How Black Taxi is driving change

As she was preparing for a career in advertising, Sydney Gittens made a video about why she wanted to join the industry. Though still a student at OCAD, Gittens had already considered what it would mean to be a young Black person in a mostly white industry.

“I know I’m entering an industry that might look very different than I do. Might even think very different than I do,” she says. “But I want to make sure that I bring everything that is different about me along with me. The things that make me different are part of what gives me value. And I want to make sure that I don’t forget that.”

A few weeks ago, Gittens (top photo) joined Taxi as a junior art director, hired after being one of the first people to go through the agency’s Black Taxi program, designed to attract more young Black talent.

A year ago at this time, as much of the world was having a long overdue conversation about systemic anti-Black racism following the murder of George Floyd, the ad industry faced a reckoning of its own about its lack of diversity and the presence of systemic barriers to more Black representation. A lot of people said a lot of things about how it would be different this time. In the next few days and weeks, The Message will be doing some reporting to figure out what has happened since then.

One of the early and most significant examples of change was the creation of Black Taxi. We told the story of its creation here last July, but in short it is an internship program exclusively for Black talent. The idea came from Stephanie Small, the agency’s creative operations manager, and was instantly backed by Taxi CEO Rob Guenette.

As a result, HR and hiring practices were rewritten and outreach methods changed. The interns are paid and mentored by other Black leaders in the agency. Taxi wants to double the number of Black employees at the agency. Of the first five-person cohort that joined last fall, two, Gittens and Michal Fetsum (right), have been hired by Taxi, while another was hired by another WPP agency Essence.

Other agencies and workplaces in the industry are undoubtably trying to improve the numbers of BIPOC professionals in their ranks, but Black Taxi stands out not only for being first, but for being wholly committed to real change (and fast), and for proudly telling anyone who will listen all about it. And that matters. Black Taxi says loudly and clearly: If you are Black and want to get into advertising, we want you here. We’re making space for you. But words must be backed up with deeds. “If Black Taxi was just a logo and an identity…  but we didn’t hire Black employees, it wouldn’t be working,” said Guenette.

Black Taxi takes it as given that if systemic racism is a problem in advertising, you need to change the system. To be considered for Black Taxi it isn’t only about having a great portfolio or graduating from the “right” school. “We said you don’t need any of those, show us what skills you have and where you would like to apply it,” said Small. “If it’s video production, and you didn’t go to film school, I don’t care [about that] if you have YouTube videos that you can show me.”

That approach was why Fetsum felt like she could apply. She had been working at a production company, but wanted to get into advertising strategy. She had met Small earlier last year at an event for Black women in advertising, and when she saw the posting for Black Taxi go up on the People of Colour in Advertising & Marketing (POCAM) LinkedIn group, she applied right away.

“Reading the [Black Taxi] description, it was very clear they weren’t looking for students, they weren’t asking people to have years of experience, they recognized the barriers to entry in the industry and addressed them. What I really understood from it was if you were Black and talented you can do this. And it was really the only push I needed,” said Fetsum, who was hired as a community manager and strategy analyst at the agency after completing Black Taxi.

Paying the interns was also absolutely essential, said Small. In the past, Taxi had provided internships for students in return for school credit. “I literally said in a meeting ‘You guys know what that is when you ask someone to work for free?’ They were very quiet, and I said ‘That’s slavery,'” she recalled. “Rob was like, ‘Leave it with me.”

Being paid enabled Gittens to apply while still in her final year of OCAD University’s design and advertising program. “I knew that the only way I could really get an internship was actually if I was paid for it,” she said. And after learning more about the program, she applied right away. “It was something that I just knew I needed to be a part of, no matter how much of a struggle it was going to be balancing school and work,” she said.

Each intern gets two mentors: one to help with job skills, and another who is Black or a person of colour to help them navigate a predominantly white industry. Small filled the latter role, and the two talked weekly about “literally anything,” said Gittens.

“Being able to have that person that I could go to as a young Black woman that was separate from the work that I was doing was really, really great,” she said. “She specifically asked me if there were any micro-aggressions in the workspace.” While Gittens hadn’t experienced any, just being asked the question told her about the kind of agency Taxi wants to be. “I had never actually been asked that question by anyone before, whether it was in school, or any experience I had had in the industry.”

Black Taxi welcomed its second cohort of interns this month, and remains as committed as ever to increasing the number of Black employees within the agency. Aside from telling young Black talent they are welcome, Taxi wants to spread the word. Both Guenette and Small say they have talked to other agency executives and DE&I leads, and Small says she’ll share her deck with anyone who wants to see it.

“A lot of people in the course of a conversation would say, ‘Well I don’t know what to do, and I don’t know where to start.’ And my answer is always just start. Anything,” said Small. “We started Black Taxi with no dollars.”

She hasn’t seen or heard of many other examples of real action. “Okay great, so you did a survey, you realize that you’re lacking in diversity. Now what?” she asks. “People think the acknowledgment is key, and that’s not it. Yes, you’ve acknowledged it, so now we need you to take action.”

Guenette believes the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic might may explain why they haven’t seen other clear signals of change like Black Taxi.

“I don’t think that’s because of lack of interest. I think that’s because everybody is on Zoom calls from 7:30 in the morning till 8:30 at night,” he said. The pandemic has been very hard across the industry, especially for business leaders managing their businesses through a once-in-a-lifetime global health crisis. “I don’t think it’s because there’s lack of intention, I think it’s just the practicality of what’s going on in this pandemic.”

While still new to the industry, Gittens said she’s hopeful more change is coming. “I think there’s a positive future that’s just within our reach,” she said.

But she also knows progress doesn’t come naturally and systems don’t change on their own. “Progress happens from individual people doing that work,” she said. “So if you’re a person in the industry and you’re like, ‘Oh it’s changing, it’s moving forward,’ you have to identify who is pushing it forward and whether you are that person.”

David Brown