way. Now this can feel daunting, no matter whether you’re a junior, just beginning your career or are at senior-level with years of experience. It can feel awkward, and you may get the urge to conform, to dilute yourself, to blend in. Adland can do that to you. Fight the urge.

Be fearless

You may well suffer from unfavorable assumptions, the impact of stereotypes, silent bias or doubts simply because of the color of your skin. It happens to us all. But you must push on regardless in pursuit of your dreams. You must be fearless and relentless. Know that you will make mistakes, and that’s OK. Mistakes won’t completely derail you, but fear cripples you. And we still have roads to travel.

Take courage from those who went before us

My grandma told me, “You have to work three times as hard. It’s just like that for black people.” While this may be our reality, many have gone before us and have been successful in Adland. So take heart and example from pioneers like Caroline Jones, Ann Fudge, Barbara Proctor, Robert Johnson, Trevor Robinson, Karen Blackett and so many more. Black people have a lot more to contribute to Adland. You’re part of that legacy.

This is a highly-charged subject with much emotion and many uncomfortable truths attached to it. That said, as black people or any minority, we don’t want special favors from the Adland hierarchy. What we need is very simple: A fair shot. And not because an agency needs to hit a diversity quota or because it has now become fashionable or acceptable to be vocal about the injustices of inequality. We want to see opportunities arise because our agency leaders, at their core, are inclusive and truly believe that the full complement of races, religions, genders and creeds should be represented in their talent. If that gesture is not coming from an authentic place, we will know it.

MLK was right to want us to be judged by the content of our character, but given that we’re not quite there just yet, we need Malcolm’s voice in the back of our minds, pushing us to strive for. We must believe in both to succeed in Adland and help pave the way for the next generation to have their shot in the industry, too.


@JTC_72 Justin Thomas Copeland is president of RAPP New York and global chief healthcare officer of RAPP WELL healthcare practice.
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