Before the Covid-19 pandemic wiped out 2020’s live events calendar, Leah Harper-Lane was preparing to help produce a tentpole event for a media brand that typically draws around 20 million online impressions. During a planning meeting, Harper-Lane noticed something that’s been common in her 20-year career producing live broadcast events.
“We were in a meeting with more than 80 people, and there were only two Black people—I was one of them,” she said.
As a Black woman who’s spent much of her career as a freelance producer, Harper-Lane considers herself fortunate to have worked her way up to a senior position in the broadcast event space that’s not limited to just multicultural programming. It wasn’t until she moved from New York to San Francisco five years ago that she decided to launch her own company, Strong Brew.
Focused on live event production and design, Strong Brew hires tailored teams to meet project requirements—and to help talent, including herself, avoid getting white labeled by larger, predominantly white agencies that only bring in people of color for projects to better develop messaging for a wider audience.
Since launching Strong Brew, Harper-Lane’s teams have produced events including Nickelodeon’s SlimeFest, Complex Conversations by Complex Networks, Turner’s NBA Opening Night Fan Fest and MTV’s +1 The Vote.
Prior to Strong Brew, her first major live event gig was the Sydney Olympics in 2000 when she was a college intern. After graduating from Boston University, she navigated the industry as a freelance line producer, executive producer and consultant for events including MTV’s Video Music Awards preshow, VH1’s Hip Hop Honors, the NFL Draft Red Carpet, the 2015 Academy Awards Red Carpet Pre-Show and Showtime’s Inside the NFL, the latter for which earned her an Emmy for production.
“For years, I was the behind-the-scenes fixer and I was white-labeled quite a bit. Traditional agencies tend to have a more static workforce, hence why they have to lean on fixers and freelancers to scale up and meet certain projects and requirements with their existing client bases,” Harper-Lane said. “With Strong Brew, I made it a point to make that transparent and ask: How can we make these projects more successful by bringing in the appropriate creatives, lighting designers and directors for the particular client subject matter or project?”
As brands and agencies continue to be called out for inaction on diversifying teams, Harper-Lane noted that event production has a pipeline problem. She said Black people often get stuck in entry-level freelance positions due to larger agencies constantly hiring their go-to partners and vendors for mainstream events, and an unwillingness to branch out and discover more diverse talent.
Large companies that primarily serve the b-to-b space—from production to lighting to staging—need to be held accountable, she said.
“The diversity gap is systemic in the industry. Every single department head needs to check their own historical hiring practices,” Harper-Lane said. “If Black production companies are only being called for multicultural events, and that’s the only time we can work with Black suppliers, we’re creating a circular issue. If nobody holds the [b-to-b space] accountable, they’ll continue down the same path they’re on.”
As agencies pledge to improve their D&I makeup, Harper-Lane stresses that Black and POC freelancers shouldn’t be left out of the conversation. From 2009 to 2012, she ran a nonprofit called Colorbars, which supported young people of color starting their careers in the freelance entertainment space with resources like mentoring programs and networking events. Over the last decade, Harper-Lane hasn’t seen much advancement for POC freelancers in the mainstream event space.
“Nobody is speaking for the live event industry freelancers and folks that are in the gig economy, which makes up a large part of the industry,” she said. “Whether agencies are admitting it or not, agencies lean on the gig economy. Everyone leans on freelancers and I feel like right now, the Black freelancers don’t have a voice.”
Once it’s safe to produce live events again, Harper-Lane said she hopes brands and agencies realize that mainstream award shows and events can draw diverse viewership, but they need diverse talent to help craft programming and event elements that resonate.
“If companies don’t start investing in change now, we’re going to suffer in the future with the ability to connect with audiences. It’s going to impact revenue, and if companies can’t understand diversity linking to revenue, we have a much bigger problem on our hands,” she said. “I hope people actually start investing time and money into solutions that foster Black talent. It’s going to take a generation to mend all this, but it has to start now.”
Adweek will continue to spotlight Black owners of agencies to share their experiences and ways they want to see the industry take action for change.