Uncomfortable Conversations: Native Tongue's founder on being the 'only chip in the cookie'
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.
After spending nearly three decades at Omnicom agencies, Marissa Nance left in 2019 to start her own agency, Native Tongue Communications. As one of the first and only female and minority certified media agencies, Native Tongue looks to help brands think about how they reach people of color from the onset of their marketing plans by understanding how and where they should be speaking to these audiences before they even start thinking about the messaging and content.
Early in Nance’s agency career it was the people she worked with that drew her to the ad world. But she says over the years that sense of belonging and acceptance has changed. Nance has worked with brands to launch shows like “Survivor” and “Top Chef.”
The following interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
How did you get into the ad industry?
I was a student at Howard University and a woman named Judy Magnus Long was at BBDO in human resources and she came to speak to Howard’s ad club and it sounded really interesting, but at the time I had a completely different setup. My major was script writing. I was going to move to California and I was going to be in a fellowship/internship with up-and-coming screen writers of color. But it was shut down a few weeks before graduation. My father, God bless him in heaven right now, was actually excited and said, “You can move home to Cleveland and can work with me here at State Farm,” which is what I did every summer throughout college. I love State Farm, they have been a client for years, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. So me and him did some negotiating and he said he would give me enough money to go to New York for one month. In that month I had to get a job and place to live. And so I got on the Peter Pan bus and I bunked with friends. I went on several interviews, and one of them was with what became ABC. The woman I interviewed with had lunch with Judy Magnus Long and she said, “Judy, I have met this young lady, I think she is going to be great for us and she reminds me of you.” And she said, “Howard? Marisa Nance? Oh no, no, no, give me her phone number.” The phone on the wall rang at my friend’s house and Judy said, “You have to come to BBDO and interview.” And I went, and I interviewed and I fell in love; I fell in love with the people. This is a round robin way of saying, what drew me here were the people. To get to be my true and authentic self with a group of people that wanted to meet and learn more about that true and authentic person. BBDO was a very special place and time then. At the time, Phil Dusenberry was running BBDO. And it was a wonderful connect back because Phil wrote “The Natural.” And so there was this wonderful heartstring tug. I was working in media, I was going to be a media buyer, yet the person at the top on the 7th floor had almost won an Oscar for his screen play, which made me feel I’m not that far removed, there is opportunity for me here. And that’s where it all began.
Did you continue to find that sense of connection with the people during your agency career?
Words matter. I said, “It was a unique and special place in time.” I don’t know if I have felt like that in some time. It’s been a while. Having said that, the thing that keeps drawing me back is the people. Is it as consistent? Is it as empowering? Does it make me feel like this is a community I want to get up everyday and be with? No. And I haven’t felt that in a long time. Some of that might be I’m not 20 years old and starting a career. But I do think people are different. People are very different today than they were when I started. But it is the people I connect with, the magnificent clients at Native Tongue that make me wake up every morning and say, “I want to do good for them,” that is what keeps me going, but maybe not at the level I would have hoped it could have sustained.
Why did you leave OMD after all that time?
I was there just about 30 years, and leadership of OMD pulled me to the side and said, “We think you should have your own agency.” And I looked at them and said, “I have been here for 30 years and you look at me as an entrepreneur, that is really how you think of me?” But the interesting part is they made a wonderful note, they said, “You have been an intrepreneur; so many different, new, unanticipated revenue streams have come because you saw them through a unique lens.”
If I write a memoir, the title will be “The Only Chip in the Cookie.” I had that unique lens. sadly because we still haven’t scaled up in terms of representation in the industry. I saw opportunities in multicultural, DE&I and they said, “You should try this.” So I went out on my own. It was very scary. It remains scary to this day. We were a year into it last January and felt I was beginning to get my sea legs, and then COVID. Knock on wood, we are coming up on two years now.
Did you feel supported while at OMD and, as you called it, “the only chip in the cookie?”
So, what I would say is, was I supported, certainly. Now let’s talk about two very different things here. People are unique. I have been extraordinarily blessed in my career to connect with good people. And that’s in any industry, Black, white, purple or polka dot, if you find good people, good things can happen. I have had wonderful milestones in my career with people at Omnicom and OMD and BBDO, who refused to look the other way. That is a statement and testament to them as people. Omnicom, for many years that I was there, overarching DE&I was always led by super smart folks, people who I respect and admire, and who I know every day were working their tushes off to make it happen.
Having said all that, there is still the reality of life, and when you look at a company and say we are looking to bring these people in and diversify our workforce, that’s great. But one red flag I always acknowledge, we call it recruitment but then retainment. No many how many people you hire, if you aren’t cognizant about nurturing diversity in their mindset, that won’t show itself going from internal to external in how your product lands with people. Whether we talk about an agency that says we hired people but they didn’t stay. Whether we talk about on the client side a company that says, “I don’t understand why I’d target that group,” or maybe, “I understand why I should target that group but I don’t care about them, I don’t choose to learn about them, so I am begrudgingly allocating some dollars.” These are all set up for failure.
How did you advise clients following the murder of George Floyd and fight for social justice? And how have you been talking to them since then?
There are clients who say this is terrible and have a gut reaction to make donations, put out a statement and that will make them feel better. That’s horribly wrong; it's not the path to take. Yes, you should want to support the right organizations that are doing good in the community. And yes, if you have something that you want to say, say it, but don’t do it because you feel you have to and are checking a box that will make you feel better. So that is the first thing we would say to any client.
How has the ad world failed people of color?
You look at an aquarium and it is a moving, breathing piece of art filled with these beautiful fish. And many times you look at your aquarium and say, “I feel like it is missing this,” and you go out and find that perfect fish and it adds what you thought it was missing. And for a few days it’s great, then day three that fish is floating at the top of the water, dead.
You have to think how receptive and conducive an environment is, versus the need you have to bring someone in. If you bring people in and you haven’t thought about whether your environment is receptive to them and what they need to sustain as a human being as someone who matters, who should be respected, who should be considered, you will find people floating to the top. And that’s what I think happens all too frequently in marketing and advertising. We don’t think about the ecosystem; we don’t think about the environment. Entities think about themselves, what they need, it is a gut reaction to just pull in someone and they leave them there and that leaves them floating to the top.
What advice would you give to students or young graduates of color looking to get into the industry?
You will invariably—and I am not speaking with malice, I am speaking from truth—find that you may be the only chip in the cookie. So what I did, and what I continue to do, is I try to find mentors who look and sound like me but they might not be in my industry. That’s fine. They are mentors who look and sound like me and they are experiencing my journey and understand my journey in a very unique and singular way. But part two is, you don’t need to a mentor who looks and sounds like you within your corporate structure. Phil Dunsberry certainly didn’t look like me. I could give a litany of names of people who didn’t look or sound like me. I found good people who were willing to not ignore my situation and were willing to acknowledge it and say you need someone to talk to and arguably you may not see anyone here but I want to let you know I can be that person for you. And that’s unbelievable. So, if you have that opportunity, seize it.