There’s an ad tech company out there where the avocado budget is sacred. There’s always money for avocados at this company — even when there’s none to celebrate Black History Month. As odd as it seems, the company’s senior marketer had to try and make sense of the stance. She did. Then she resigned. In the latest edition of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor, the marketer explained why she had reached a breaking point.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What does being a Black woman in advertising now mean in terms of the experience and has much changed since the rise of the #Metoo movement in 2017/18?
Being a black woman in advertising is tough. You never feel like you belong. You hear colleagues make sweeping statements cloaked in unconscious bias and sometimes conscious. And you struggle to know how to navigate and address these challenges. If you get upset or show a visceral reaction to aggressive or upsetting behavior —people try to demonizse you or start to imply that your mental health or well being need to be investigated.
Then there’s the drive to make things better for younger people coming into the industry to protect them from the racist, sexist system that dismantles their enthusiasm and leaves them angry and jaded. In general women are overlooked in advertising and often need to wade through treacle to get to the top. But being a black woman — you are doing the same journey in the dark with 50k weight on your back.
People who have the privilege of being white or male, will read that statement and try and trivialise it and state that it’s an overreaction and that in itself demonstrated their inability to not be at the center. MeToo and BLM are only spoken about in our industry when there is a commercial benefit or they can be exploited or commoditized for commercial gain. It’s a legal legitimized corporate form of slavery.
Before I joined the company they had never done anything to celebrate Black History Month. They did, however, celebrate Oktoberfest. HR told me that there wasn’t any money to do anything so I asked my boss if I can take £500 from the marketing budget. I used the money to put on a series of events that went down really well internally. It was just hard to believe that this global company, which has an actual budget for avocados and spends money on German flags for a beer festival, didn’t have any money for Black History Month. It put me in a bad situation because I then had to ask people, many of whom are friends in the industry, to come and talk at my internal event for free. It felt like I exploited my friends at times, even though they would say that’s nonsense. They should be getting paid to speak at these events because we pay other people to do so.
D&I in advertising has been underfunded, understaffed and underloved for a long time — why resign now?
2020 was a tough year, but it also put a lot of things into perspective for me. Of course, George Flloyd’s death impacted me, as did being under relentless pressure to make money over concern for people’s welfare. Here’s an example: I set up a D&I team at the business. A senior exec was meant to come to a meeting but they bailed because it clashed with another that was with a client. If what we were doing really mattered then the exec would’ve organized their diary better. Diary clashes are part of the job. But this exec only cared about what the team were doing when a client would ask for our D&I stats. It’s only when the issue of D&I means potentially losing money that these people want to talk to me.
What happened to the D&I team?
It was set up to fail before it properly started. There was no executive sponsor for the D&I team, and I had to do it on top of my job, not part of it, so effectively I wasn’t being paid. We didn’t even have any benchmarks assigned to the team. Any marketer will tell you that you can’t measure or grow anything properly if you don’t have any benchmarks. It’s like they gave me something that looked good (the D&I team) but made sure I couldn’t do any good with it. They just want it to go away.
So the company doesn’t take D&I seriously?
I [didn’t] even report into the CEO. What sort of business keeps its senior marketer away from the management team? It’s the one that sees D&I as a HR problem, not a business one — even though there’s enough empirical evidence out there to prove otherwise. The problem is I’m not even in the room to be able to raise that point.
You get wheeled out to talk about D&I in front of clients, but when it comes to anything that’s actually meaningful the senior management doesn’t care. And when you speak about these issues passionately in meetings people just see you as the “angry Black woman.” It gets to a point where you just get tired of having to be one of the few Black people in a company that behaves this way
What’s it like working at a company where the focus is on profits over people?
Put it this way, there are people who haven’t even finished their probation who are leaving. Female execs have either left the company or been pushed into back-office roles where it’s easier to keep them quiet.
I’ve tried to get the company’s management team to address the number of bad posts we have on Glassdoor but they don’t care because it won’t impact how profitable the company is.
Do you think you have to behave a certain way to get ahead as a Black woman in this industry?
People look at you and expect you to behave a certain way so as a Black person you’re always thinking about staying true to yourself and culture. Saying that, there are those who are angry but don’t want to rock the boat and then there are those in the industry that perpetuate those stereotypes because it feeds into their own narrative.
Wasn’t the killing of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement a turning point?
People thought those intertwined events were a flashpoint for something bigger, but that moment never came. The situation will need to implode around something even sadder to shake people out of their ignorance. It’s nearly a year on and C-suite execs still think its cool to only wheel me out to talk about racism.
I’m a good B2B marketer and would like to at some point talk about that.