After years as a marketer at major brands, Martin Ekechukwu was frustrated with what he saw as vanilla and blunt attempts to reach diverse audiences.
“The corporations I was in didn't speak to Black and brown people the way Black and brown people should be spoken to,” Ekechukwu said.
When approaching Hispanic audiences, for example, large brands often simply change the language or casting for a spot, disregarding the cultural nuances inherent to that group of people. Fueling the problem was that these big companies lacked people of color in senior, decision-making roles.
So, in 2011, Ekechukwu went out on his own to launch WHTWRKS, a marketing agency and cultural consultancy that helps brands connect more authentically with diverse audiences through music and entertainment.
“Black culture leads when it comes to entertainment, music and influence,” Ekechukwu said.
With former Bad Boy Entertainment EVP Jeffrey Burroughs as his cofounder, Ekechukwu and WHTWRKS began creating culturally relevant collaborations between musical artists and major brands, including Moët Hennessy, Mike and Ike and Pernod Ricard.
One of the agency’s first projects was a collaboration between Hennessy and rapper Nas, born out of the connection between the cognac brand and hip-hop culture. The program ran for seven years.
“Nas speaks to the streets, but he's also clean,” Ekechukwu said. “People respect him and he does drink Hennessy. So it was like a ‘duh’ moment.”
WHTWRKS also works closely with BET on branded content integrations, from creative development, to production to content around the event. That partnership opened the door to projects for more entertainment brands including ViacomCBS and Disney.
Many of WHTWRKS clients already have agencies of record, and some even have multicultural agencies. But big firms can get into a bad habit of “taking a check and figuring out how to make it work” when it comes to multicultural projects, explained Ekechukwu.
WHTWRKS is not afraid to push back on briefs that lack authenticity.
“We are a Black agency speaking to Black people,” Ekechukwu said. “We are the audience too. We need to make sure the message is clear, and we don't feel like we're disrespecting ourselves.”
Business at WHTWRKS has picked up this year around the momentum for the Black Lives Matter movement. While many brands are doing the hard work to fix injustices within their own organizations, some are simply speaking out to save themselves from scrutiny.
Either way, the important thing is that the conversation is now fully and forcefully happening.
“Something is being done, and we're putting these companies to task,” Ekechukwu said. “Whether they have to or they want to, it's being done. More Black people, agencies and vendors will be hired because of it.”
As a Black business owner and Nigerian immigrant, Ekechukwu has ambitions for WHTWRKS beyond the work it does for clients. The agency focuses on hiring minority talent and suppliers to help underserved communities build generational wealth.
“We're all looking to build a future and a legacy for our kids,” he said. “That's literally what drives us. This is the beginning of that change.”