How Wieden+Kennedy Approached a Moment of Truth in Recruiting Diverse Talent

Colleen DeCourcy motivates the team forward

Adcolor founder Tiffany Warren (left) with Hollywood producer Mara Brock Akil and W+K president Colleen DeCourcy Margarita Photography

Moments of truth, as a general rule, connote tension or drama, and the person facing them either fails or comes out of it much stronger. That’s why “Moments of Truth” was the theme of this year’s Adcolor conference in Los Angeles, where speakers and attendees shared their stories of the crossroads and crucibles that defined their careers.

For screenwriter and producer Mara Brock Akil, that moment came between the second and third seasons of her early 2000s show, Girlfriends. Akil had never run a show, let alone one with a $25 million budget, and the learning curve had brought her to a tense moment with the Paramount Pictures. In grand Hollywood fashion, Akil turned it all around. The studio executive asked her who the better writers were on the show. She paused, closed her eyes and said, “I don’t know who the better writer is, but I know if you don’t have me on this show, it will fail.” Having made her point, she was able to retain creative control of the show that she created.

Such instances are certainly frequent and career-defining in the ad industry, as well.

Sharing her story on stage at Adcolor, Wieden+Kennedy president Colleen DeCourcy noted her own revelation that she was in her position because she “was one step to the left and one step behind [white men], and therefore something you could let in [to the industry] and not rock the boat too much.”

DeCourcy’s initial acceptance of this fact has, for many years, made way for her own evolution—that she is in a position to make decisions that will help positively impact women, people of color and the LGBTQ communities. As a top leader of one of the world’s most prominent agencies, where she was recently promoted from global CCO to co-president, she is acutely aware of the effect her views can have on shaping the industry.

People of color don't really have the luxury of failing, mainly due to the industry’s structure and history of celebrating white male creatives.

A galvanizing moment for her was watching Naomi Wadler, an 11-year-old student, speak at the March for Our Lives rally. DeCourcy found it a powerful moment and was inspired to put her thoughts about the advertising business down. It was an important stream of consciousness and became an impassioned screed that she shared with the creative leadership at W+K.

Reiterating her belief in them to lead the agency to a more equitable place, she challenged everyone to take a hard look at systemic and unconscious bias that was affecting the hiring and promotion of talent. Working from a place of empathy, she encouraged the agency’s leaders to look at their own career origin stories, reminding them that there were people who helped them improve early on, and to put themselves in the shoes of emerging, yet-to-be-discovered talent.

The agency recognized that not enough women and people of color held creative director positions.

“Somewhere, unconscious bias is happening,” noted DeCourcy. “I’m not blaming [people], but the numbers don’t lie. And [I told] our leaders, ‘We believe in you, but now is not the time for self-protection. It’s a time for magnanimity and to give over what you have … not to protect yourself’.”

The agency, still basking in the glow of it’s Colin Kaepernick work for Nike, has made some recent progress and increased its number of female creative directors. Yet it’s lagging in attracting senior people of color to Portland.

“It’s still not good enough,” said DeCourcy. “But I believe we will get better.”

Given the room to create and build a path forward

What’s troubling to DeCourcy is how people of color don’t really have the luxury of failing, mainly due to the industry’s structure and history of celebrating white male creatives. Ironically, W+K’s culture is built around the mantra of “Fail harder,” yet men and women of color have “one shot—and you have to soar so high. You have to be a Jimmy Smith,” noted DeCourcy, referring to the legendary creative who cut his teeth at Wieden in the late 90s and early 2000s.

A decidedly ongoing bright spot for the agency is the creation of On She Goes, a travel platform for women of color. Recording a podcast for the site at Adcolor, four of the five leaders of the project—Serita Wesley, Rebecca Russell, Farin Nikdel and Vivian Zhang (Becca Ramos was not in attendance)—said they feel they have ample support from the senior team at Wieden. It’s also a compelling microcosm of what’s possible when varied talent comes together.

“[Wieden’s leaders are] impressed with our creativity,” said Wesley, who is also a producer at W+K Studios. “All of the freelancers we brought in—artists, writers—were women of color, and we brought 150 of them into the project in seven months.”

“There was a lot of getting [leadership] up to speed on the condition of women of color, especially in the travel space,” added Russell. “They got out of our way, to an extent, and allowed us the space to do the project in our own way. We did have to be scrappier, smarter, more efficient and figure out how to do things with the resources that we were given. But we also have made that a priority to give an opportunity to as many women of color as we can.”

On She Goes has racked up some good growth in its first year, with visitors from over 100 countries and almost 500,000 video content views, all mainly accomplished organically with a little help from a minimal media budget.

As for the theory that the city and agency aren’t good for talent of color, Zhang also noted that it can be harmful to dismiss certain cities or regions for “lacking diversity,” a claim that’s sometimes made about Wieden + Kennedy hometown Portland, Oregon.

“There is diversity [in Portland] that might not be at the highest [rate],” she said. “But by saying there’s no diversity in Portland, you’re ignoring people who are actually there, who grew up there, who have families and generations there. The more negativity we pour onto it, the more it perpetuates itself.”

@zanger Doug Zanger is a senior editor, agencies at Adweek, focusing on creativity and agencies.