‘Culture is our number one export’: How an Atlanta-based marketing collective is pushing for tangible diversity gains

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After a year of protests and calls for radical change in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, a collective of Atlanta marketing and advertising professionals is calling on the industry to put its money where they’ve spent the last year saying their heart is.

Recently launched, The A Pledge is made up of 10 Atlanta-based industry leaders (including members like Melissa Proctor, Atlanta Hawks CMO, and Kyle Stapleton, senior manager of culture and experience at WarnerMedia Studios) who are challenging creative agencies across the city to commit to diversifying their teams — and ultimately better reflect the city.

It works on the basis of accountability, according to Darryl Cobbin, a board member of The A Pledge and managing partner at Brand Positioning Doctors consulting firm. Each pledgee is expected to create their own company-specific diversity, equity and inclusion strategies and report their internal demographic data. 

In addition to the 10-member board of directors, sub-committees are dedicated to diversity recruitment and retention, agency relationships, research and data and events. All issues are at the heart of the push for diversity for marketers and advertisers, Cobbin said.

“If that is a system of racism, in some cases, can we create a system of opportunity? And to create the system of opportunity, we have to have an ecosystem around it,” he said, noting that he hopes the pledge gains traction with a variety of creative agencies.

So far, more than 30 have committed to participating, including Cobbin’s consulting firm, per The A Pledge website. But according to a spokesperson, there have been 65 agencies who committed. The hope is that by 2023, Atlanta’s marketing and advertising community will — demographically — reflect the city in which it’s based which is 51% Black or African American, according to the latest U.S. Census. 

According to a study conducted by the advertising trade organization 4A’s, as reported by Forbes, Black and African American employees make up 5.8% of the industry. Of that 5.8%, an overwhelming 68% are admin or entry-level employees.

The A Pledge is betting on its home city’s deep history in advancing social causes: Atlanta was home of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and a significant pillar of the Civil Rights Movement. Its hip-hop scene is studded with icons from Outkast to Migos that have reached international fame. The A Pledge hopes other agencies and brands take Atlanta’s notes to authentically commit to DE&I in advertising.

“Atlanta influences everything,” Cobbin said. “We want to prove [The A Pledge] here first. Once we prove it here, at that point, we will fan out.”

Those that have committed to The A Pledge have already made strides in 2020, including Dagger, an Atlanta-based creative agency that increased its Black, indigenous and people of color population by 27% last year.

The company’s CEO Mike Popowski is a co-founder and board member of The A Pledge and has worked to be a leader in this space. Over the last five years, the agency has partnered with a third-party implicit bias company for training and it audited recruiting practices and salaries to put action behind its diversity pledge. It’s a step where many in the industry have been slow to adopt, Popowski said. 

Brandon Butler is another co-founder of The A Pledge as well as executive director of Butter.ATL, the editorial arm of Dagger. Having grown up in Atlanta, he’s seen firsthand how diversity efforts can fall short. Atlanta has a cluster of historically Black colleges that white recruiters never visited, he said. But after 15 years in the industry, Butler said he’s hopeful the events of 2020 will put a renewed focus on DE&I.

“In Atlanta, culture is our number one export,” he said. “It’s looked at as a place of authenticity, with a unique cultural makeup. It could be a blueprint to not only help other cities, but also other industries.”

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Multicultural communication firm Bold Culture has been doing this work since it was founded in 2016. Led by co-founders Darren Martin Jr. and Ahmad Barber, the firm has employees from South Carolina to California working in diversity education, training, audited and strategy development.

While the firm isn’t part of the pledge, it celebrates the industry’s response to calls for racial equity. However, the two co-founders are concerned about empty promises. In April, brands like Delta airlines and The Home Depot faced boycotts after failing to take a strong stance against Georgia’s new restrictive voting laws. 

“The execution of those statements takes more time and more resources and more effort sometimes than what the agencies know when they write them,” Martin said.

Culture is constantly changing. Brands and agencies that take the pledge will need to have a sustainable action plan that will continually stay relevant, Barber said.

“It’s not about being pat on the back for starting these efforts,” Barber added. “It’s more about creating equity for the people in your work, in your agency, within your campaigns… making sure DE&I is running through and through, and is a foundation of your company.”

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