Black-owned agency Six Cinquième wants to be ‘more than a trend’ after uptick in business amid social unrest

Illustration of 3 fists raised into the air in protest.

Working as a Black creative in the advertising, Miro LaFlaga was fed up with his ideas being devalued and even unwelcome by agencies and other industry establishments.

There were no mentors that looked like him and his push for innovative ideas fell on deaf ears. Burnout was inevitable. So in 2018, he and creative Ashley Phillips co-founded the Montreal-based creative agency Six Cinquième to “create a space where Black creatives could work with us, collaborate with us and feel like they could fully be themselves,” according to Phillips.

Frustrations regarding the lack of diversity in the advertising industry aren’t new, as Digiday previously reported, though the topic has seen renewed attention after last summer’s civil rights protests. After these events, Six Cinquième reported an uptick in business in which it grew its clientele by an estimated 30% YoY in 2020. Clients with more experience and bigger budgets were looking to work with Six Cinquième, according to Phillips and LaFlaga.

But the two question whether the industry’s efforts are trite after seeing that uptick fall in the months that followed that unrest before ultimately creeping back up again in time for Black History Month.

“We do notice that it’s only during special events, like Black History Month, or only when something terrible happens that people will turn their eye towards us,” Phillips said.

Six Cinquième was founded in 2018 and specializes in branding, creative direction and design services for startups, entrepreneurs and emerging artists. Currently, the agency has two full-time employees and works with five consistent clients. In the past, the agency has produced work for Montreal’s Museum of African Caribbean Art, Bulma Bar restaurant and artist Naya Ali.

In normal times, the agency saw an average of one or two inquiries for work every other week. With the summer protests the shop saw increased interest inquiries for projects, collaborations and consultations. Now, during Black History Month, the agency is averaging two to three inquiries per week.

“When talk of diversity, racism and protests became more popular, it put more eyes on us as Black creatives,” LaFlaga said in an email.

In Montreal, where the creative agency is based, conversations around diversity, equity and inclusion had only just begun last year, according to Six Cinquième. “Diversity, equity and inclusion is not a trend. It should be something that just goes without saying,” Phillips said. “Unconsciously, (non-POC) treat it like it’s a trend, when really people’s livelihoods are at stake.”

Since last summer, there has been louder calls for diversity and inclusivity initiatives. Currently, industry-wide organizations like 4A’s offer databases for Black creatives, fellowships and other resources. But according to LaFlaga, hiring Black talent is just the tip of the iceberg. Instead, the creative challenges more Black people in advertising to start their own shops and industry titans to collaborate and invest there.

“We have a world view by being exposed to Black folks from all different [backgrounds],” he said. “When we collaborate, they bring their cultural backgrounds into these conversations and it becomes a melting pot and I think that’s an advantage.”

Earlier this year, BIPOC nonprofit Hue released its inaugural State of Inequity Report citing, “more than 75% of BIPOC report a lack of meaningful progress towards building an equitable environment at their companies for employees of color.” The report also noted that, “nearly 80% of those surveyed reported a lack of financial investment in promoting racially diverse employees within their company.”

The scene isn’t much different here in America, said Bennett D. Bennett, a principal at Aerialist and co-founder of 600 & Rising, an advocacy group for Black talent in the ad world.

When the summer protests hit, U.S. agencies instantly reacted, embracing messages of Black Lives Matter and calls for justice. And to Bennett, it makes sense for action to die down for the holidays — not to mention a global pandemic and turbulent presidential election — only to pick back up in time for Black History Month.

“This is just the ebb and flow of where we are in the world,” he said. “Everything after February 28th is on the industry.”

As far as Bennett is concerned, the industry is past the point of the DE&I buzzword — after Black History Month comes Women’s History Month, Pride Month and more. Instead, marketers should keep in mind intersectionality and intention this year and beyond, he said.

And there’s a long history of Black-owned agencies, Bennett said, noting multicultural creative shops like Carol H. Williams and the now-defunct GlobalHue. The industry just needs to commit to investing in them, he said.

“[Black creatives] need to be legitimate partners. They’re embedded in their communities and know where to find Black talent,” he said.

For LaFlaga, there’s the hope that more Black agencies will populate the ad industry, creating collaborative opportunities and ultimately more man power.

“There’s more power to us by us owning our agencies because we’re more in control of our own narrative,” he said.

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