‘There’s no people like me in places like this’: Confessions of black ad exec on advertising’s diversity problem

This article is part of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor to get an unvarnished look at the people, processes and problems inside the industry. More from the series →

Ignorance — however well meant it may be — can be pretty dangerous, especially when it comes to issues of diversity inside agencies. That’s the view of an advertising executive we interviewed in the latest edition of our Confessions series, in which we grant anonymity in exchange for candor. The more this executive was asked to “help bring diversity to the room” by their bosses, the more they realized that being the only black person in the room isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Excerpts are lightly edited for clarity.

Was working at an agency as diverse and progressive as you thought it was going to be?
Once I’d settled there, it was obvious that there weren’t many people like me in places like this. The agency was progressive in how they tackled briefs, but that didn’t stretch to their own people. The team there often wanted me to provide insight into black culture because of the way I looked. I found that I was being regularly pulled into meetings and onto projects that called for greater diversity because my bosses thought “what better way to show we’re diverse than by having a black person in the room” — nobody said that openly, but that’s how I felt.

Can you share any examples?
There was one occasion where I was brought into a chemistry meeting at the very last minute and when I was asked what my role was going to be, I was told I didn’t need one. I knew full well that this wasn’t supposed to be the case, but I didn’t want to seem difficult so I went along with it. Unfortunately, at the time it made me question what real value I added to the agency. I think a lot of the misconceptions came from people seeing black culture from afar and expecting me to behave in a certain way.

How were you perceived by your peers and managers?
The agency I worked for hyped up their culture when they interviewed me, and it was clear that if I didn’t fit into it, then I wouldn’t get the job regardless of my actual skills. I bought into that because the culture of a company is important, and I liked what it stood for. I was good at my job so people thought highly of me, but the “cultural fit” focus became frustrating when I was being called out for not always being lively and outgoing. I felt like a lot of people expected me to be this caricature of a black person and because I can be quite introverted at times they were disappointed. This was raised in my yearly review but my manager had no constructive feedback. There’s also a lot to be said for diversity in personality types, and it’s not right that the loudest personalities in agencies seem to be the ones who thrive the most.

Were there too many egos at the agency who didn’t want to be hurt by having those discussions?
A lot of the issues were down to ignorance of the leadership team rather than anything malicious. I do think, however, that part of the reason no one really cared to do what was necessary to address diversity was because it it was an issue that didn’t really affect them. There was a lot of lip service paid to being a diverse and inclusive agency, but the reality was our HR team never had a strategy to deliver on either of those points. Instead, they tried to make me the person to head it up.

Did you want the role?
A role like that can be a double-edged sword. On one side, I was happy to take the lead and front something that could move the discussion forward, but the flipside was that you get tainted with the “diversity” label in the organization. It felt like I was being pigeonholed into an unofficial role on top of my actual role without the additional resource or pay.

Has the experience put you off working at agencies?
Yes. I know the way to change these issues is to do so from within, but getting to those positions is tough when there are so many things working against you. It’s not worth my mental health. I’d never say never, but I definitely won’t be going back into an agency anytime soon.

Why isn’t more being done to address the issue?
People say it’s complicated and can’t be tackled overnight. People like me don’t expect a quick fix. We do, however, want to see some of the effort and energy put into working for clients or completing an award entry go toward a well-funded plan to tackle diversity and inclusion, which aren’t the same thing. The job isn’t done once you’ve got people through the door. Those people need to feel like they can bring their whole selves into the workplace too. You look at what’s happened with gender in agencies recently and see that it can be done. The difference there is that it’s generally white women leading that charge, which helps.


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