Makonnen Kenya: ‘Align yourself with people who care about your voice’

It is Black History Month, and every day this month, The Message is sharing Gavin Barrett’s short profiles of Black professionals from across the industry—marketing, advertising, PR, media and production. Barrett writes the profiles as a way to “fight invisibility,” an exercise in representation for an industry where representation must get better.

When Makonnen Kenya was little, he paid more attention to commercials than to TV shows. He was fascinated by advertising’s chameleon forms and how messaging reached and persuade people without them realizing it.

Now a fourth-year Humber Bachelor of Creative Advertising (BoCA) student, looking forward to a career that lasts decades, Mack is on the hunt for an internship. It’s been challenging, he says.

Still he has fantastic individuals who believe in him—he names his program coordinator Richard Bingham and the stellar professors at Humber. And he gives his family and family friends in the profession a special shoutout—his mom is a graphic and presentation designer, and his maternal grandmother has a graphic design background. “From them, I’ve learned the importance of diligent work, research and keeping one’s skills up to date,” he says.

Mack tells me about a recent Humber eSports assignment that taught him the value of teamwork, perseverance and how to create effective work for an unfamiliar category. When their six-person team was cut down to two, Mack and his partner Atlas Ranjbari came up with a brand identity, collateral and an awareness campaign. When their case study video was screened (the next afternoon!) the program coordinator singled it out for special recognition.

Mack is inspired by Putney Swope the curmudgeonly anti-hero of the eponymously named black comedy and by Barbara Gardner Proctor, the first African-American woman agency founder. She established Proctor and Gardner because the agency she worked for wasn’t speaking to African-Americans with an authentic Black voice.

To become more inclusive, Mack suggests the industry stop looking in the same old places because it ensures they’ll hire the same type of people. “Not every creative has… the opportunity to go to design school,” Mack says. He feels we need to groom talent earlier in their education, that company cultures need redesigning to actively include individuals from different groups, and that we should reward those who learn from and about other people.

Advice for young Black talent? “Never be deterred from your goals. Align yourself with people who genuinely care about your voice and experience,” says Mack.

Mack’s side hustle is instrumental hip-hop. Recently, he remixed musical cues from the animated series Little Bear, a personal favourite, and produced and edited a music video for one of the songs.

Mack wants to do work that gives “BIPOC like myself the platforms to share our experiences and broadcast our voices.” He supports BIPOC entrepreneurs like Paulla McCarthy, the first Black woman in New York State to own and operate a water bottling plant and aquifer.

Her story inspired Mack’s Humber packaging assignment. He came up with a Black-owned water bottle brand called OURWTR, using a minimalist design aesthetic and a predominantly black palette (a nod to Paulla’s African-American heritage), in an eco-conscious package using very little plastic. A recycled plastic window in the shape of the primary graphic, a water droplet, is die-cut into the front to reveal the water inside.

Gavin Barrett