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The Day I Almost Quit Advertising

The Day I Almost Quit Advertising

“What kept me sane was knowing that things would change, and it was a question of keeping myself together until they did.” — Nina Simone

In advertising, anytime you enter a client meeting you arm yourself with weapons — a sound strategy, research, good creative and a very informed perspective. In other words, you walk in like a detective at a drug bust, a big ass loaded gun in your hand, another in the small of your back and plenty of extra ammo, just in case all hell breaks loose.

Ten years ago, I was in a client meeting when all hell broke loose.

And no, this wasn’t your garden variety bad client meeting. There were no tech glitches or typos. We weren’t over budget nor had we drifted off strategy. This meeting went awry for more complex reasons — race and cultural bias.

It was the day before a commercial shoot. The project was a simple lifestyle commercial, showing the range of activities in the lives of a young, active couple. This general market TV spot would feature African-Americans as the lead actors. In theory, general market means, all those showing interest in a product, who also have the means to purchase it.

That’s in theory.

In reality, general market is code word for:

Cast it with White people.

However, when marketers actually use diverse talent in their general market work, the responsibility for who that talent is, and how that talent will be depicted, falls on the hands of the agency creating the commercial and the client approving it. So overwhelmingly, depictions of diverse people are made in boardrooms void of diversity.

This is where it gets tricky.

What happens when you inject diversity into one of those boardrooms? What happens when your depiction of diverse talent collides with your client’s? What happens when your wardrobe, location and music choices start to feel, culturally authentic, rather than generic? What happens when your general market commercial stops being vanilla? Well, as I found out on this project, you run the risk of your client feeling your commercial is too Black.

Cut to my pre-production meeting in L.A. In another city, on the conference call, is my client. After wrapping up the presentation of the pre-pro book, a fervid voice came screaming through the speaker. It was my client, letting me know we had moonwalked all over her threshold for Blackness, and in turn, transformed her perfectly good general market commercial, into an unacceptable Black one.

“Why is he soooo black?” (in reference to this actor)

“I can only see his eyes and teeth” (in reference to his skin complexion)

“Is this really the music? It’s soooo black!” (in reference to the recommended song) 

“Guys, this is a general market commercial, not some little BET spot! Start acting like my general market agency!”

Of all the insensitive things said that day, and believe me, there were many, the last quote was the one that truly hurt. The other comments could at least be dismissed as ignorant, uninformed, in poor taste and individual in nature, but that last quote?

“Guys, this is a general market commercial, not some little BET spot! Start acting like my general market agency!”

That quote reeked of privilege, discrimination and institutional racism. That quote wasn’t indicative of an individual, but of an organization, of a community, of an industry.

In this candid moment, one of the most powerful marketers in the land was admitting that Black commercials were inferior in her eyes, and it was important her commercial didn’t become one.

Clients often disagree with creative choices. But this was the first time those choices had specifically been called out for being too Black. After that meeting, I was hurt. I was angry. And most of all, I was convinced, I had worked my last day in advertising.

Fortunately enough for me, I was raised by pre-Civil Rights parents, parents who overcame the Jim Crow South. They didn’t prepare me for an ideal world, they prepared me for the world they grew up in. My daily lessons were about competing, working hard, exhibiting excellence, respecting people, never forgetting where I came from and not letting anyone or anything steal my sense of racial pride.

Looking back, my entire life I was being groomed to embrace the responsibility of being the only Black guy in the room. That’s who my Dad was for most of his 40 plus years as an agency producer. I watched him navigate the industry, build great relationships and create timeless work. And there was no way I could expect to follow in his path without facing all of the same challenges he did.

In the end, I didn’t quit advertising. I finished the spot, it tested well and I moved on.

Yeah, I’m still here, different agency, different clients, same age old problems. So what does it all mean?

It means I’m worried.

Although that meeting was an anomaly, the opinions and biases expressed were not. I’m worried because I still have twenty plus years to navigate in an industry that continues to hold on to antiquated notions about who works on what — notions that attempt to stereotype the capabilities of Black creatives, directors, editors, musicians and stylists. I’m worried because I don’t see any pipelines being developed to recruit, develop or promote the current generation of minority talent, let alone the next one. I’m worried because at least once a month, some young Black kid finds me online. They find me because I look like them, because they view me as someone who made it in this industry, which means that maybe they can make it, too. I’m worried those kids will be entering an industry, that thinks it’s ok to question what’s too Black, while never stopping to question the larger more prominent issue, what’s too white?

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