Breaking barriers and celebrating firsts at ADCOLOR's 2017 conference

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(L to R) Doug Melville, chief diversity officer, TBWA; Snoop Dogg; Ryan Ford, CCO, Cashmere. Photo: Ashley E. Osborne
(L to R) Doug Melville, chief diversity officer, TBWA; Snoop Dogg; Ryan Ford, CCO, Cashmere. Photo: Ashley E. Osborne

Agency execs and celebrities like Snoop Dogg and Lena Waithe lauded industry groundbreakers and lamented slow progress.

When ADCOLOR scheduled its 2017 conference, the team had no idea that queer actor and writer Lena Waithe would win an Emmy for outstanding writing for a comedy series two nights before the awards ceremony. Waithe is the first black woman to win in that category, and as a presenter during ADCOLOR’s awards show on Tuesday night, she embodied what diversity-conscious advertisers hope to achieve: the ability to break down barriers for creatives of all races, genders and orientations.

Donald Glover made history Sunday night as well, as the first black person to win an Emmy for Outstanding Director in a Comedy Series (while simultaneously winning Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series).

Daisy M. Auger-Domínguez, senior vice president of talent acquisition at Viacom, touched on the pressures trailblazers face and how companies can best support minority workers. "We hire them for their magic, and then we suck the magic out of them. And that is something we cannot do." This celebration of breaking down barriers and the desire to best serve those providing the labor was woven through the two-day discussions at the conference in Los Angeles. 

For the first time in its 11-year history, ADCOLOR was completely sold out. While attendees, panelists and speakers at the Loews Hotel in Hollywood naturally expressed concern regarding President Trump’s administration, associating with like-minded people in the advertising industry seemed to squash the despair—or at least provide a new sense of resolve in beating back the regression. Part of this rejuvenation came from coming face-to-face with those who have become "firsts" in their particular industries, like Waithe.

On Monday, speakers mentioned last year’s expectations that the first female president would succeed the first black president. While November’s election results were devastating for many progressives, guests and speakers reminded attendees how many other firsts the country has had, and how many more there are to come.

During Tuesday’s awards ceremony, Waithe presented the Advocate Honoree Award to Wilson Cruz, actor and national spokesperson and strategic giving officer for GLAAD, who in 1994 was the first actor to play a leading role as an openly gay character in a television series. "If I stand tall at all," Waithe said, after receiving a standing ovation for her recent Emmy, "it’s because I’m standing on [Cruz’s] beautifully, perfectly toned shoulders." 

The awards ceremony was "lit," presenters and award recipients remarked throughout the night. Johnson Publishing Company won one of ADCOLOR’s Lifetime Achievement awards. Its founder, John H. Johnson, was the first black man to make the Forbes 400 list, with his iconic Ebony and Jet magazines—the black community’s first major glossy.

Susie Nam, chief operating officer at Droga5, told Campaign US, "I think of [diversity and inclusion] as a massive journey that we all hope to put a little dent into. I think we’re a bit short-term about our successes, and even the language and vernacular about how we talk about campaigns, compared to diversity and inclusion needs to change. I think that diversity and inclusion is a forever thing. And we’ll do our best part to be on the right side of history."

During TBWA's Disruptor Series on Monday, rapper and entrepreneur Snoop Dogg discussed the challenges he faced when first trying to make a name for himself in the industry. "I remember when ad companies wouldn’t touch me or give me the time of day." Snoop went on to discuss how he has been able to remain true to his individuality while simultaneously breaking down barriers. "I feel like I was given this voice for a reason. To not be quiet but to be loud. To speak for people who can’t speak." He encouraged brands to do the same.

Bozoma Saint John, the new chief brand officer at Uber, said she had to learn to embrace her unique style instead of trying to emulate the all-white status quo in the workplace. "The first time I showed up wearing the suit that I thought was going to be the right suit in the right room, [it] turned out to be the wrong suit in the right room. People looked at me real long. That was my indication that, ‘Oh, I see, even if I try to look like you, you’re not going accept me.’"

Snoop brought the room to captivated silence as he described the ways Tupac was pigeonholed into portraying a gangster image. "When he wrote positive records, you didn’t even pay attention to him until he was dead. When he wrote records that could really change the world, you didn’t pay attention to him until he was dead. When he made records that were violent and angry, you loved them records. They turned him into that. You know who ‘they’ is."

The truth behind this pigeonholing led to the Ad of the Year Award for Wieden+Kennedy and The Atlantic, for "Typecast," in which four versions of actor Michael K. Williams, best known for "The Wire" and "12 Years a Slave," wrestle with whether he has broken free from the black trope in television and film. 

Nadja Bellan-White, evp, global brand management at Ogilvy & Mather EMEA, received ADCOLOR’s Legend Award and stressed to the audience the importance of not only being different, but also being a good steward: "Your difference is your destiny. But my destiny is to make a difference."