Uncomfortable Conversations: 'Almost every position I had ... I was the first African American in that role'
This is part of a recurring series of Q&As called "Uncomfortable Conversations," taking on the sometimes tough, but always necessary, discussions about inclusion in advertising. This series spotlights the many diverse voices that make up this industry—at all levels and in all disciplines—highlighting their personal experiences to illustrate the importance of inclusion and equity throughout the entire ecosystem.
Today we speak with Michael Jackson, who spent the better part of his career in marketing and sales at Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Coors and General Motors, the latter of which he served as VP of marketing and advertising. In 2007, he left the corporate world to work with startups and founded the consulting firm 2050 Marketing, which advises clients on preparing for what marketing will look like in future decades.
What has been your experience as a Black man working in marketing across brands like GM, Coca-Cola and Coors?
Almost every position I had, starting with Coca-Cola through GM, I was the first African American male in that role. It was mind-boggling. When I got hired when I was in graduate school, a great guy hired me who gave me great opportunities to be successful, but then I keep getting passed over for positions, even after I graduated with my masters degree. I wrote a letter to a senior VP and he agreed to meet with me. On the positive side, while I was first in every position, there was always a mentor, in almost every case they were white, who saw my perspective and guided and encouraged me, and that’s what kept me going.
In your previous roles do you feel like you were adequately supported as a Black man working in the industry?
At Coca-Cola, I was there for nine-and-a-half years. I survived for as long as I did because I had a guy relatively senior in the organization who mentored me and gave me an opportunity to be successful. Pepsi was probably the most diverse organization I worked with. Brenda Barnes and Roger Enrico were really, really good at promoting diversity within the organization. Coors was a really positive experience.
What was it like working with the major agency holding companies while on the client side?
It was really difficult. At Coors we worked with Goodby [Silverstein & Partners] and FCB Foote Cone & Belding and there were no people of color, they didn’t have any diversity … The most challenging time was when I moved over to GM and at the time they still had eight brands split between Publicis and IPG. The company was pushing really hard on me to diversify our marketing and I remember the first time I brought all the agencies together in one room to frame the approach. There were 65 people in the room and there were literally three people of color and all of them worked for the multicultural agencies. That really struck me. I remember looking out at the audience and literally stunned there were no people of color within the core agency leadership. I remember sitting with Maurice Levy and Michael Roth and saying we have to have a greater representation to get the work done. Their response was, “Yes Mike, we understand.” Over the year-and-a-half I had that role there were no changes to the top of these agencies as it relates to people of color … It was a battle every day and most of the battle was internal. It was hard for me to push on the agencies because all of my direct reports managing the brands were all well entrenched with these agencies.
What made you leave the corporate world?
At the end of the day I felt like I accomplished what I wanted them to accomplish. At the time I told my boss I am not a martyr for any company. I am proud of what I was able to accomplish, but I just quietly left.
Were there any early mentors who helped shape your career?
On a positive note, and despite the sheer challenges, I had some white mentors who got it, who literally put their arm around me and helped me and put me in a position to be successful. Some times it was overt and oftentimes it was behind-the-scenes. I encourage that mentorship, formal or informal, because they gave me the level of confidence I needed to continue to fight the battle. If you don’t have the support and confidence, that’s when people drop out and say ‘I am going to go work for Google; I am going to go work somewhere else.’
What do you want to see from the ad community right now?
There are two things I'd like to see that I really don’t think are that difficult. I can sit here and compile a list of 100 African Americans in advertising, marketing and media that can walk in to a top five a role at any agency holding company and immediately work to create a pipeline of people of color candidates. There is so much talent in and around this industry with people who are passionate about the work. Even the successful ones, they will only make it to a certain plateau and that’s it. These companies need to promote people into the top ranks even if it is six months before they are ready to assume that job. I think the results would be unbelievable.