By SEB JOSEPH
Agencies, like many businesses following George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer last month and the massive protests that have followed and continued with expanding intensity, have universally condemned racism with promises and platitudes from the C-suite.
But in doing so they have stirred up criticism among staffers concerned agencies won’t actually fight racism within their ranks and cultures with anything beyond empty lip service. In the latest edition of our Confessions series, where we exchange anonymity for honesty, we hear from a senior director at global media agency about the realities of working in businesses where racism and inequality issues facing people of color remain as entrenched as ever.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How has the agency’s stand against racism affected you?
It’s cool the company has publicly supported the Black Lives Matter movement and the email from the CEO hit the points you would expect. But these are tiny steps in the right direction. There are still thinly-veiled everyday instances of racism. It’s easy to say you’re a not a racist, but the reason so many companies have been so tone-deaf on this issue to date is that they’re not anti-racist. These micro-aggressions aren’t really being discussed. And when they are it’s half-baked or in private.
What do you mean by anti-racist?
Even with all the rhetoric in the last few days, I’ve lost track of the number of video calls and WhatsApp Groups I’ve been brought into where I’m the only person of colour there. The rest are all white. I know for a fact that some of my colleagues in those meetings are underqualified to be there, while there are others who look like me that should. It’s this covert stuff that no one wants to discuss. It’s not racist per se, but there’s an extreme prejudice in agencies that will be hard to shake until this generation of leaders retire.
So the biggest block to anti-racism at agencies is leadership?
Take my team for example. There are four women, one is from Spain, another is from south-east Asia and the other two are from London, one is Nigerian and the other is from Essex, England. Then there are three men, one is white and from Essex, another is from Pakistan and I’m a Londoner. The team lead, however, is white. It’s like that across the agency and it’s been like that at other places I’ve worked. I’m not saying that white leaders are bad. But what this situation tells me is that leadership is reserved for a cohort of people who all come from the same place.
Have you tried to address this?
No. I don’t want to rock the boat — even now. I’m at a point in my career where I’m senior enough to have a few direct reports. The last thing I want to do is become known as the guy who plays the race card even if it is valid. It’s happened in the past at other agencies where I’ve raised certain things like why I’ve been passed over [for a] promotion for someone who hasn’t brought in half of the number of billings I have. People got defensive and wanted to silence me. Rather than let those responses get to me, I take those moments as a sign to move on. I can’t afford to have my career stall. Once I’m senior enough in this industry that’s when I’ll be able to bring more people like me through the agency.
So the only way you get promoted is to move to a different agency?
Yes. As a minority, you have to work harder by default. Being constantly on the move is stressful, but I’m aided by friends throughout the industry who help me with job prospects when they can. Career progression is a real worry for me. There was a pitch a year ago that the agency had a lot riding on. I did everything on that pitch, from leading the economic analysis of the client’s business to ordering the food when the team worked through the night on it. I was involved in the presentation to the client alongside some execs our agency usually bring in specifically for that part. When we won it I expected to be promoted. Instead, the promotion went to the white woman who presented my plan but hadn’t worked on it. What’s worse is there was no real explanation as to why I wasn’t promoted. I left shortly after.
Are there any senior people in the agency who can help or mentor you?
If you look hard enough there are black and Asian people who are making moves at the top end of this industry. I’ve got a lot of respect for them. But in my experience, they either can’t relate to me or are out of reach. A lot of those people went to private school and count ski trips as hobbies and come into work wearing Jimmy Choo trainers. I’d rather go to the beach and that’s too much cash to be wearing on my feet. There’s a small group of white people who all look and sound very similar at the top of the agency business. And the few people of color that do mix in those circles have to conform to behaving in the same way. As smart as they are, they can’t really help me.