When Stephanie Small helped launch Black Taxi in July of 2020 with a goal of attracting, hiring and retaining Black talent across the Taxi network, she didn’t expect the program would be hailed by so many people.
Black Taxi has received more than 250 applications since its inception, bringing aboard 10 interns over two cohorts—four of whom have been hired into permanent positions within Taxi and its parent company, WPP.
“It’s almost unbelievable how fast we’ve grown and how much we’ve been able to accomplish in the past year,” said Small, who has spent the past year juggling her daily role as Taxi’s creative operations manager with her Black Taxi commitments. But now Taxi is making changes to not only keep that momentum going, but pick up more speed by expanding and entrenching the program within the agency and beyond.
Black Taxi has been elevated to a new service offering under the Taxi umbrella, strategically integrated within the agency and with Small promoted to a full-time role as director of Black Taxi/Transformation. Taxi president Emma Toth likened the Black Taxi model to Signal by Taxi, the strategic design and technology practice that operates under the Taxi umbrella.
“Steph’s vision, energy, and leadership are shaping our industry for the better,” said Toth in an email interview. “It is with tremendous care and passion for change that Steph enters everything, which is why we are taking the next step together in growing Black Taxi’s offering.”
In her new role, Small will also work with WPP’s global VMLY&R network (of which Taxi is part) to bring its Transformation Initiative to Canada. According to its description, aside from DE&I strategies to drive progress for BIPOC employees, the Transformation Initiative “aims to implement integration efforts that combat systemic racism across all areas of the business, both client-facing and internal.”
It is headed by Myron King, chief integration officer for VMLY&R North America, who was among the people within Taxi/WPP that Small ran the initial proposal for Black Taxi by last year. Small will now sit on the board of Transformation, having input into building inclusivity programs and policies across VMLY&R.
She will formally take on her new role in the fall, after her successor is found. She has requested that a woman of colour succeed her in her role.
“[Black Taxi] exists to ensure our industry is a place where the Black community can thrive, but the potential is limitless,” said Toth in a note to employees in which she described Small as “a powerful change agent” in an industry characterized by significant under-representation of the Black community.
“We recognize that all of this work over the last year has been done in spare time, outside of the demands of our current roles. If we want to create meaningful change this cannot be a part-time project. The vision that Steph has for Black Taxi requires full-time commitment.”
And while Black Taxi will remain true to its stated purpose of attracting and retaining Black talent, it now has an expanded purview that includes DE&I strategic consultancy services for clients seeking to build an internal program of their own.
It will also work with small- to medium-sized Black-owned businesses to provide them with an a la carte offering for marketing services, that might range from a logo or website redesign to local radio ads. “The West Indian mom and pop shop around the corner doesn’t have $50,000 to do anything,” said Small. “They’re not going to be thinking about advertising services, but that doesn’t mean the opportunity and the access shouldn’t be available to them.
“We’re going to work with them to level the playing field for businesses, the same way that we’ve been trying to do it for Black people in the industry.” Black Taxi is currently working with its first paid client, although Small declined to say who it is.
The lack of BIPOC representation within marketing and advertising has been much discussed in the past year, and there are signs that clients are awarding work to agencies meeting criteria around factors such as race and gender. Last week, for example, the head of a Toronto-based agency posted to LinkedIn noting that his agency had lost an RFP because it didn’t have any Black or female partners.
The post wasn’t a complaint, but a recognition that clients are prioritizing DE&I in their day-to-day operations. “[I]t stinks to lose a pitch but I’m kind of pleased to know there are more women-owned and black-owned organizations in our narrow market than I realized,” he wrote.
But while that might seem like progress, Small said instances like that are the exception rather than the rule. “I would like to say there’s a multitude of clients that have come to this realization and are taking the necessary steps to rectify it, but I’m not seeing it,” she said. “I think it’s still going to be very much a slow process.”
For now, Small is processing the early success of Black Taxi and pondering the route it takes from here. It also recently introduced a line of t-shirts, caps and tote bags, designed by Taxi designer David Tang, that feature messages like “Back Black Talent” and “Rep. Representation.”
“When I sent that first email to Rob [Taxi CEO Rob Guenette] saying ‘I want to do something but I don’t even know what I want to do,’ if you would have told me that this is where you’ll be in a year’s time, I probably would have laughed at you.
“It’s been beyond my wildest expectations.”