Raise the alarm: A conversation with Akeem Anderson on Black representation in marketing

In this episode of the Leff Exchange podcast, I spoke with Akeem Anderson, the director of paid media at Zeno Group, a global integrated communications agency. Akeem shares insights and perspectives on the lack of Black representation in marketing, the business imperative for diversity, and what’s ahead for the industry.

Zeno works across the consumer, corporate and healthcare industries with a client roster that includes Lenovo, Motorola, Gensler, ABB, Abbott Vascular and more. Zeno was named 2019 Agency of the Year and Midsize Agency of the Year by both PRWeek and PRovoke Media.

Podcast transcript

Alia: Welcome to the Leff Exchange, a podcast featuring conversations with leaders and innovators from a range of industries and fields. Our hope is that by learning from one another we can all develop new and better ways to work and live.

I’m Alia Samhat and today I’m pleased to welcome Akeem Anderson, Director of Paid Media at Zeno Group, a global integrated communications agency. Akeem joins us to talk about the realities of diversity in marketing, and the role marketers play in shaping the path forward.

Akeem, let’s start with the state of the industry when it comes to Black representation in marketing.

Akeem: I think it’s really important to start foundationally with the ascent of Black people, voices, and perspectives in advertising at large. We comprise roughly 13 or 14 percent of the US population, but only see ourselves reflected in the industry at a 6 percent clip, which is obviously less than half. Even if you’re thinking through how people are seeing themselves outside of our offices, a recent study pointed to 66 percent of Black people feeling that they’re stereotyped in advertising. And so, I think that the absence of Black people in those [office] spaces speaks to a greater degree of difficulty getting accurate stories and representation outside of those avenues.

Alia: And when you think about your own experience in marketing, what would you say the general makeup of the workplace looks like?

Akeem: Typically I’m one of the few or are very often one of the only. And one important thing to note about that is that I don’t feel exceptional in those moments. I feel kind of lonely, and I think that is a unique experience among Black marketers because you very often are one of the few. We don’t comprise much of any staff beyond administrative very often, and when we do see that, again, being one of a few or one and the only is quite common.

Alia: So when you think about what needs to happen to not only shift the balance, but obviously change that working environment, what comes to mind?

Akeem: Well, I think the first thing unique to our industry is that we have the opportunity for expression in a public forum via advertising. And one of the things that always strikes me is the lack of alarm when there aren’t voices that are reflective of the large society in the room.

I’m from Chicago. It’s one of the most segregated cities in the world, if not the country, and 30 percent—30-plus percent—of the city is Black, but I often ask my co-workers, “Why isn’t every third person here a Black person in this office in Chicago?” and I get a blank stare. And that should be alarming. There’s something there that we have not yet explored, as an industry, as to why that’s not the case. There’s a number of reasons why that system exists, but there’s no alarm, there’s no worry. Even in the makeup of my teams and the agencies that I work for, I’m always aware of that, but I’m also aware that many of my colleagues may not be. That’s not a shot at them, but more so a shot at where we are as an industry that it does not raise an alarm.

We see Black culture come to life very often in mass media, but with that lack of representation you have to start to ask who’s telling that story, and who is in the room when these decisions are made? And reflecting on that is a scary thing, because then we have to start to look inward and figure out where that challenge is coming from, where did we miss, and in discovering where you missed, you start to find ways you can move forward.

Alia: Speaking of that— sounding the alarm or making sure that people are becoming more aware—we’ve recently seen this outpouring of companies responding to racial injustice via emails, donations, that type of thing. Do you think that is heightening the awareness and really causing people to sound that alarm or understand what the makeup should be?

Akeem: I think it’s a small step forward, and I say a small step forward just simply because this is not a unique moment in time. This is not the first time that we’ve seen Black deaths inspire public activity. I think now we’re being forced to listen in a different way because there’s a requirement for change, and so I think that makes this moment mildly unique. But, by and large, the effort put forth to simply address this moment by major brands and public officials and the like have offered us, again, a small step forward in understanding that there is a problem. But the remedy is far from here.

I say that just simply because, if you look at the makeup of many of the executive teams and leaderships in boards of the companies that have made statements, by and large they are white. They’re owned wholly by white faces, those spaces are owned wholly by white faces, and are representative of some of the same challenges that I mentioned in my very own industry. And if there is an alarm, there wasn’t an alarm before that. Many people are skeptical that there will be momentum to adjust that moving forward.

“By and large, the effort put forth to simply address this moment by major brands and public officials and the like have offered us, again, a small step forward in understanding that there is a problem. But the remedy is far from here.”

I’ll say that I’m really proud of many of the companies that have taken that moment to simply recognize that there is a problem. But until we see an actual shift in the composition of leadership positions, middle to lower management positions that have Black faces, that skepticism will remain.

I’m very fortunate to have been a product of the Emma Bowen Foundation, which is a non-profit company wholly committed to ensuring that there is minority representation in media. That program has helped move forward the careers of many individuals of a lot of different orientations and colors and races. I love that organization, but I also tell people I wish it didn’t exist. I wish we didn’t have to have demographic efforts to just simply level the playing field for Black and brown people, but that’s still very necessary and it’s still an organization that I support because of that. But the ultimate goal is for that to not exist. Until people recognize the fact that organizations like it have to exist, I think that the problem will persist.

Alia: When you think about it then, keeping all of that in mind, what are some of the concrete steps that marketing companies should be taking to really build inclusion and an equitable workplace?

Akeem: I think the first place that people can start is, is look at your staffing chart. Look at where you work, look at who you work with, and then figure out why there are no Black people there. That’s a really tough answer to come across. It’s introspective in a way that’s jarring. It forces people to ask questions that they might not have asked before.

And that answer, again, it’s scary to really reconcile and start to, you know, peel the layers back there. But once we do, we’ll start to discover that it is absolutely a question of available resources, it is absolutely a question of networks, and it is also a question of opportunity.

I have the great pleasure of working with a lot of fantastic young people who happen to be white, and I always ask, “How did you come across this position?” or “How did you get in contact with the agency?” And the stories will astound you—the opportunities they were given, without necessarily having to be exceptional. And I’ve told this story, but the only way I was able to level my career was to put myself in exceptional situations and to quite literally start my career journey four years ahead of some of my peers, just to get to par. Understanding that, and putting that in peoples’ minds that there is a lack of opportunity happening among students of color, is important in the advertising industry.

And that’s the next phase, right? We start to ask the question and then the answer is going to be focused on creating opportunity. Those opportunities require us to rethink what we might traditionally see as someone viable to the industry. They won’t always have the same background. They won’t always have the same profile. They may not even have the same educational background, which comes with the understanding that that’s OK, and that different people from different environments and different backgrounds can bring something very valuable to the agency space. And I think that is something that has been, quite candidly, a hinderance for many Black people to enter into this space.

“We start to ask the question and then the answer is going to be focused on creating opportunity. Those opportunities require us to rethink what we might traditionally see as someone viable to the industry. They won’t always have the same background. They won’t always have the same profile.”

I remember early in my career people trying to strip me of what I consider to be my native tongue. I’m Black. A lot of the vernacular and mannerisms and cultural norms that I grew up with are now reflected in mass media. But that was initially something that people tried to strip away from me, and many Black people are forced into leaning into professionalism as their only means of survival. Now you’ll hear very often in work environments, people use terms like “homegirl,” or “homeboy,” or “Yo,” or things that, again, are culturally normal to me. But I did not yet feel comfortable early in my career to express that in a professional environment. And that’s the reality, and the norm, for Black children aspiring to enter into professional environments across the nation. They’re often told that is not a valuable part of them and to tuck it away, only to see it monetized in mass media.

So those are small but subtle things that I don’t think anyone asks, I don’t think agencies at large ask. I don’t think there’s any nervousness around not having proper representation at the table. And for a long time there’s been comfort in not having to ask ourselves those questions because really there was not consumer pressure put on us to do so. Now is that time and now is the moment in which we’ll see if that pressure is enough to inspire change.

Alia: All of that makes sense. You’ve talked about some of those systemic issues that have clearly led to a dearth of Black marketers. In addition to that, are there ways organizations can address those more systemic issues, starting earlier to really change the path forward? You mentioned, for instance, the organization that you’re a part of. Are there other ways that marketing companies should be thinking about their involvement, not just hiring practices, but really getting to the root of the issues here?

Akeem: Sure. I think it actually starts with that self-awareness, looking at where you stand today in terms of your hiring practices. But also, above and beyond that, understand that the pipeline is another challenge, and a lot of organizations have been stood up in order to address that pipeline issue. Just off the top of my head, there’s the Marcus Graham project, there’s the Emma Bowen Foundation, and there are several others that are focused on early career advancement. And that quite honestly is the key when you’ll discover the opportunities for young minorities to enter into the space that that is the hardest hurdle for them to get over.

So if more companies were invested in those early education and early career development programs, I think it would be a fantastic opportunity for us to start to create a pathway for students who otherwise would not have it. And that extends beyond just the consideration for someone once they’re later in their career where we hope to see a greater degree of representation. But it starts with an internship; it starts with an account executive position, and those are major, major milestones that I think are missed by a lot of students, who just simply don’t have the ability to jump over that hurdle as quickly as some of their white peers.

Alia: That early exposure, definitely. I want to switch gears a bit. I’d love to get your perspective on companies that are coming out, responding to racial injustice largely as a result of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. What are your thoughts, your reaction to that as both a marketer working with a lot of these types of companies and as a Black American?

Akeem: For sure. Well, to be honest, those declarations are unremarkable on their face. And I say that because it’s not a very courageous place to stand in opposition to racism. It’s a very easy thing to denounce, and I think it also absolves the need for deeper thought on what we envision racism to be in this country. As I mentioned before, if you scroll the executive leadership of many of the companies who’ve made public statements, you see a dearth of Black faces in leadership, and that is just in the public facing component. There’s also the opportunity to look at middle management to entry level. And you just simply do not see Black representation. It’s very hard for someone who is Black to give you much credit for standing against racism.

Now you would get credit had you had the self-awareness and the wherewithal to have addressed this issue on your own. It’s disheartening that Black death is what has inspired you to stand against racism. This has been a pervasive issue for Black people for our entire existence in this country, but it only seems to have been an inconvenience for the rest of America, you know, in the face of violence. And so, again, it’s a relatively unremarkable stance to take, and I think the courage to actually enact change beyond just a donation or a public statement is where most companies will find themselves actually evoking real change.

You know, there was a lot of debate around the efficacy of fighting and to some degree the efficacy of looting, and I encourage everyone to take a moment and pause to think whether or not it worked. Because again, for Black people this has been an issue for us for our entire existence in this space. The results of chattel slavery have never, ever left us, and the results therein are always present with us from blue collar to white collar. There are micro- and macro-aggressions that we experience in public spaces. Did it take looting, and did it take marching, and did it take fire set, did it take property damages, did it take death to be heard?

“It’s disheartening that Black death is what has inspired you to stand against racism. This has been a pervasive issue for Black people for our entire existence in this country, but it only seems to have been an inconvenience for the rest of America, you know, in the face of violence.”

The answer that I think we’re discovering now is that, yes, that’s what it took, and that’s what it’s always taken for people to take a step back and assess how Black people are treated in this country. And if that’s what it takes, again, we have to ask ourselves why? Is that right? Can we do better than that?

But Black people have not yet been afforded that benefit of the doubt, and because of that, I think now there’s a slight panic around, one, keeping things peaceful, but two, getting back to normal.

And I want people to understand that that normal has not been good to Black people, and in particular in our industry, just to keep it really narrowed into marketing, it has not been a safe space for Black people to exist and elevate themselves within their careers. And that’s something that we have to reckon with as an industry quickly before we lose that opportunity for another few decades.

Alia: And let me ask you—I know you’ve talked a bit about how organizations can move things forward, or here’s what the path forward could look like, but let’s talk about what do marketers, just like us, what do we do, the next time we go into the office? What does our new day look like? Because I think what we’re seeing is, yes, we’re reacting to it, but our day-to-day isn’t changing, right? What should we be doing? What should we be thinking about? How should that next day in the office change?

Akeem: I think the next day in the office should be really uncomfortable because we’re going to go back to a space in which we look around and we sit in meetings and you say, “OK, how many Black people are here?” And you’ll see just by virtue of the numbers that the answer is not many, and that should not sit well with anyone, all right?

So I would love for our industry to sit with that for a moment, sit with that for a moment, and if you are uncomfortable, you will make changes. I make it a point of mine to make sure that we’re curating options for junior-level candidates, mid-level candidates, and even at the executive level, that I pass along someone’s resume who is Black. Sometimes that takes some work, it takes digging, it takes some time to find that right candidate, but I don’t very typically share resumes without first considering a person of color because I know that it is a business imperative. I think people should start to look at that discomfort and realize the reason why it’s uncomfortable is because we’re missing something.

There’s a business opportunity that we have not yet tapped into by having proper representation and using that to propel our decision making. If everyone in this office was the same, and if everyone lives in the same area, but hasn’t shared some of the same experiences, we can’t bring to market our best work; it’s impossible. And we’ve seen that time and time again. We’ve seen marketers miss the mark quite substantially in terms of proper representation.

And we have to ask, as much of Black culture becomes mainstream, even the opportunity to leverage and monetize this moment in American history as it relates to Black people, how many voices and faces that we see that are reflective of the people that are most impacted by those messages? If they answer is “not enough,” then we have to change, and we have to change immediately.

“There’s a business opportunity that we have not yet tapped into by having proper representation and using that to propel our decision making. If everyone in this office was the same, and if everyone lives in the same area, but hasn’t shared some of the same experiences, we can’t bring to market our best work; it’s impossible.”

We have to look at the way we are hiring, look at our entry level pipeline, look at the way we’re viewing students, you know, starting to even consider how we got to this point and completely reversing everything that we’ve done to get there is a valid step forward.

One other thing I want to mention that you mentioned earlier around how we can adjust the pipeline issue, recruiting at historic Black colleges and universities that turn out some of the most innovative and more forward-thinking students across several industries, have you looked at those schools as a pipeline for your next open position?

I’m a graduate of Florida AM University, and much of what I did there helped prepare me for my career, and that’s the case with me and my peers. But asking advertising agencies and big brands if they have used that as an opportunity to harvest Black talent, all of those things are really important, and recognizing the failure to do so to date really gives us the opportunity to fix things and create real change beyond the donations and the public statements. We need to be in the room, and anywhere we can create those opportunities I think will help us, again, bring our best work.

Alia: There’s one more thing I want to ask you along those lines, too. You talked about being the only Black person, or one of two, in an organization. How do we prevent a feeling of isolation within an organization and really make sure all our Black employees can thrive?

Akeem: Absolutely. Well, I think first and foremost I would love to see, I would love to see Black people recognized in a way that is culturally relevant. And when I talk about cultural relevance, I want people to see that I’m Black and there’s value in that. Anyone who says, “Oh, I don’t see color,” has missed the marks in terms of seeing me as someone who can bring value in my culture.

I have no interest in speaking for all Black people, but understanding that everything that we do as a person of color in this world has that lens on it, and to recognize that and bring that to the forefront as a positive and not something to be avoided, I think, is a very powerful thing that any organization can do, be it one focused on marketing or otherwise.

And that goes back to hiring. You wouldn’t believe the process that goes into interviewing and then selecting a job. One of the things that I do very often that I think my peers might not have to is I look at the makeup of the company. And very often I’ve taken a job because I’ve seen someone that looked like me, either at my level or below or above, because I knew that there was an opportunity to build a community there in a way that’s unique to us.

So as organizations look at ways in which they create that, again, it starts with Black people in the office. It starts with having a presence and encouraging that presence and embracing it as not just something to be immediately commodified, but as something that is essential to join the business and making sure that the spectrum is recognized and the culture is recognized in a positive way.

Alia: Great. Akeem, thanks for that insight and all the insights you’ve shared today. We’re looking forward to continuing this conversation.

Akeem: For sure. Thank you for the invite.

Alia Samhat

Alia is a partner at Leff. Her expertise is in creative strategy and content development. She spends her time working with writers, marketers, designers, video producers, analysts, and subject matter experts to produce meaningful work.

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