Raising the voices of Black talent in advertising for Black History Month

For the past two Februarys, Gavin Barrett has marked Black History Month by posting short daily profiles of Black people working in the industry on LinkedIn.

Barrett, the chief creative officer and founding partner at Barrett & Welsh, asks about the work they’re proud of, and what it means to them to be Black in advertising, marketing and media in Canada. Inspired by Derek Walker, the owner of the South Carolina agency Brown & Browner who first had the idea, the series is really about Black presence, said Barrett. It’s a way to increase their visibility and amplify their voices.

At first, it was difficult to get people to take part, he said. “There was a lot of reticence, and understandably so.” They did not want to do something that would be viewed as career limiting, he said. To talk about being Black in marketing, advertising and media is often to talk about overcoming the persistent barriers of systemic racism in a predominantly white industry.

“There’s the fear that when they speak up about the experiences of racism, or the anger or anguish that has caused them, they will be judged for being the angry Black man or the angry Black woman,” said Barrett. “There is a lot of sensitivity to the fact that when they open up about it, they’re pushed down even more.”

And so, Black people have been reluctant to speak out about what it means to be Black in advertising, to celebrate their accomplishments despite the systemic barriers that exist for them. This is an industry that proudly celebrates the successes of individuals, said Barrett. “But it’s not allowed if you are a person of colour; it’s not allowed if you are Black.”

Then there’s the concern that if they do speak out about systemic racism, their employers and colleagues will turn to them to fix the problems. “That becomes work,” he says. “Those who created it are responsible for fixing it.”

But those who have experienced racism can resist by stepping forward and proudly reinforcing their presence. And that’s why Barrett creates and shares those profiles for each day of Black History Month. The good news is that more people have come forward to take part this year (though there are still a few spots left to fill the month), and Barrett has little doubt the events of 2020 have been a motivating factor.

“There are a lot of Black professionals who have said ‘I’m not going to be silent anymore. I am going to be who I am. I am going to be seen. I want to be seen,'” he said.

We’ve included lightly edited excerpts from a few of those profiles below, and we’ll post more later this month. But follow Barrett on LinkedIn to see each of his posts, and share them or engage in the comments to help amplify the voices and presence of Black people in marketing, advertising and media this Black History Month.

Ashley Belfast, Program Director, Bensimon Byrne/Narrative PR

She came to advertising via the music biz nine years ago and never looked back.

Ashley has a posse of BIPOC confidants she leans on for a direct POV, to bounce ideas with, or just vent, but has been at enough agencies where she was the only Black woman or one of a handful of POC. “[T]his needs to be a thing of the past,” she says, speaking of many agencies that have pledged to do more. “2021 and beyond will truly be the test to see if these actions were only a fad or if the changes are here to stay.”

Belfast’s Casey House work holds a special place in her heart. Being project and client lead was not easy, she says. “[B]ut none of that mattered because we were bringing awareness to the horrible stigma that people with HIV/AIDS face on a daily basis.”

Richard Fofana, VP, Strategy, UM

Richard is fascinated by words, whether in headlines, billboards or T-shirt slogans, “and the pointy ideas behind them.” Diverse perspectives lead to brilliant ideas and opportunities, he says.

Richard wants industry leaders to clear a path for the free flow of ideas and talent, and actively welcome diversity. On a personal level, he says: “Be conscious. Err on the side of inclusion. Look to see who is in the room and who isn’t. Offer partnership. Offer mentorship.”

For those breaking in, Richard suggests “ask yourself what you want, so you know where to start. Find a good boss who will support your growth. If it feels weird, ask for help. If it still feels weird, get a new boss.”

Melanie Piard, Head of Creative, Classcraft, Montreal

20 years in, Melanie loves everything about advertising—the intersection of brand and culture, the late-night brainstorm sessions, the hysterical laughter, the epic celebrations, the support when times are tough.

Has she ever had a BIPOC mentor? “When you’re the only BIPOC in predominantly white spaces, the idea of a BIPOC mentor is almost utopian,” she says. When she first faced racism and microaggressions, she didn’t quite know how to begin to process the “multitude of very personal emotions” she felt.

She decided not to allow those experiences to define her. Now, she says, “with maturity, curiosity and acquired wisdom through years of meditation, I am more vocal about issues around race and bias… however difficult and uncomfortable.”

Neyna Dansoh, Client Solutions Partner at Spotify Advertising

Neyna’s 10 years in the business span advertising, media, brand strategy, audience development and marketing in general. He doesn’t have a BIPOC mentor in the industry, but gives Donna Forde’s coaching sessions a special shout out.

Neyna acknowledges that there’s very little BIPOC representation in advertising, so it can feel tough to break in. As he says: “I am just as capable (if not more) than the next person and yet it took time to land where I am today.” He gives a lot of credit for his success to open-minded managers who didn’t just talk about being inclusive but showed it through their endless support.

For the industry to “do inclusion” better, Neyna says we need to “hire a spectrum of visible minorities. I don’t mean just at the entry level or mid-management roles either. There is so much talent out there, that there is no reason that eight in 10 senior-level decision makers at any organization in 2021 should be white men.”

Jahnet Brown, Manager Global Brand, TD

Even after 20 years, Brown loves the pace of the business, the weight it gives words and creative storytelling, and the positive influence of brand narratives.

Peak moments in her career? She has a few. She led a #BlackHistoryMonth event in historic Nova Scotia for TD-sponsored CBC TV mini-series based on Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes. And she’s especially proud of her #BHM 2019 work. Why? “[W]e celebrated the narratives of three Black Canadians whose work served as an inspiration to the Black community and the community at large.”

Jahnet knows the pain of systemic racism, both as victim and as witness. “At times I found myself frozen and not able to speak. But… I believe that speaking up is the only way to impact change. However uncomfortable, change occurs from within… It’s important that we build an inclusive environment where Black colleagues feel valued, respected and supported.”

David Brown