How and why Dentsu Aegis got behind BlackNorth

More than 200 Canadian business leaders have signed on to the BlackNorth Initiative, a new pledge to take concrete steps within their organizations as a crucial way to fight systemic anti-Black racism in Canada.

“Until now, Blacks have been left behind by the diversity movement in Canada. Today, that changes,” said Wes Hall, founder and chairman of The Canadian Council of Business Leaders Against Anti-Black Systemic Racism.

Hall helped create the Council amid the worldwide movement to end anti-Black racism following the death of George Floyd. The pledge was formally introduced during a special live summit on Monday afternoon that included business leaders and an appearance by Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri.

“The BlackNorth Initiative is purpose-built to be the voice of Blacks and the force to drive measurable change for Blacks,” said Hall, describing the effort as a “Canadian version of the NAACP.”

Among the signatories was Dentsu Aegis Network, which has also become the agency for the cause—overseeing the branding and communications, as well as organizing and producing the summit.

DAN got involved with BlackNorth because their anti-racism goals are so closely aligned, said Kai Exos, chief creative officer for Dentsu Entertainment and lead of Dentsu Aegis Network’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. Exos will also chair BlackNorth’s representation in arts, media and culture committee, one of 15 led by senior executives focused on fighting systemic racism in different ways.

DAN’s efforts are being shaped by an anti-racism action team comprised of 75 people from across the company, representing all agencies and levels.

Kai Exos

“They’ve really set the plan—our inside-out plan for anti racism—and it’s been very cool to see and it gives me hope,” said Exos. There is a new level of candour, particularly from white leaders across the organization, about what has to be done to improve and overcome systemic racism to become more diverse and inclusive, he said.

While their efforts actually started before Floyd was killed, their work and progress has picked up momentum since. Exos made Juneteenth a paid holiday; two new executive positions have been created to focus directly on driving progress and change around DEI; and a new action plan framework has been constructed around five pillars: transparency and accountability; understanding and awareness; education and continuous learning; representation and sponsorship; and community and client impact.

“None of this stuff is hard to do. You just have to want to  so it,” said Exos. “And I think that’s where the hope is for me… I’m seeing people that want to. And it seems genuine and actionable, and accountable and transparent.” (A DAN spokesperson confirmed the company will also likely sign the Canadian ad industry’s own “Call for Equity” action plan.)

The five pillars for Dentsu Aegis are echoed in the BlackNorth pledge, particularly the emphasis on accountability. “We acknowledge the existence of anti-Black systemic racism and its impact on Canada’s 1,198,540 Black citizens (or 3.5% of the population) and the need to create opportunities within our companies for Black people,” it reads.

Specific goals in the pledge include:

  • Making workplaces trusting places to have complex, and sometimes difficult conversations about anti-Black systemic racism;
  • Implement or expand unconscious bias and antiracism education;
  • Share best—and unsuccessful—practices;
  • Create and share strategic inclusion and diversity plans with our board of directors; and
  • Create the conditions for success including collecting data on race to identify gaps.

In terms of hiring goals, the pledge says signatories will have at least 3.5% of board roles filled by Black leaders, and 5% of the student workforce will be hired from the Black community by 2025.

Numbers, data and measurable goals are the essential pre-requisites for businesses to make progress and be accountable, said Exos. “We won’t sign things that don’t have numbers.”

While the Summit is over and the pledge is public, there is still much work to do, both within Dentsu and for BlackNorth, said Exos.

Dentsu’s Team BlackNorth, comprised of staff from MKTG and Isobar, is working on a dashboard and other resources for businesses who support the pledge to follow through and meet their commitments. “People are asking, do you have a template for how we can approach our CEO… People don’t know how to have the conversations,” said Exos.

This is about creative thinkers and problem solvers using their skills to fix a real and urgent problem, creating new systems to replace one that is broken, he said. “We have all this talent, so why don’t we help tackle the problem? If we can design systems to sell products, why can’t we promote positive ideas? I call it positive propaganda.”

Their work, together with the drive and determination of the leaders committing to BlackNorth, will have a meaningful impact, said Exos. He told that to Hall on Monday, just prior to the Summit and the pledge’s reveal.

“We are going to fix that pipeline,” Exos told him. “And we are going to hold these businesses accountable for anti Black systemic racism, we are going to upend it and be on the right side of history.”


David Brown