Four and a half years into her job as a design strategist at BBDO New York, Naja Bomani got a surprising question from a coworker.
“He asked me how it was for me to be the only African-American woman on our planning team,” she said. “I thought he was going to ask about work.”
Bomani said that, while she never felt out of place, she did feel the extra burden to be at the top of her game all the time. “As a Black woman, I just never wanted anything I was doing to be looked at as wrong or out of place,” she explained.
Her colleague, who is Asian-American, felt the same way, and the two realized they probably weren’t the only ones.
As fate would have it, Isabel Rendon started at BBDO that same week in late 2019 with a similar philosophy. Fresh out of a 4A’s Multicultural Advertising Internship Program (MAIP) in Portland, she was inspired by the positive impacts of being around a diverse group of people who made her feel at home.
“An issue I continuously run into is the more education or success I have, the less likely I am to be around people who come from my background,” she said. “I knew it was absolutely necessary to find that in the spaces I was going to be in.”
Naja and Isabel got to talking and began meeting with other diverse employees in small groups. There was no agenda except to talk about their experiences.
“We would just talk about the things we shared, the things you wouldn't know just by looking at someone,” Bomani said.
The group began hosting weekly meetings, putting a different person in charge of setting the location and agenda each time. Eventually it grew large enough that Rendon decided it was time for action.
“I said, ‘This is the last meeting where we're just talking,’” she said. “Let's make some goals and figure out how we can get this in front of the CEO.”
The group began discussing systemic issues in the advertising industry, from treatment in the office to bias in the actual work being made. That led to the creation of three pillars: community engagement, internal growth and cultivating the next generation of leaders.
They then began thinking about how they could get involved in initiatives across the agency, from mentorship programs to community outreach to volunteering.
By early 2020, it was time to take the idea to leadership. Rendon and Bomani met with BBDO New York president and CEO Kirsten Flanik, who was immediately receptive.
BBDO already had diversity and inclusion initiatives in place (Bomani came into the agency through its diversity council), but a movement led by the agency’s employees was an entirely new way to approach the issue.
“I feel like there's almost this anticipation that there's going to be push back when you're advocating for a culture change,” Rendon said. “That is not the case with our leadership.”
The group began working with leadership directly on agency initiatives. At the time, the Omnicom Group firm was looking to bring on a chief diversity officer. Rendon and Bomani were not just involved in the recruitment and interviewing process, but also “ended up writing the job description,” Rendon said.
While momentum for the coalition, now dubbed BBDO IDEA (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Allyship) hit a roadblock with the outbreak of COVID-19 in March, that lull didn’t last long. The group and the agency both felt a renewed urgency around the issue after the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor this summer.
IDEA got to work in building out an advisory council made up of 15 representatives from the agency. The council meets biweekly to discuss what’s happening on the ground, and meets regularly with Flanik and chief diversity officer Jason Rosario to relay that back to the C-suite.
“Instead of this coming from top down, it's something we created from the bottom up with the people at the core,” Bomani said.
As work from home persists, IDEA is planning virtual events to keep the conversation going. The group partnered with nonprofit 100 Roses From Concrete, which advocates for men of color in the industry, on mentoring sessions, and hosted a wellness day to help people deal with the stress of COVID-19.
IDEA also hosts monthly Netflix Party events dedicated to underrepresented groups, and speaker sessions with executives to talk about their experiences.
“I think a mistake is to look at diverse people in an organization and say, ‘Okay, you be in charge of this,’” Rendon said. “This is a volunteer thing, and people do have day jobs, so we try to offer that social aspect as well as representation in how we want to influence the agency culture.”
BBDO offices across the country have their own diversity and inclusion initiatives and Bomani and Rendon are working with Rosario to collaborate with those teams and scale IDEA nationally.
“Now we have this group, I feel like my eyes have been opened in so many ways,” Bomani said. “The people I'm meeting have the same passion I do about diversity and what representation looks like for us at the agency.”