I'm fed up with being the advertising industry's token

I'm fed up with being the advertising industry's token

In the latest edition of Untold Stories, an employee from a top ad agency speaks out on the industry's systemic racism.

No, you can’t touch my hair.  

No, I’m not able to tell you about rap music. 

No, I’m not going to explain how to pronounce my last name (it’s phonetic; have the decency to try). 

You tell me I don’t act like a black person, while simultaneously expecting me to speak on behalf of my race. Despite countlessly confusing me for the only other black guy in the building (he’s taller, has darker skin, is several years older and works in a different department on a different floor), "we" are not all the same.

I’m fairly new to this industry and yet, hardened by its institutional racism, I’m being forced to take micro-aggressions like this on the chin, because I don’t want to be seen as a problematic employee. I’m too young to be this cynical. In case you’re wondering, this building I’m in houses one of the world’s most lauded agencies. If you’re concerned this may be your agency, please read on. 

In an attempt to channel my frustration in a more productive way, I, along with a few others, tried to set up a black, Asian and minority-ethnic group similar to that of the LGBT+ and female groups that already exist at our agency. This was derailed by a senior member of staff. Apparently, the existing infrastructure is "enough" to support BAME employees. With less than 5% of BAME people in account management – and not one individual ranking higher than an account director – I thought the numbers would prove the necessity of such a group. Evidently, I was wrong. 

Like David Olusoga recently explained, structural racism results in a prejudice where BAME people are told that their own lived experiences are merely interpretations or opinions. Numerical proof wasn’t enough; my cause was still deemed unnecessary. 

BAME people make up 14% of the population. It’s not a lack of availability – BAME students marginally surpass their white peers at GCSE level. It’s not that we’re not capable – we’re here. And if you "can’t find" us, it’s because you don’t want to. Diverse individuals lead to diverse thinking, which leads to better work. There was a reason Nike’s "Nothing beats a Londoner" campaign was so successful.

As our cultural landscape begins to change – with a meteoric risk of black artists infiltrating the mainstream – so, too, should the advertising industry. Representation isn’t a choice; it’s a necessity. But currently, the only time my career is put front and centre is when I’m wheeled out for an agency photo op. For chair-level board members, white representation sits at 97.1%. The ad industry faces being swallowed up and left reeling in this post-truth era if affirmative action isn’t taken immediately. 

Here’s what I’ve learned:

We need to get better at hiring

Recruitment needs to be transparent. Available roles should be publicly broadcast rather than discussed among friends at private members' clubs. We need to stop championing cronyism and nepotism over merit. Check your IPA diversity targets. Your agency should be aiming for 40% female and 15% BAME representation in agency leadership roles by 2020. Are you on track? Consider this your New Year’s resolution and take the necessary steps to make this happen. 

Find allies

Get someone in your corner. Someone who believes in you, someone who’s willing to put your name forward, someone who educates their colleagues. You need them. It’s not – and shouldn’t be – all on you. 

Don’t rely on BAME people to fix racism

We don’t exist to highlight your biases. But give us the autonomy and power we deserve and you will see a reduction in racist ads (hello, "#Knifefree"). We need more BAME people behind the screen to get more BAME people in front of it, to inspire a new generation to choose advertising. You’ve got to see it to be it.

Join your brothers and sisters in arms

In an industry with a severe lack of initiatives for the under-represented, The Other Box and Pocc support and advise creative people from BAME backgrounds through interactive courses to be empowered, speak up and be heard. Visit https://www.theotherbox.org and https://wearepocc.com/

Listen to Karen Blackett

If I can’t persuade you, perhaps the manager for WPP and UK chairwoman of MediaCom can.

Have an experience you think should be shared? Help our industry take action by writing to telluntoldstories@gmail.com

Picture: Getty Images

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