Being Pre&ent, to improve diversity in advertising

It was about 10 years ago that Ingrid Enriquez-Donissaint, a strategist by trade, sat in on a creative presentation for a Quebec-born brand, watching as her agency’s creative lead presented a series of concepts intended to target a variety of target audiences.

The first concept showed a white mom and two blond-haired blue-eyed daughters, while the second featured an older grey-haired (white) couple, and the third a young Black woman with an effervescent smile.

The client quickly approved the first two options, but dismissed the third, saying “Mmm, nah, we’re not ready. Let’s go with another option please.” She was polite and respectful, but Enriquez-Donissaint, a Black woman of Caribbean descent, was nonetheless stunned into silence.

“I had no words, my mind wasn’t clear on how to process this information,” she recalled in an interview with The Message this week. “She made her decision the same way one asks for an extra sugar in their coffee.

“It took me weeks to assess the reasoning behind the brand not being ready for a non-white casting,” she added. “Let alone trying to keep my mind from wandering and wondering if I belonged on that account as a teammate.”

Representation across all forms of communication has long been an issue for Canada’s visible minorities, but it also extends to those of varying body sizes, sexuality, abilities, etc.

In 2014, the first systematic study of Canadian TV commercials, conducted by two sociologists from the University of Toronto Mississauga, found that visible minorities were “underrepresented and misrepresented” in TV ads, with white people appearing in 87% of the 244 commercials assessed on Canada’s major networks.

While there has been progress in how companies portray Canada’s diversity, it was what Enriquez-Donissaint described as a “gaping lack of representation” that prompted her and partner Laurence Pasteels to create Pre&ent, a Montreal-based company with two primary focuses: diversity and inclusion workshops catering to communications and marketing teams across private, public and government organizations, and a more inclusive image library.

The name, pronounced present, is intended to signify someone’s presence, said Enriquez-Donissaint (“I exist. I am present”), while the ampersand links that with the idea of the present moment in time.

“It’s about taking matters into our own hands, changing the past and our usual actions, unveiling our blindfolded eyes,” said Enriquez-Donissaint. “Being present because, quite simply, the opposite is absent. It’s about enjoying, and living fully and authentically, the moment you are in.”

Pre&ent’s workshops are designed to help participants answer questions around diversity, equity and inclusion. Among some of the items mentioned in its pitch deck: “Who in my business can help me think of a diverse and authentic cast?” and “Is it weird to put more than one Asian person in the same ad?”

“[The goal is to] assuage the feeling of fear or intimidation around making a faux pas in advertising by all marketing teams,” said Enriquez-Donissaint. “We were all brought to this world to explore, learn, challenge and grow together—not to be afraid, hide and develop the same ads with the same thin white folks, and avoid making enemies.”

The workshops got underway this month, and Pre&sent currently counts Tam-Tam\TBWA (where Enriquez-Donissaint works as director of strategic planning), Sid Lee, Qolab, crowdfunding platform La Ruche and recruitment agency Tête Chercheuse among its first clients.

The image bank, meanwhile, was conceived with an eye towards what Enriquez-Donissaint described as “new ways to tell the story.” It addresses criticism that stock photography and videography has failed to keep pace with the progress being made in improving representation.

It has not gone unnoticed. Last year, for example, the British public broadcaster BBC partnered with Getty Images to create an image and video library more reflective of the U.K. population. Getty also partnered with the leading LGBTQ media advocacy organization GLAAD last year on a project to improve visual representation of the transgender community.

Pre&ent’s search field will avoid what Enriquez-Donissaint described as “limiting keywords” such as age, body, type, skin colour and handicap, instead grouping images around themes. “We’ll ensure a candid mix of people [size, colours, shape, handicap, age, etc.] and an authentic feel,” said Enriquez-Donissaint. “We want people to focus on the photo themes and embrace more the authentic faces present in our society.”

Pre&ent is currently conducting a series of photo shoots with Montreal photographers from different backgrounds, including Mikaël Theimer, Lian Benoit and Jorge Camarotti, with plans to launch its image bank in the fall. Enriquez-Donissaint said that the goal is to have between 100-300 pictures by winter 2022, with a pricing structure accommodating light and heavy users.

The company is currently raising funds through the Quebec-based crowdsourcing platform La Ruche, and has so far raised just over $15,000 of its stated $20,000 goal.

Chris Powell