By Chris Borelli | 12 minute read
Chris Borelli is a Project Manager in our New York Office. He’s a musician at heart and loves the smell of gasoline.
As an African American working in the ad industry, there tends to be an unspoken cultural divide among myself and my peers not of color. Not necessarily in a negative or explicit way, but in a way that’s identifiable and constantly acknowledged within myself. Growing up, I was taught to be proud of my ‘blackness’ no matter what, no matter who, no matter where – which hasn’t always been easy. The difficulty of being a minority can be even more pronounced in the ad world.
A recent study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that those who identify as African American / black, Asian, Hispanic or Latino make up about 22 percent of advertising and related fields. African Americans specifically occupy only 5 percent overall. Both marks lag considerably behind the industry-wide average of the “Professional/Business Services” category. By no means does this imply that the ad industry is inherently racist or discriminatory against minorities, but it’s safe to say our presence is vastly outnumbered. Though I didn’t know the specificity of these statistics at the onset of my career, I certainly felt it.
My First Year
There was a time when I was self conscious about simply being in a room full of ad professionals. Starting off as an assistant broadcast producer at Hill Holliday in Boston, I quickly learned the importance of not only of being comfortable in my skin as an African American but also finding others looking to do the same.
At first, the challenges always seemed to involve intimidation or fear of negative perception, which was very self induced and difficult to fight. My self consciousness told me that, because I’m black, I’m not as smart as the other folks in this meeting. My ideas are not as valuable to this brainstorm. My insight isn’t as worthy for this client call. I should sit quietly and let everyone else assert their importance over mine. This led to me irrationally belittling myself among most people I encountered in an industry where confidence in your personal brand is key. From these struggles, I’ve been able to make many connections and close friends by relating with people of color with the same unspoken burden on their shoulders. People of all different ethnicities and walks of life.
The first 6 months to 1 year felt like a massive shot in the dark for me. I learned how to navigate through the discomfort on my own as best as I could. I did have a few like minded peers who made it a little easier to manage. But what I didn’t have was someone of color in a more senior or director level role to look to for this specific type of support. I can say with confidence that this would have made a big difference for the foundation of my career and anyone like me in a similar position. In fact, this stretches well beyond just my experience. African Americans occupy only 4 percent of senior level roles and 3 percent of CMO-equivalent level roles in advertising.
Advertising’s “Leaky Bucket” Problem
The infrastructure in other entertainment industries seems to be evolving better to give people of color more of a say at the highest levels. In the NBA, the most diverse U.S. sports league at 80%+ players of color, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and Kawhi Leonard, had the final say on where they went this offseason. League offices have also been progressive in this player-friendly shift, distancing themselves from the term “owner.” Meanwhile, the populism of social media has given unique minority voices room to thrive, fueling high-profile opportunities for singular talents like King Bach, Lilly Singh, and Demi Adejuyigbe.
As much as I could feel disheartened by the lack of those tangible progressions in advertising, I’m still hopeful for the future. It’s easy to run away when you’re in unfamiliar or uncomfortable circumstances. But I’ve pushed forward knowing there are plenty others like me wanting to help make a difference for our presence in this industry. This puts me in a position of responsibility that I’ve willingly accepted simply by maintaining my own. This is how we drive progress.
Of course, an ongoing systemic problem like this takes a lot more time to fully solve. In the meantime, to overcome some early adversities I faced, one realization I had is that no one had ever forced me to feel the negative things I felt about myself. Although these ideas were completely subconscious and self made, I also knew they were partly rooted in systemic beliefs that are much bigger than me and this industry. I needed not to confuse these things, but I do believe it subtly lends itself to that unspoken cultural divide and should only fuel action towards more representation. The reality of African American plight remains and is widely known. But it was important that I find a healthy way to keep things in perspective with so much opportunity in front of me.
I’ve pushed forward knowing there are plenty others like me wanting to help make a difference for our presence in this industry. This puts me in a position of responsibility that I’ve willingly accepted simply by maintaining my own. This is how we drive progress.
I’ve been blessed enough to stick around through 5 different agency experiences to solidify this perspective, including Movement Strategy. As proud as I may be of this, it’s not always the case for people like me. African American recruitment at junior level positions is more common practice than mid-to-senior executive levels. Agencies work hard to get young people of color excited about their new roles and responsibilities, but are just as quick to revert to the ‘sink or swim’ model thereafter. This leads to most of them funneling out after 1 to 2 years. Thus eliminating any chance of grooming them for more esteemed leadership positions. Tiffany Edwards of Droga 5 describes this as the “leaky bucket” problem.
Shades of Hope
Despite that, one thing each agency I’ve worked at had in common is a sense of welcomeness and value towards people of color. It’s through this that I’ve learned not to downplay my own sense of pride in what makes me stand out and not be ashamed to exude confidence in it while being a young professional. This helps combat that leaky bucket problem as I feel genuinely encouraged and inspired to continue forward in advertising.
The African American perspective, as well as all other minorities, are crucial to the strive to thrive in advertising. I’m learning that by default, I play a big role in that. So I owe it to myself and everyone around me to play that role with as much grace and truth as I can. I owe it to myself to focus less on blending in and more on being proud to stand out.
Everyone still wants to feel understood, loved, appreciated, respected, and important – regardless of ethnicity or background.
As advertising continues to grow and shift, it’s important to continue acknowledging not only the black experience but also how the minority experience in general is important to the industry. In 2019, advertising is still the air we breathe more so now than ever before. Which poses plenty of other discussions to be had. Everyone still wants to feel understood, loved, appreciated, respected, and important – regardless of ethnicity or background.
For that reason among others, it’s just as necessary to hold up my end of the bargain for the African American community in advertising by bearing confidence in my differences.
I must continue to insert my personal experience, although different from most around me, into any and all discussions I see necessary. Working at various agencies in my career has helped not only do that but also prime me for the larger goals I’ve held for my career and personal life. Thus changing the narrative within myself in order to continue forward with the larger one.
As an African American working in the ad industry, It’s okay to leverage my dealings with racism and discrimination to help drive home an impactful topic of discussion in the workplace. It’s okay to paint a positive conceptual picture by drawing from my upbringing without a biological father in my life. It’s okay to be proud of the dreadlocks on my head and consider them my ‘crown of blackness.’ It’s okay to acknowledge differences in style and culture as elements that could help create great work.
It’s okay to be black and successful in advertising. In fact, the future of the industry may depend on it.
Movement Strategy is a social media and digital marketing agency for leading entertainment & sports, lifestyle & ecommerce, and food & beverage brands.
© Movement Strategy 2019
© Movement Strategy 2019