Uncomfortable Conversations: Clients must demand agencies hire people of color
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 will spotlight 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 Kevin Miles, a North Carolina-based writer and creative director who has worked on McDonald’s, Burger King, Pepsi, Coke and Toyota accounts, among others, and for agencies like Burrell Communications, Crispin & Porter, Deutsch, Grey, and GSD&M, both on staff and as a freelancer.
Miles is currently working as a creative director for Sacramento-based Runyon Saltzman on a full-time contract basis.
You’ve worked at both multicultural shops and general market shops—how have your experiences differed at both?
Working for general market shops, being someone who is Black, I always felt like I had to work 10 times harder to prove myself because I felt like, in most cases being the only Black person working in a professional capacity, I represented everyone who came before and anyone who would come after. It’s like being the guinea pig for your whole race—whether you want to or not—so you have added pressure of representing your whole race. When I worked at DMB&B St. Louis, there were only four Black people in the creative department, and not all at the same time.
When I worked at multicultural shops that wasn’t an issue. I could be more myself.
I don’t think I have necessarily been intentionally discriminated against, but I have proof I didn’t get promoted when everyone else I worked with did get promoted, based upon the ideas I came up with. It pissed me off working there for five years and the success I had—and all my partners got promoted and I didn’t. You start to think it is because I’m Black.
Can you identify moments where you were treated differently because of your race?
I was at Backer Spielvogel Bates and the company was going after the Bermuda Tourism account. The guy who was in charge went to my boss Jim White and asked if I could go to Bermuda with them so they could have a Black face. I had nothing to do with this project or pitch. Jim, to his credit, got real pissed about it and said, “I’m not going to let them use you like that.”
[In another instance], work I created with my partner Terry Taylor won the Scholastic Inc. and Ad Age “Yearn to Learn Challenge,” which challenged advertising creatives to create ads designed to keep kids from dropping out of high school. It was a big deal and it got the attention of the St. Louis Post Dispatch … which wrote a huge feature article on us and how we won the contest, even though the ad agency we worked for, DMB&B, chose another team to work on the project, and me and Terry entered it and won on our own—without the company’s knowledge.
A story about how we won ran in Ad Age and caught the attention of DMB&B North American President, Chairman and Managing Director, Clayton Wilhite. We were flown to the New York office of DMB&B to work on a Burger King pitch. Clayton Wilhite flew to St. Louis and then accompanied us on the flight from St. Louis to New York to brief us on the pitch. He told us that the future success of the agency was riding on our ideas and contributions to the pitch. The New York office had already been working on the pitch for six weeks and didn’t have an idea which they felt would win the business. Me and Terry worked on it for two and a half days and conceived the idea that won the business. The New York Times wrote an article in May 1989 calling it the biggest account shift in the history of advertising at the time.
Now, you would think conceiving the idea that resulted in the biggest account shift in history would be enough to be promoted to creative director or at least senior writer or associate creative director, but you would be wrong. That didn’t happen. Again, you would think that this win would result in some kind of recognition, but, alas, it was not to happen.
So, this went on for three years. I got recognized for three years as a winner of the “Yearn to Learn Challenge,” and still, no promotion of any kind, even though it got the company tons of free publicity in the industry and around the world.
I kept all of these documents so if anyone ever questioned what went down on that pitch I would have proof. As a Black person working in corporate America, one of the first things you remember is to keep every shred of evidence you can get your hands on to protect yourself if people try to sabotage your work and your achievements.
Did you ever express these concerns?
I never expressed those concerns. I was afraid if I said something, I would be putting them in a position to acknowledge it or not acknowledge it. I never wanted to put people in that position. Also, people will label you if you express it.
In your previous roles, both internally and freelancing at agencies, did you feel like you were adequately supported as a Black man working in the industry?
I didn’t feel like I was not supported, but I didn’t feel like anybody paid attention to that. I have to say my background is different than most people because I grew up in a military family. I moved around every two to three years and you have to learn how to get along with just about everyone. I grew up not thinking about race very much because I was sheltered, being in a military family, because you generally get accepted by everyone. It’s different than a Black kid growing up in the inner city. I grew up on a military base, which was one of the first places that integrated. Some of places I lived didn’t have schools on base and that’s where I understood what racism was. I brought that into my reality working at ad agencies.
I never thought that much about my Blackness because of my experience growing up. Having said that, you know how people are reacting to you based on your appearance. I didn’t feel like I was not supported, but I didn’t feel like I was. I think some of the people I worked for were intimidated by me; I’m 6 feet 2 and I don’t bullshit, I don’t kiss people’s asses. I was able to say what I felt. I’m not sure if it was because of my personality or because they were afraid I was a crazy black guy who would go off.
Do you feel there were opportunities for growth as a Black man in the agency world?
My experience with other Black people in the industry, I don’t think we have gotten promoted the way our white peers have gotten promoted. It is a reality. I don’t know if it is necessarily the agencies not doing it or fear clients will have a problem with Black people rising through the ranks.
What do you want to see from the ad community right now?
My biggest pet peeve about the whole diversity and inclusion thing is these companies always say they would hire more candidates of color but they can’t find them. I know a shit ton of really talented people of color that aren’t getting the same opportunities as others are.
The other thing that needs to be addressed with companies trying to take action and be more proactive about solving diversity and inclusion, they are good at getting young people of color to come in at entry level jobs, but how many senior people of color are able to rise through the ranks? It’s one thing to pay lip service to wanting to hire Black creative people and account people, but it is another thing to make sure they are compensated the same way their white peers are. I really think it is very telling the people who are getting jobs who are Black are those who are getting their first jobs out of school. It’s a power thing, they don’t want to cede power to a Black person and they don’t want to pay them that kind of money. That’s why you have someone like Keith Cartwright starting their own agency. It is very telling these people feel they need to leave the agency world and break out on their own.
I still think these agencies are going to try to talk the talk and not walk the walk. One thing to guarantee things change, is if every client that works with these agencies demands they hire people of color in these positions. The clients are the ones that pay the bills. Clients need to make them accountable and say “how come I don’t see Black faces working on my business?” It is imperative for clients to drive this change. From my experience, the clients are the only ones that can make these ad agencies do the right thing.