A little more than one year ago, the agency world reacted to the horrifying murder of George Floyd the best way it knew how.
There were anti-racism campaigns and pledges to increase non-white representation among leadership. We recognized Juneteenth as a holiday and C-suite executives sent a flood of heartfelt emails acknowledging the seriousness of the situation and its impact on staff.
As the CEO of a minority-owned agency that’s deeply involved with social justice issues, I watched these reactions unfold with a mix of awe and trepidation; awe for the obvious sincerity behind them — and trepidation because it all felt just a little too familiar.
Let me be clear: The scope and urgency of these reactions felt like nothing I’d ever witnessed in the industry before. George Floyd’s murder and the ensuing uprising clearly struck a nerve, and it was inspiring to watch so many well-meaning colleagues join the fight with conviction and goodwill.
But how many of these agencies had previously done work in DE&I? How many had volunteered their time for these causes, gaining the true understanding of their contours that comes only with ground-level involvement? Most important, how many were prepared to make a long-term commitment to help upend systemic racism?
I ask these questions not to criticize agencies for meeting the moment the best way they knew how. George Floyd’s murder was a unique moment in American history, and ignoring it was not an option for any company with a conscience.
I raise these questions to point out a long-standing problem with ad industry activism.
Agencies often jump on a cause when everyone else is talking about it. An issue becomes too big to ignore, so agencies use their expertise to create public awareness campaigns or adopt a policy that addresses the issue under their own roof. While these reactions are valued and likely make small, important differences, they usually fail to move the needle significantly. They make a lot of noise, but not a lot of difference.
The problem with being ready to stand for anything is that you ultimately stand for nothing.
When agencies take a purely reactive stance, they spread their resources too thin and fail to get truly involved with any particular cause. I have come to believe that an agency should be defined by the causes it supports as much as the clients it represents — maybe more so.
Employees will get behind a vision faster than a hot topic. Aligning yourself with a cause for the long haul will attract talent that wants to work with you simply because of your vision. You will become culture changers instead of culture responders. In return, you will attract passionate, committed employees with full buy-in to help make the change your agency is committed to.
In the summer of 2017, we asked our employees what change they wanted to see in our community. After a few brainstorming sessions, we decided to put our efforts into helping the disenfranchised. This provided a guard rail for us to focus our efforts.
When we began working with nonprofits that support the homeless community, we began to see a need beyond clothing and food. What these people needed most was a sense of dignity and respect. They wanted to be seen as individuals rather than a group to be pitied. We began to feel a genuine sense of empathy for them.
Our efforts grew, and we quickly realized that we were developing a new business. In 2018, we launched a 501c3 non-profit called For The Greater Hood, which provides clothing, haircuts, sneakers and school supplies to over 15,000 men, women and children. All while putting value and dignity back into their lives.
I tell this story not to pat ourselves on the back, but to show what can happen when agencies commit to a social cause rather than wait for one to come banging on their door.
To reshape culture, agencies need to be aware of what's happening and educate teams. Volunteer at non-profit organizations and serve in the community. Do this consistently, and your team will get a deeper understanding of what's happening, which gives them a license to engage and make a genuine impact.
If we constantly run toward the next big problem, we are forever walking away from problems that have lost the spotlight but still need to be solved. People need more than a march down Main Street on a Saturday afternoon; they need commitment throughout the week. It's essential not to get caught up in the climate of culture, but to keep your focus on changing it.
If agencies applied the same effort to social justice as they do to the brands they market, we would see significant changes in our culture. But we have to be willing to do the work.
Eric Rojas is founder and chief creative officer of Six+One.