Stephanie Small has talked often with Black colleagues about the need for formalized programs to attract and retain more Black people within the Canadian advertising industry.
But the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement provided the impetus to turn talk into action, leading to the creation of Black Taxi, a new initiative that sits within the Taxi network.
“Finally I just got to the point where I said ‘It’s time to just do it,'” says the creative operations manager at Taxi Toronto. “The murder of George Floyd was a great catalyst and maybe I personally I needed that fire. We’ve started down this road and there’s no turning back.”
It is the realization of a longtime goal for Small, whose LinkedIn profile identifies her as a “champion of diversity & inclusion” and who is described by Taxi CEO Rob Guenette as an “unbelievable leader and activist.”
Among Black Taxi’s first steps are rewriting the network’s HR practices and job descriptions; improving outreach and hiring practices to attract and hire as many Black employees as possible; eliminating unpaid internships and partnering with a local organization to mentor and provide paid internship opportunities to Black people looking to enter the industry.
Small will also be posting Taxi jobs in the People of Colour in Canadian Advertising and Marketing (POCAM) LinkedIn group, with Taxi’s recruiters paying particular attention to applicants recruited via that group.
Small is hopeful that in a few years years from now Black Taxi will have become entrenched enough that it boasts an alumni network comprised of people who have been hired into senior roles within the Canadian marketing industry.
“I want Taxi to be the benchmark for other agencies,” she says. “I want them to see that we’ve put these steps in place, but we also [acted on] them and continued to not only be profitable but more profitable.
“We want to give opportunities to people who may not have had them before, and retain them anyway that we can.”
The lack of diversity in industries like marketing and advertising has been subject to considerable scrutiny following the killing of Floyd. In Canada, Black, Indigenous and other people of colour from across the industry have launched a “Call for Equity” calling on agencies and clients to take measurable action against the “injustice and inequity” they face on a daily basis.
Other agencies have also launched internal processes with specific goals around making workplaces more diverse and equitable, and expanding or implementing education around unconscious bias and antiracism.
There is still much work to be done, however. A 2018 study by the Institute of Communication Agencies found that the workforce in Ontario agencies is only 2.9% Black, compared to 7.5% for the rest of the province’s labour force. The same study found that Ontario agencies are 74% white, compared to 48% for the rest of the province’s workforce.
Meanwhile, Omnicom Group workforce diversity data for the U.S released just this week shows that only 2.7% of its executive managers are Black.
Black Taxi will operate independently from Taxi’s existing Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity Committee. That is a deliberate decision, allowing for what the agency network describes as a “relentless focus” on Black people within the industry.
“One of the most under-served communities outside of our Indigenous brothers and sisters is the Black community,” says Small. “The Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity committee is going to continue to do the work and implement things they can for people of colour in general, but I feel that it’s very necessary for it to be more specific and focused when it comes to the Black community.
“People of colour all have different needs,” she adds. “We all have different socio-economic factors and different nuances you have to take into consideration. Rather than just a broad brush-stroke, I felt that now is very important to focus on the Black community and specifically service their needs.”
Black Taxi is comprised of a team of eight people across three Taxi offices, all hand-picked by Small. In addition to Guenette, the team consists of human resources director Kimberly Chomut; director of client services Adam Ball strategy director Amy Badun; producer Eastern Yoo; account supervisor Aïcha Diallo (Montreal); account manager Laouratou Sow (Montreal) and account manager Jalees Jaswal. Three members of the team are Black, and all three are women.
The flashpoint for Black Taxi, says Small, was a letter that Guenette sent to staff during the week of George Floyd’s murder. His letter is typically a weekly round-up of activity within the network, but that day the “angered and frustrated” CEO felt compelled to speak out against the injustice inflicted on people of colour.
“It came right from the gut and into the keyboard and out to my staff,” he says. “I have never received so many personal e-mails. Intuitively I knew it was a hot-button topic, but I had no idea.
“What I got back was really clearly articulated points of view that focused on solutions and progression.” Small, he says, was one of the first people to respond.
“I’d never had that at an agency before, and at that moment I felt very seen and supported,” she says. “Change has to come from that level and trickle down. We need Rob to talk to the people that look like him to show that it can be done.
“That week was extremely tough for me personally [but] as we do, we just put our head down, cry between e-mails and continue to push the work out,” she adds. “When Rob sent that note I sent a reply back that said ‘I love that you did this… but what I would love more than just an e-mail is if we could do something… to support the Black community.
“He literally just emailed me back and said ‘Let’s go.'”
Guenette says that Black professionals are the “most obviously and grossly underrepresented” cohort within the agency world, which means that shops are missing out on a “big swathe” of talent.
He points to the network’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity committee as evidence of the ability of internal processes to bring about real change, with several women appointed to senior management roles within the network since its formation.
“We’re not going to abandon all the other progressive movements but I just felt that Black Taxi needed its own focus,” says Guenette. “We’re going to continue to promote women and diversity in all its forms… but we weren’t getting the same traction from the Black community because we weren’t focusing on it.”
A cynic might say that an agency network striking a committee or announcing diversity programs might seem like an easy route towards incurring some goodwill and positive headlines, but Guenette is adamant that Black Taxi will result in actionable results.
“I’ve been at this a long time, on the client side and agency side, and all too often you get rewarded for process; you don’t get rewarded for the results,” he says. “I don’t want to get a pat on the back and a high-five for process.
“As a white, Baby-Boomer CEO, I want to be an immediate part of the solution, not a continuing part of the conversation. Because of Stephanie Small… we were able to turn all of this discussion into immediate action.”