Companies Can’t Hide Behind #BlackLivesMatter

A former Wieden+Kennedy employee says the advertising titan’s bold statement following a week of violence risks conceals deeper issues.

Companies Can’t Hide Behind #BlackLivesMatter
[Photo: Flickr user Rasmus Zwickson]

Last week, two black men were killed by police officers, five police officers were killed by a revenge-seeking vigilante, and, to much acclaim, the advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy posted a statement on the matter on its home page. In publications from Adweek to the Washington Post, the message, which was originally delivered by a black employee to colleagues via an internal email, was applauded after the company’s management team amplified its words by featuring the statement on the company website and promoting it to the press.


On the surface, this was a commendable effort by one of the strongest voices in advertising. To start, there was the message itself. Also, at W+K, black employees are few and far between, so the decision to feature the work of a black staff member so prominently deserves kudos. Clearly, intentions were good.

The effort, however, is likely net-negative.

As a black man with more than a decade of experience in the ad industry–most recently at Wieden+Kennedy– I have seen small men hide behind big words. I have seen them discriminate, whether it was intentional or not, and then use the agency’s prior good deeds as a shield against any blame for the current offense. And while my personal career has been net-positive, along the way I have lost jobs to objectively less qualified candidates. I have fought, and won, a case of racial-based wage depression, and I’ve even had to report a manager to HR for harassment, only to be fired by the accused 24 hours later. Each respective agency has voiced support for diversity in very public ways; nevertheless, each engaged in actions that broke the federal laws prohibiting discrimination in the workplace.

Will Wieden+Kennedy’s #BlackLivesMatter home page change the fact that the agency’s management team is exclusively white? Will it change the fact that–according to my own analysis of the company’s Portland office–28 of its 30 creative directors are not just white, but white and male? Or that roughly 80% of the copywriters, art directors, and technologists who create the agency’s output are also white males?

And while not related to black lives, but still concerning the topic of diversity, what about the gender issues at W+K? What about the fact that 20% of the female creatives quit at the end of last year? What about the fact that, during layoffs this March, women were disproportionately affected? What about the fact that after a group of women decided to communicate their frustration via an all-agency email, global management replied-all to say that they should not talk about such things out in the open? Where was the concern for diversity then?

The other side to this story is that Wieden+Kennedy is well aware of these issues and is, despite mistakes along the way, actively making efforts to create a more diverse and inclusive environment. The agency has declared 2016 a Year of Diversity within the agency. They are encouraging all employees to take part in off-site workshops on inclusion and bias. A large Girl Wanted sign hangs in a prominent place on the creative floor. The company home page now features the message that #BlackLivesMatter.


It is very hard to assert that an organization is discriminatory when it has done so much in the name of diversity.

Or is it? As a hiring manager, I worked very closely with the in-house recruiting team; I am well aware of their valiant efforts to find new talent of all races and genders. Yet, nevertheless, when they share the portfolios of the best candidates with the creative directors – 93% of whom are white males – it is, time and again, the white male candidates who are pursued and hired.

Of course, each creative director has reasons why he may prefer one candidate’s portfolio over another’s. And while I sat on the other side of the building in the technology group, the majority of the creative directors I interacted with are perfectly pleasant people, and I never once felt unwelcome in their presence.

Still, it is crucial to remember that unconscious bias exists in every human being, no matter how kind. It is crucial to remember that humans, naturally, form faster connections with people similar to themselves. And it is crucial to remember that the human brain can always rationalize its own actions. The cop always has a reason why he shot the black guy. The bro always has a reason why he’s not into black girls. The lady on the subway always has a reason for grabbing her purse a little tighter. The creative director always has a reason why he hired, promoted, or gave preferential treatment to someone who happens to look like him.

And despite all the diversity initiatives, despite the #BlackLivesMatter home page, despite honest efforts by some within the organization to create a truly diverse environment, there are reasons why a diverse environment has yet to manifest at Wieden+Kennedy.

But this is not just the story of one advertising agency. This is the story of an entire industry. There are few agencies that would skip out on the chance to attach its name to a feel-good diversity initiative, but what good is it if the company itself doesn’t become more diverse in the process? How can we applaud an agency for making an effort, and then look the other way when those efforts don’t lead to real, actualized change? How can we be sure that voicing support for diversity doesn’t become a shield, protecting agencies from the constructive scrutiny needed to come to terms with what its problems really are, and eventually find real solutions?


How do we move from talking about change to actual change?

Handicap Unconscious Bias

No matter the data, people will always have a stronger connection with people similar to themselves. The only way to remove bias from an individual is to remove it from the system itself. Review portfolios blind. Standardize parameters for promotions and raises. Conduct performance reviews regularly, without fail.

Again, in the chaos of an agency, these are often seen as low-priority initiatives. But they will also serve as protection– of a more legitimate kind. The goodwill attributed to an agency for undertaking diversity initiatives is subjective, but being able to say that each and every employee receives rewards and punishments in the exact same way, via a blind, unbiased system, is objectively solid and your best defense.

Kill Subjectivity with Specificity

Agencies always say they want to hire people who are humble. But what does that mean? Growing up in a white household, that may mean staying quiet and not rocking the boat. Growing up in a black household, that could mean speaking up and falling on your sword for a cause. Who’s right?

Agencies look for creatives that have that “special something.” What does that mean? Work for a recognizable brand? A particular award? A headline that made you laugh?

From personality traits to skill sets, agencies often fail to define success by specific, objective terms. Traits like being humble or “nice” are subjective, but ones like work ethic and leadership experience are not. Either you’ve produced a volume of work or you haven’t; either you’ve been a manager before or you haven’t. A “good” copywriter is subjective; one who has experience in comedy is not. “That ad made me laugh” is subjective, but a copywriter who wrote a humorous ad that won an award, or went viral, or produced sales results is probably more objectively talented when it comes to using humor in his or her job.


Minorities (And Women), Speak Up

Those who are in power will never fully see things from the perspective of those on the sidelines. Those who are in power will rarely put their concerns before yours. This is your fight, our fight. We must hold our employers to task and not let the hush-hush culture of corporate America stop us from sharing our stories and calling out injustice when we see it.

White People, Don’t Take It Personally

Minorities, unfortunately, are used to discrimination. We’ve seen white friends, white teachers, and white colleagues – people we know and love –do and say discriminatory things. We’ve learned that, when it comes down to it, many perfectly decent people simply don’t know any better. And that’s okay; we can only make decisions using the filters that we have, and bias is a natural part of human behavior. So when it is brought to your attention that you may have discriminated against someone, don’t flip out. Don’t go into the “Wait, you think I’m a racist?!” line of defense. Don’t get mad that your transgression has been exposed because, really, unconscious mistakes are made every day.

You don’t even have to truly understand. Just listen, acknowledge, and try to do better.

Brandon Burns is a designer, writer, and founder of Wander & Trade, an online marketplace. He lives in Brooklyn. A version of this essay originally appeared on Medium as “The Diversity Shield.”

We sometimes publishe commentary and opinion. This story reflects the views of this author, but not necessarily the editorial position of Fast Company.

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