Celebrating talent and fighting invisibility for Black History Month

—Gavin Barrett’s daily profiles of Black talent in Canadian advertising help debunk the excuse that it’s hard to find Black talent in Canadian advertising—

As he did last year for Black History Month, Derek Walker, owner of South Carolina agency Brown and Browner, has been shining a light on the many talented Black folks in U.S. advertising—posting daily profiles of an individual working in the industry. And, as I did last year, I’m doing the same on the Northern Front, aka Canada.

Why do this? First, we want to fight invisibility: we want to celebrate the Black talent that exists in our business so loudly you have to see it. Secondly, we are attempting to create a sense of community for Black advertising professionals, who too often experience the “only Black person in the room” syndrome.

We’re also debunking the excuse that it’s hard to find Black talent when the time comes for them to be sought out and hired.

I ask every Black Canadian advertising professional who is participating for their responses to seven questions.

The questions cover their time in advertising, how hard it was to break in, how they make an impact, what they love or detest about the business, how they’d like to see the industry become more inclusive, and any advice they might have for young Black men and women who want to get into advertising.

From their responses, I pull together the profile piece: a mini-tribute which I post on LinkedIn.

Derek’s series was covered in Adweek, both last year and this year, and so I’m delighted that The Message is covering the Canadian series this year. It really allows us to spotlight the incredible Black advertising professionals we have here in Canada.

The responses I received last year were so thought-provoking that at the end of the month, I wrote a longer article—a highlight reel of the observations, reflections and advice of those who were featured.

I’ll be doing the same this year. But here’s a preview of what just five of the 29 have to say about how the industry can become more inclusive.

Michael Brathwaite—Director, business, Grip and co-chair Nia Centre for the Arts

Powerful storytelling has to be inclusive. Advertising will lose its mojo if we keep using the same old tropes to tell the same old stories to try to influence audiences that are more sophisticated and diverse.

I think creative agencies need to embrace the power of inclusion to enhance creativity and not rest on the laurels of diversity in staff, suppliers or casting. The industry needs to see the creative power of inclusive thinking.

Chantaie Allick—Brand strategy lead, Shopify 

I think the ad industry needs to get out of its own head and its own comfort zone. Middle-aged white men don’t define culture anymore, and advertisers certainly don’t. At least not solely.

Which means inviting more people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives to have a seat (and voice) at the table, and for those middle-aged white guys to let those voices be heard. I think, though, that it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks, and it’ll be quite some time until the industry, especially in Canada, catches up with the realities of culture and life.

Doug Muir—Creative director, SDI Marketing

While we’re a far cry from “Mad Men,” this industry is still pretty white—99% of brand managers I’ve worked for in my career have been white. Most boardrooms I’m in every day only have one or two non-white faces around the table (including mine).

I don’t have a magic answer on how best to… de-colonize this industry. I do think the great work of people like Dean Dori Tunstall at OCAD University to build up, empower and train the next generation of advertisers, marketers and creatives to think universally about advertising audiences will go a long way towards true inclusivity and diversity; not just in the faces around boardroom tables, but also in the minds of those who speak for the brands we engage with every day.

Anton Mwewa—Art director, Cossette

We need to overcorrect for the lack of diversity. Advertising is a very liberal industry, but it overwhelmingly attracts the privileged (i.e. people with the time and resources to know and learn the industry).

This leaves out many Black people and other people of colour who never even get the chance to find out that this industry, as we know it, exists. We need to not only create opportunities for people of colour already in the industry, but also reach them before they enter the workforce to let them know this is a thing and we need them.

Stephanie Small—Creative operations manager and executive assistant, Taxi

I’d like to see mentorship programs or outreach programs like the one I helped start at a previous agency. A couple of people of colour and myself went out to a high school with a high demographic of Black and brown youth and gave them a presentation about advertising and the career opportunities.

I feel that the hiring pool starts before they get into their college or university programs, so if we can open their eyes to advertising as a potential career, we’ll see lots more racial representation in talent by the time we get to the hiring phase.


One of the comments Kyron Sobers, senior account executive at Ogilvy, made to me really sums it up well: “Canadian advertising needs to create an appetite for diversity on every level; it needs to submit to the power of inclusion.”

Gavin Barrett is co-founder and chief creative officer of Barrett and Welsh, a minority-led agency and a charter member of Multicultural Marketing Alliance Canada. He is a frequent writer on diversity and inclusion within advertising.