The Reckoning

By: Keisha Whaley, CEO

A reckoning is happening. We have seen person after person, business after business, be forced to confront their inequities over the last several years. What’s been interesting from my perspective is how protected my industry has been. Ad agencies, marketing and PR firms have helped their clients navigate these waters, but haven’t had to hold up the mirrors to themselves.

In October, The Richards Group lost clients (and many employees) over comments by the company’s owner. He said an ad was “too black,” and might alienate “white supremacist constituents.”

This week, O&H Brand Design is feeling the harsh effects of choosing to work with white clients as they appropriated mahjong.

If you’re not in the ad industry, these comments and business decisions might seem shocking. They’re not at all shocking to me. I’ve sat in a meeting where a client reacted to an image of a model who looked like me and was trying to find every way around telling me they wanted a white model. I’ve had internal meetings where there wasn’t a queer person in the room, so the strategy was navigated by stories of so and so’s gay friend. I’ve even been shut out as the only Black person in a firm when the topic of anti-Black hate speech was being discussed. This is how companies miss the mark in such huge ways. It’s why you see an ad and go, “how did this get approved?”

The question should be, “who made this?”

I am a Black woman who owns a small agency. My team is made up of mostly women and people of color, many of my team members are queer, and we are fairly young. An agency like mine is VERY hard to find. If you can name the agency (which is to say they’re well-known), it’s likely owned by one or more white people and has predominantly male executive leadership. More are entering the space with women at the helm, yet they’re still likely to be white women.

Those of us who don’t fit this criteria have to claw our way into visibility. We’re overlooked because we don’t have decades of huge brand work in our portfolios. We’re dismissed because don’t have the name recognition. We’re not trusted because we don’t have shelves lined with awards. Why? Because we haven’t had the chance to get there.

The decades of work has to start now. The name recognition can begin with the first large client choosing to work with us and evangelizing to everyone they know. The awards come from doing work with large budgets so you can stomach the cost of entry fees. This world, this Mad Men-style world, was built and running long before we could even enter the atmosphere. We’re here now, but someone has to take a chance on us.

And this is not a revolutionary concept. Adidas, Nike, Hennessy, Mattel, many have chosen to work with individuals or small shops of non-white, non-male people, yet the movement hasn’t taken hold. It’s a project here and there, a writeup in a magazine, and the spotlight fades.

So, I suppose my question to the big brands, the Fortune 100s, 500s, and beyond, is what’s stopping you from working with an agency like mine? What would you need to feel comfortable selecting a bid from someone you haven’t heard of already? How can I show up on your radar when I’m not on the Cannes list of previous winners?

We do excellent work and we’re ready to do it for you. Will you let us?

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