Hard-hitting questions about racism and sexual harassment dominate Day Two of the 3% Conference

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72andSunny (pictured) and VML became the first agencies certified by the 3% Conference. Photo: Bronac McNeill Photography & Film
72andSunny (pictured) and VML became the first agencies certified by the 3% Conference. Photo: Bronac McNeill Photography & Film

The gloves came off, as panelists worked to hold the industry accountable for its shortcomings.

After an opening day full of inspiring panels and workshops, the second day of the 3% Conference—thanks to pointed audience questions and a fiery closing keynote—dug into unexpected and uncomfortable conversations about race and gender that tested whether speakers would face issues head on or go the safe route (spoiler: mostly the second one).

The day began with a workshop from comedian-turned-motivational speaker Kyle Cease, who encouraged the audience to identify and then move past the justifications that hold them back from pursuing what he termed their "highest calling"—dreams that go unrealized because of practical concerns like money, family or career status (he did not mention institutionalized oppression as a possible roadblock). 

"You’re scared to let go because your mind can only measure what you’ll lose, and it cannot measure what you’ll gain," he told the crowd. "We’re addicted to being stuck. But if you’re justifying needing to keep something, you don’t need it."

The day’s first flashpoint appeared during an audience Q&A following the presentation of the inaugural 3% Certified Program, created to recognize agencies that pass a rigorous (and voluntary) audit assessing their commitment to diversity. Out of 40 agencies that underwent the screening, just two—VML and 72andSunny—emerged certified. Representatives from each agency came onstage to talk about the policies that had kept them ahead of the diversity curve, with 3%’s Lisen Stromberg moderating. 

At several points in the conversation and the beginning of the question period, agency reps talked about how their firms opened pathways to minority students to learn about and possibly enter the advertising industry, including office visits and entry-level recruiting. Then Derek Walker, longtime independent creative and founder of South Carolina agency brown and browner, took the mic.

"We act like people of color don’t know about advertising jobs—we do," he told the all-white panel. "And [agencies] are always hiring, but at the entry level. What are you doing about the senior level? They hire juniors, who come in and don’t see anybody who looks like them. [Without] recruiting senior talent there’s no pathway."

Panelists opined that there simply wasn’t enough talent to go around—hiring away an executive of color from a competing agency doesn’t solve the problem—and that the industry simply needs time to grow creatives of color into executive-level talent.

This was not enough for Walker. 

"Don’t tell black folks we have to wait," he responded. "There are hundreds of black creatives who are already freelancing or on the fringe of advertising who are capable of doing the job. If I told a white woman, ‘Wait ten years until we can grow you,’ she’d be offended. What you wouldn’t do to white women, please don’t do to black folks." 

After a brief silence, Stromberg replied and closed out the discussion: "That is a beautiful invitation for our industry, and I would like to commend your agencies for setting the standard for what could be."

The challenges continued following an afternoon keynote from Billy Bean, a former Major League Baseball player who came as gay out shortly after his career ended in 1993. Fourteen years later, the league approached him to serve as its first-ever ambassador of inclusion. After a speech sharing his journey from living a heartbreaking double life to becoming an advocate for marginalized people in the sport, he opened the floor to questions. 

An audience member brought up the racist anti-Asian gesture Astros batter Yuli Gurriel pulled during the World Series, asking Bean whether he thought the league had handled it in a way that demonstrated a true commitment to respecting diversity (Gurriel was suspended for the first five games of 2018). "My kids are Asian. How am I supposed to explain that to them?" the audience member asked.

Bean struggled to respond, first chalking the incident up to cultural misunderstanding. "Yuli played in Japan, and culturally the way it has been interpreted, he was trying to say that he did not do well in Japan [but] that he ‘finally got the Chinito,’ which is not a slur in Cuban culture. [He’s] someone in their first year in the US, who doesn’t speak English at all."

He praised the league’s commissioner, Rob Manfred, for grace under pressure, then referenced the players’ union ("It doesn’t matter what someone does—a union can file a grievance to stall the process.") before concluding, "I was not part of the decision, and have my own personal feelings about it, but [we] wanted to get something tangible for people to put their hands around and know it was not acceptable, and I hope it never happens again." 

It was fitting that such an unexpectedly contentious day ended with a speech from former BBH chair and outspoken diversity advocate Cindy Gallop. While she did not address the largely unanswered questions that preceded her presentation, she dove immediately into a confrontation of her own. 

"The biggest issue facing our industry today is not diversity," she said. "It’s sexual harassment, because it prevents diversity, equality and inclusion from ever happening. I am so tired of how very low the creative bar has been set in our industry by the white, male dominance that has held our industry in a state of stasis while sexual harassment prevents the progression of female leaders." 

She talked at length about #metoo: the power it gave women, but also her concern that anonymous stories won’t change things. "Women empathize, but men don’t give a shit because [they] can’t relate to an anonymous story. We have to attach names and agencies and holding companies and brands to get our industry to take it seriously."

She brought up an anecdote shared on a panel the previous day by Prettybird’s Kerstin Emhoff. Early in her career, Emhoff went to a cocktail party to meet the client overseeing a project her firm was bidding on. A male colleague introduced Emhoff to the client, who responded, in front of an all-male group of Emhoff’s coworkers, "Oh, that’s funny—I thought the first time I met you, your ankles would be behind your ears."

"When you say things like that," Gallop said, "you ensure the men around us will never look at us the same way again, and you destroy our career path."

She spent the remainder of her speech imploring the audience to leave behind the current advertising paradigm to start "the agency of the future," grounded from inception in inclusion, transparency and a healthy work-life balance.