‘Clients need a cultural sensitivity workshop’: Confessions of a black woman in advertising

The header image shows the silhouette of a woman.

Despite many high-profile diversity pushes, advertising has a long way to go.

Clients and agency execs are often too uncomfortable talking openly about race and have chastised people who do, making it less likely that agency employees will say something, according to one black agency producer at a holding company creative agency. In the latest edition of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor, the staffer shares how giving feedback taught her not to speak up about racism.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

In recent years, there’s been a push for more diversity in advertising not only in the ads that we see but also in the people making the ads. What’s it like to talk to clients about that, and how does it impact casting?
It can get a little weird sometimes. The client I’m working on now wants us to have a variety of African American, Asian, White and Latino people within the ads. [But in casting], they’ll say things to us like, “That person doesn’t look Latino.” We’ll be like, “OK, what does Latino look like?” You can’t say someone doesn’t look like a specific race when they identify as that race. Then, we’ll ask them what they’re looking for, but they quiet down. At that point, they know that whatever they say will be perceived as racist because they’re trying to get at stereotypes. I’ve heard about a [big CPG client] who said, “We want black people but not black, black.”

What do you think agencies should do to help mitigate potential problems like this?
Clients need communication classes or a cultural sensitivity workshop. Some people don’t know how to properly express their business objectives without saying things that are offensive. They end up saying these things and then say they didn’t mean it that way, but they did. It’s a systemic issue in society. Honestly, it would be really helpful if these agencies — especially since you’re working in a creative environment where you’re putting content out to the masses — if everyone was mandated to take a cultural sensitivity course. It would be really helpful not only in communications with each other but in how we put out our ads.

What has brought you to that realization? Did something happen at your agency?
I was with a client, and we were preparing for a photoshoot. Essentially, what happened was that this client said two black models looked alike, but the two women positively did not look alike. I felt like it was a very white thing to say. I told my internal team it made me uncomfortable. Instead of taking me seriously, the team made a joke about it. But it’s not funny, and we shouldn’t allow this. That’s the problem with advertising and media in general: We do inappropriate things, and we want to apologize for it later. I spoke to the client about it. They got very upset and thought I was calling them racist when I was just trying to educate them.

It seems really difficult to bring up an issue like that with a client.
It is really hard. Another issue is that I felt like I was alone and that the rest of my team didn’t really care. They were making jokes about it, which, to me, makes the situation even worse. I just think white people, in general, don’t like talking about race. It makes some white people uncomfortable. The client was uncomfortable. Also, the agency was not supportive. After I spoke to the client about it, the agency gave me a warning letter and said I had gone outside of the duties of my job duties.

After this incident are you less likely to speak up?
I’m definitely more conscious of how I speak up and when I speak up. If I want to speak up about anything race-related, I have to filter that through a white person. If I say it directly, it comes off as aggressive or that I’m making it a black thing, but if I tell one of my white peers, “Hey, I think you should bring this up in the meeting,” it’s received differently. As a black woman, I can’t stick up for black women. I have to go through a white woman. It’s really weird.

That sounds like it would make your job harder.
Yeah. If tomorrow I was in a meeting with a client and they made an insensitive comment about black people, I would not feel like I could say something. I would have to keep my mouth shut and go to another person to ask them to do something about it. I don’t feel like I could be an active voice in the conversation without someone feeling some type of way. But I don’t think it’s unique to advertising. It’s being black in the workforce in general.

Aside from this one incident, have you felt that speaking up is frowned upon?
This was the first time I really felt this way. I’ve had other clients who are more culturally sensitive.

With the blowback companies like H&M and Dolce & Gabbana have gotten you’d think companies would welcome the feedback and that agencies would encourage it.
With what’s happened with H&M and Dolce & Gabbana and so on, I’ve told the creative team that we want to be conscious and we don’t want to do anything that could be offensive so if I’ve seen something that could be offensive or perceived the wrong way, I’ve said something about it.

Sometimes there’s one person on the creative team who will say that something isn’t offensive and I’m like, “How do you know? You’re a white man. You can’t say it’s not offensive if you’re not living in this community.” It’s about having to explain that someone doesn’t have the credentials to comment on the issue. The internal team has been OK, but [I’ve worked with people] who are part of a scared culture that thinks, “Well, if this goes out and the client gets in trouble for this, that’s on them.”

Every time a company does something racist everyone wonders how it happens, but it sounds like what happened to you is exactly how that happens.
I used to be one of those people. When I would see those ads, I would be like, “I would never let my team do that.” I would immediately say something and stop them. But after that incident, I’m like, “OK I see why these ads make it to air now.” They make us so uncomfortable for speaking up that you kind of weigh your options and think, is this worth losing my job?


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