Few communities drive culture faster right now than Black Twitter. The large, amorphous community of social media users who filter the world through the black experience have given us now-ubiquitous words like "fleek" and "bae" and memes like the Mannequin Challenge, helping to create the digital-first language we now all speak. They’ve been here, creating culture, for years. They’re just not getting credit for it. And they’re certainly not getting paid.
At Advertising Week’s "Woke, Lit & Ready" panel on Tuesday afternoon, black executives and creatives from five companies sat down to talk about how the overlooking of Black Twitter by agencies has created an atmosphere of failed campaigns, underserved markets and all-white teams—and why advertising, in the words of McCann’s Chief Diversity Officer Singleton Beato, "has to stop sleeping on this talent."
The first point of business was to define what Black Twitter is. First off, it’s not a separate app called Black Twitter, and not everyone who is black and on Twitter is part of Black Twitter. "It’s a group of people who identify with the black experience and come together to analyze, strategize and mobilize black culture and identity," explained God-Is Rivera, VML’s director of inclusion and culture resonance. "If you don’t know it, you can’t find it, and it’s really pushed forward culture" over the last few years.
Moderated by VML global CEO John Cook, who wondered aloud why he, a white man, was heading the panel, the discussion moved to advertising’s failure to include black voices in projects. Without this, said GIPHY’s Culture Editor Jasmyn Lawson, a campaign is almost guaranteed to fall flat. "We know when we’re an afterthought. We can tell when it’s real, not a response or reaction or trying to play us." She pointed to the many makeup brands who, following the unprecedented success of Fenty Beauty, scrambled to promote their darker foundation shades after years of entirely ignoring that market. "If you make one post with a dark-skinned girl but the rest of your Instagram feed is all white women, it’s obvious. Admit you’ve missed a market and ask what you can do for a whole campaign, rather than one post or one mention to cover your ass."
Even worse than a campaign that transparently falls flat is one that tokenizes its target market—which, the panelists again stressed, happens when members of that demographic are excluded from the development process. "Think about what tone-deafness is: it’s laziness. It shows to the community that you didn’t even try," said Tiyale Hayes, the SVP of consumer insights at BET. "That’s where the insult is. I’m giving you my money, and the best you could give me was chicken?"
Exacerbating that insult are the rising number of good campaigns, like Pantene’s Gold Series and Hamburger Helper’s Twitter account, that nail it. "When [a bad campaign] is juxtaposed against someone who got it, you look even worse. The fact that people are finally doing it right raises the bar," added Hayes.
Several times, the conversation returned to the failure of agencies to draw from Black Twitter’s vibrant talent pool despite industry hand-wringing over its deep lack of diversity. These users have demonstrated track records of content creation and engagement across a variety of formats, but firms won’t consider hiring them based on such clearly successful executions because they lack traditional resumes and portfolios. That has to change, the panelists agreed.
"Someone’s funny, quick and acid-tongued? That’s a copywriter," said VML’s Rivera. "All the fan artwork for things like ‘Black Panther’? Those are art directors. They just look different than what we’re used to seeing." Worsening the problem are outdated ideas about how to engage with consultants and form relationships, she continued. "Does everyone have to be an FTE or already have a specific piece of business? No—[we should] partner with people to create relationships with communities. Don’t wait for business, don’t wait for an open spot."
And even if those creatives are brought onboard, they won’t want to stay if the atmosphere is still hostile. "There’s a responsibility we have as an industry to create an internal culture where people who can speak to these audiences feel they have a safe environment to share so we get the messaging right," said Beato.
The payoff, panelists said, is clear: hire authentic black voices and you’ll get authentic campaigns that drive enthusiastic engagement. Creators get credit for their work, and brands develop a reputation for understanding how to connect with an audience like Black Twitter. It all starts, reiterated Hayes, with a shift in perspective.
"You have to check yourself and ask yourself if you’re seeing beauty in people. When you see the black woman working in [your firm’s] cafeteria, do you see beauty in her? Because if you’re not seeing beauty in the cafeteria woman"—or the thousands of other working-class people who fuel Black Twitter—"you’re not seeing the community."