Ira Baptiste on becoming the ICA’s first BIPOC chair, and why innovation is so important

The newly named Institute of Canadian Agencies announced last week that it had appointed Brandfire managing director and executive vice-president Ira Baptiste as chair. Baptiste is the first member of the BIPOC community to be named to the role. She succeeds Andy Krupski, who had been chair since 2019.

ICA president and CEO Scott Knox said that Baptiste is well known and respected in the agency community, where she has earned a reputation for her candour. “She joined the board a few years ago, and I’ve adored working with her. She brings a sense of reality and purpose to the table, and when you talk to her she’s so switched on and direct. She’s amazing.”

The Message spoke with Baptiste about her new role last week. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’re the first member of the BIPOC community to serve as ICA chair. What does that mean to you personally?

“I believe it’s a huge responsibility—people will remember me, and there’ll be a little bit of scrutiny. I do feel that for myself, the bar is a little higher because I’m the first. I’ve got to do the job well, because [my appointment] can’t just be because I’m BIPOC. I feel a huge sense of responsibility, but also pride.

“I want to be that trailblazer, and I know that being chair of the ICA will open other doors as I transition to what I call the twilight of my career, when other boards will look at someone like me, or even me, and I can get positions in other industries using my marketing expertise to help those industries… where you don’t see a lot of BIPOC or women in positions of power. I have an ultimate goal to put that stamp on other boards.”

It seems like we’re starting to see a change towards better representation on boards, leadership teams etc.

“There has been tremendous movement [in terms of female and BIPOC ] because of a number of factors—there was a lot going on in the United States, a lot going on with residential schools, where [the sentiment was] ‘We’ve got to change our narrative.’ If I can be part of that, that’s what I want to do. I want young women, and BIPOC women—and I use this term loosely—in power and in positions of influence.

“There’s change happening, and as a woman of colour I am the change; I want to own that mantle within the community. It’s nice to be recognized and take that on. There are going to be some tough conversations that are going to happen, because what we are unravelling… are tiny, unconscious biases. It’s really hard, especially when you like and respect a person, to call that out, because they are mortified. But I’m doing it from a place of learning and growth, not to school people. You don’t know what you don’t know.”

What are your thoughts on the ICA’s name change to include the word ‘Canada’?

“I love it, because Canada is unique—the way we do business, the multiculturalism, the openness. I think that people think one of two things: ‘Oh it’s Canada, they’re small fry,’ or ‘They have a different perspective.’ We know that what makes [this business] successful are different perspectives and voices, and understanding the makeup of the people who engage with any product or service. Canadians are proud in a subtle way.”

Your predecessor at the ICA talked about an innovation manifesto when he assumed the role. Is that still a priority for you?

“I would say that the influx of data, technology and social media, and then you put Covid on top of that, has fundamentally changed the way agencies work. Innovation is not only about the ideas we’re bringing forward, but it’s how we work, how we connect and how we make it work.

“I truly believe it’s innovate or die. Innovation is not just [about] technology, it’s also thinking, and I think you’ve got to get out of the box and out of your own way to create and implement change.

“There’s even better coming from those [entering] the industry who are’t shackled by our beliefs and the way things have been done. They think differently from us, their priorities are different, the ways people live is different, and we must start to infuse that innovative thinking into the way [we work]. Those who do not change wither and they’re just gone. We need to innovate the ways we interact, the ways we work with our clients, the way we [develop] our fee structure.”

Chris Powell