Where are all the Black-owned creative agencies?

Stop paying lip service to agency and supplier diversity — just start hiring.

Can you name at least three Black people who hold prominent roles at any of the world’s top branding, advertising or design agencies? No?

That’s because a key benchmark for entry into most is not talent; it’s being white.

I’m not suggesting white creatives aren't talented. I’m acknowledging that white leaders dominate the field. And, although it’s kept quiet, they convene privately to talk business — on the golf course, at poker games and more. Black people aren’t typically part of that network. 

Agencies often use Black faces to tell stories, but do their leaders employ any full-time Black designers, owners, partners or thought leaders? If not, their creative solutions may as well be traveling exhibitions or modern-day minstrel shows. Many white-led agencies and clients offer pro bono services to nonprofits aiding Black Lives, but don’t have any Black people on their boards.

Across the industry, Black designers, leaders and agency owners are absent locally, nationally and globally. Highly paid assignments involve buy-in from an infrastructure of majority white leadership, stakeholders and investors. This scale is rarely headed by a Black man or woman.

While the lack of representation is huge, it’s a reflection of a more entrenched problem with corporate supplier diversity programs. Diversity initiatives typically revolve around internal staffing, but an inclusive approach in procurement would have more impact. 

In May 2020, the Association of National Advertising Managers revealed that while 75% of marketers had plans to hire diverse suppliers, only 40% had the same plans for their agencies. Working with Black suppliers can drive more comprehensive benefits to the Black community. Black-owned businesses can hire from within the community, get capital, invest in their families and, ultimately, place earned money in the hands of Black people.

This may sound like the failed “trickle-down theory,” but it’s not. According to a 2019 US Census report, Black people owned approximately 124,551 businesses in the U.S. Of those, more than 11,000 were certified as minority business enterprises, which helped create more than 2 million jobs. A 2017 report by Equality.org projected that households of color will reach majority status in America by 2043, but the Black community will reach zero net worth by 2053.

None of these statistics have mattered much in the C-suite until recently, as the pandemic exposed serious weaknesses in American public and supply chain systems.

After white-owned, -led and -staffed companies high-fived each other’s “#blackouttuesday” squares and #BlackLivesMatter campaigns, many of these efforts were exposed as token gestures. A surge of white-dominated agencies voiced their support for Black lives, but it was often performative allyship. We’ve started to see a peppering of diversity within teams, but they are still mostly white-led. Corporations benefit from building relationships with the Black community locally and nationally, and must adapt their cultures and messaging to sell more products to this community and increase shareholder value. It’s business.

What should white people working at white companies do?

  1. Generously fund a diverse procurement program and measure success with quantitative data. Who was hired, how much contract did they earn and for how long did we help the business scale?

  2. Tie compensation to diversity supplier targets. Don’t hit the target? No bonus.

  3. Do not dismiss qualitative data (emotional labor, commitments, relationships and conversations) as proof of success. 

  4. Hold leadership that controls supply chain budgets accountable. 

  5. When an assignment benefits or serves Black people, look around the room and ensure that Black creatives (more than one, please) are part of the process.

  6. Earmark spending for Black businesses. After all, Black businesses are your customers, too.

Hiring agencies owned by people of color will bring culturally competent ideas and solutions, which translate into authentic brand images, stronger employee recruitment platforms, loyalty, revenue and socially responsible and sustainable investment. A commitment to ensuring access and creating wealth requires a sustained philosophical devotion to racial equity. Hiring Black people and suppliers won’t open the floodgates to people asking for charity. That’s not how it works!

Together, we can build diverse networks where the self-determined path for Black people in creative industries will become less like working on a plantation and more like being part of a global community. 

JinJa Birkenbeuel is CEO of Birk Creative.

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