Black professionals describe agencies as hotbeds for racism and microaggression
In May 2018, R/GA Austin praised copywriter Dominique Curtis in a post on its website for being selected for the Cannes Lions’ See It Be It program, which awards festival passes to five to 15 industry female creatives “on their way to becoming leaders in their companies.” Cannes does this every year to better achieve equal gender representation at its festival.
At the time, Curtis, a Black woman, was vying for a post as an associate creative director at R/GA Austin, but was never given the role. Curtis says she raised several concerns over how she felt she wasn't being paid fairly but those concerns were disregarded, which she alleges is due to a culture of racism at the agency. Curtis says she raised concerns with leadership and human resources but she says she was brushed off. In performance reviews written by her white manager, which were shared with Ad Age, Curtis was criticized for being "overly ambitious."
Curtis is now out on short-term disability from her current job—she is an associate creative director at GSD&M, where she says she is finally happy—following surgery for a medical issue she developed while working at R/GA. Curtis says her doctors concluded her condition was created by stress.
"They were trying to find the trigger," Curtis says. "What in my life was out of balance? That [R/GA experience] was the only thing out of balance."
Curtis left R/GA Austin in April 2019 after about two years because she says she wasn't paid fairly and she didn't see a path toward elevation, or that anyone took her concerns seriously.
When asked to comment, a R/GA spokesperson said, "This is just the beginning of the industry’s long overdue reckoning with systemic racism, and we recognize our complicity in perpetuating this system."
Curtis is not alone.
Ad Age spoke with 26 employees who have worked at various ad agencies over their careers, including GMMB, Publicis Sapient, Havas and McCann—all of whom shared troubling experiences, some anonymously out of fear of endangering their employment. They detail instances of overt racism, microaggression and unconscious bias while at work; experiences that pushed some to take up other career options altogether.
While their stories may not be universal, they point to a disturbing pattern that is industry-wide and raises questions over whether shops are really willing to change. Ad Age tried in every case to confirm what these interviewees said, in some cases reviewing supporting documents, and presented to companies for response all allegations of racism against them.
Racism within agencies
Brands and advertisers are increasingly showing public support for the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the protests and civil unrest that have emerged from the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.
Within agencies, Black employees are skeptical as the flood of responses, such as internal emails from leadership that assert change to their own organizations is coming, pour in. Discussions on racism in the industry are far from new; they have been had internally and at many industry events for years. Agencies have put together various diversity and inclusion committees. Yet, the vast majority of agencies remain predominantly white, especially at the C-suite level.
Interpublic Group of Cos., the parent of R/GA, recently became the first advertising holding company to release its employee makeup in a leaked memo from CEO-Chairman Michael Roth. According to a chart shared in that memo, only 2.6 percent of IPG’s senior executives and managers are Black or African American; 5.5 percent are Asian; 5.2 percent are Hispanic or Latinx; and 84.9 percent are white. Roth wrote in the memo, “We can all agree that we MUST do better.”
Roth’s memo came after an open letter recently sent to U.S. shops signed by 600 Black agency professionals, outlining the actions that can be taken to dismantle systemic racism within their companies. The letter was written by Nathan Young, a group strategy director at Minneapolis agency Periscope, and Bennet D. Bennett, who runs independent consultancy Aerialist. The actions they detail include making a commitment to improve Black representation at all levels of the agency that is “specific, measurable and public”; regular and consistent tracking of diversity data at agencies; routine policy and culture audits; and broader outreach for talent to a diverse representation of schools.
It will remain to be seen if agencies will heed the advice of Young and Bennett—advice that has been offered on many occasions similarly by many professionals of color within the industry.
Former employees accuse GMMB of hypocrisy
Increasingly, Black employees at agencies that seem to be making statements rather than progress are coming forward to call out the hypocrisy.
GMMB—the Omnicom Group-owned advertising, political consulting and advocacy shop that was founded in 1983 and worked on Democratic campaigns for progressive politicians such as Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Kamala Harris and now Joe Biden—recently drew sharp criticism online from former employees after showing public support for Black Lives Matter.
The agency posted a quote from social justice activist Mustafa Santiago Ali in a recent LinkedIn post: “When we say #ICantBreathe—whether it is an officer with a knee on our neck or the #airpollution which continues to take away our breath—that’s why we march, and that’s why we work so hard to change these dynamics.”
Peter Ukhurebor, a user experiencer designer at One Block Village, who says he applied for a job at GMMB but never worked there, ignited a stream of backlash on that post when he responded: “Your agency is the most Racist agency in the DC AREA. So please do not talk about diversity. I have a list of Black people that have worked at your agency in the DC area that were treated horribly. Even the black HR managers you hire are made not to hire POC even with the interns. SO continue being racist and stop typing about diversity and George.”
Ad Age spoke with three former GMMB employees who requested anonymity as they signed non-disclosure agreements when they left, along with two former employees on the record—Liz Jewell, a former senior digital strategist and developer at GMMB who is white and now works at Vlocity, and Nimra Haroon, a former media relations strategist and assistant account executive for the agency who is South Asian American and recently finished her graduate studies—who all accuse leadership and human resources of fostering and covering up a culture of racism. The five former employees claim, for example, that Black employees are most often passed up for promotions and raises over white colleagues; are more often put on GMMB’s performance improvement program, called a “PIP”; and are unfairly criticized by leadership as being difficult to work with.
"Just as we have spent our existence as a firm working to address a wide range of social inequities, we at GMMB recognize that self-examination and a determination to always do better is our responsibility, too," a GMMB spokesperson said. "Over the last few weeks we have been listening to staff share their concerns, recommendations and perspectives. We are deepening our commitment to ensuring a culture that is inclusive, and representative of people of color throughout our organization, including our partners and other senior staff."
The spokesperson said GMMB "announced a number of specific actions [on June 17] to make good on our promise to staff to try harder and do better," and the agency is "troubled by the allegations made by former employees, and we take their comments very seriously." GMMB's spokesperson added that it is "difficult to investigate anonymous claims without knowing more specifics, and we are prohibited from commenting on confidential personnel matters."
Still, the agency spokesperson denied most of the claims lodged against it including that people of color are more often placed on PIPs and that leadership has been dismissive of employees' concerns surrounding racism.
The former employees say, however, that they all raised concerns with Chandi Krohl, senior VP of talent and culture, who oversees the agency’s human resources, who is a white woman, along with the agency's partners, and say those concerns were disregarded. In particular, the employees say Krohl has outright told them she doesn’t believe GMMB has a problem with racism—a claim the GMMB spokesperson denied.
The GMMB spokesperson said: "Our partners are fully engaged. We have never ignored concerns about racial bias or discrimination at GMMB when they were brought to our attention."
All five employees interviewed by Ad Age say that when GMMB pitches new accounts, partners will ask employees of color for their bios and headshots to send in with their response to the RFP or pitch in question, to make the agency look more diverse. However, the employees say Black employees will rarely ever actually get the chance to work on the pitch or account if won.
“I saw specific requests for people’s bios to ‘show diversity’ from various senior partners,” Jewell says. “It was like, ‘"Let’s go round up all our Black employees.’ And they’d ask, ‘Hey, is so and so Latino?’ They would basically try to guess the race of employees.”
When asked to comment, the GMMB spokesperson said: "When putting together many hundreds of proposals, staffers of all races and backgrounds are included in proposals to show our capabilities. Going forward, we will consult all employees prior to including their resume or bio."
Jewell says she also witnessed “multiple” Black employees being labeled as “difficult to work with, as having a bad attitude, or as being not professional” if they raised concerns with any of the agency's decisions. Jewell says they were “the exact same” concerns that white employees were raising but white employees were not challenged or penalized. The GMMB spokesperson denied this claim.
One anonymous Black former employee who was on GMMB's web development team told Ad Age that he raised concerns over a new web platform he and his team were tasked to build for the agency. The employee says they were general doubts over the adequacy of this platform, and that he voiced his professional opinion that it was not up to par. He says he was placed on a PIP as a result of raising the issue and reported the incident to Krohl, saying he thought he was unfairly put on a PIP and that he was concerned it had to do with his race.
“Her response was to say that ‘As a white woman, I feel offended you would even bring that up,’” he says. “It was very tone deaf, as if the problem wasn’t there.”
The other five employees detailed similar interactions with Krohl and other agency partners.
“I’ve heard several times a white partner say, ‘We worked with Nelson Mandela, so we can’t be racist,’” says another anonymous former GMMB employee. “It was equivalent to a white person saying they can’t be racist because they have a Black friend.”
The GMMB spokesperson declined to comment on "individual personnel matters." The spokesperson continued: "We take all concerns about racial discrimination seriously when they are raised to us. If issues are raised about racial discrimination, we investigate them, and take action where warranted. We are adding a new senior Growth and Diversity Officer to focus full-time on equity and inclusion at our firm. Our HR department is an important part of our diversity and inclusion efforts, including providing training, creating metrics for recruiting, compensation and performance evaluations, and is now working with senior leaders to provide more clarity around career advancement at GMMB," the spokesperson said.
Haroon argues that she often saw her white colleagues promoted over their Black counterparts and claims “GMMB’s turnover rate for Black people is alarming.” She says GMMB had a diversity, equity and inclusion team that she was part of, but she rarely ever saw a partner participate in it, or any white leaders at the agency for that matter.
“The issue with that is putting the burden on people of color,” Haroon says, noting how this is an issue within most agencies. “While they need to be part of the conversations, they shouldn’t be bearing the brunt of them. We need white allies in these spaces.”
The GMMB spokesperson also denied that claim, saying that "there has never been committee activity without cross-racial representation at the firm."
‘I was experiencing so much abuse, I let that word go’
Researchers have long documented the adverse health effects racism has had on African Americans. Social scientists and Harvard School of Public Health professor David R. Williams and Meharry Medical College professor Jacinta P. Leavell published an article in 2012 on the issue, writing: “African Americans have higher rates of cardiovascular disease (CVD) than Whites and the racial gap in heart disease is widening over time. There are especially striking patterns of the earlier onset of disease, greater severity of illness and large racial differences in CVD even when Blacks and Whites are compared at the same level of economic status.”
Curtis says she is “scarred” from her experience within the industry, particularly from her experiences working within R/GA Austin. She complained to R/GA's human resources department, both for the Austin office and the larger U.S. network, and says she was disregarded.
"We have a lot of work to do, in all of our offices, to create an environment in which Black R/GAers can thrive," a R/GA spokesperson said in response. "Some extremely necessary and overdue changes to our process and culture are already underway, and we’ll also be tracking our progress publicly to ensure that we’re held accountable to reaching our goal of true racial equity. We’re also going to be working with an independent firm to assess our policies and practices in this area."
The spokesperson continued, "We don’t have all the answers, and are listening closely to our Black community to construct our next steps, which will include sharing racial and gender diversity data publicly, and updating it quarterly. Other changes we’ve made in the last year include implementing a documented review process so we can track not only employee progress but rout out systemic bias by managers; ‘pulse’ engagement surveys to enable employees to anonymously and regularly share how they’re feeling; regular conversation spaces, Brave Spaces, to discuss matters of empathy, bias or injustice; allyship training in support of each specific form of diversity; and racial sensitivity training, Courageous Conversations about Race, which we undertook in New York and will be rolling out across the U.S."
Still, while working at R/GA Austin just a year ago, where she was just one of two Black employees, Curtis says she experienced daily microaggression as well as overt acts of racism. (An R/GA spokesperson says that since Curtis joined the agency in March 2017, the Austin office has employed four employees who identify as Black including full-time staff and freelancers.)
In performance reviews that she shared with Ad Age to review but not for publication, Curtis was largely praised for her work, but in the section where the manager is told to list criticisms, her manager, who is white, wrote there is “some concern that she’s overly ambitious at times and we discussed this as a watch out.” In another review by the same white manager, Curtis was criticized for being “too focused on taking credit for the work rather than chalking it up to a team effort.” Curtis says “they never could explain to me” why being ambitious would be a “watch out.” Meanwhile, she says her Hispanic male counterpart “was being told to step up more” but received a much higher pay raise than she did—a concern she says she raised with R/GA human resources. Curtis says it took six months for human resources to even respond to her concern over the pay raise but did not increase her pay.
Curtis also recalls how the head of the R/GA Austin office, who is white, suggested playing the miniseries, “Roots”—which is about an 18th-century African adolescent who is taken and sold into slavery in North America—in the office to celebrate Black History Month. Curtis says the decision was made last minute because the agency forgot to plan anything for Black History Month. “Me and someone else were able to stop it before it happened,” she recalls. “But, I mean, who should ever have to stop slave movies from being played in the office?”
There was also a white creative director who used the N word in the office once, Curtis says. She says the creative director was complaining that a video this person posted to their private YouTube channel was taken down by YouTube over offensive content. When Curtis says she asked the creative director about the nature of the video, the person responded with the title, which had the N word in it.
Curtis says she didn’t report the incident in which the creative director said that because she had already raised various other concerns with leadership and HR and was brushed off.
“Everything is harder than it needs to be,” Curtis says. “I need an ally.”
R/GA declined to comment on those specific allegations.
Curtis says in the instance with the white creative director using the N word, she just felt “tired. I didn’t want to report anything else, I was experiencing so much abuse, so I let that word go because I just couldn’t fight that day,” Curtis says.
Curtis left R/GA Austin in May 2019. She got her current job working as an associate creative director for GSD&M immediately upon leaving R/GA Austin.
The unique discriminations against Black women
Microaggression is defined as brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral and environmental indignities, intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative prejudicial slights or insults. The microaggression the 26 agency professionals interviewed for this story say they face on a daily basis range from being labeled as hard to work with to constantly having to be the point person to educate their white colleagues on all multicultural topics, regardless of context, on top of managing their actual job responsibilities.
For Black women at agencies, the microaggression can feel ten-fold.
Deadra Rahaman, founder and principal of Society Redefined Consulting, and an ex-strategy exec and account director at agencies like Spike DDB and IPG’s Jack Morton Worldwide, says it’s common for Black women to be labeled as “overly ambitious or too aggressive,” by leadership.
“I was told I should scale back my confidence because it makes others uncomfortable,” she says.
When asked to discuss some of the specific examples of microaggression she’s witnessed at agencies throughout her career, Rahaman lets out a rueful laugh because there are too many to document in one story.
“Which one do I want to point out?” she says.
Eventually, she comes to one incident that particularly stung. Rahaman says she was working at a general-market agency she declined to name and was in a client meeting where she was the only person of color. She says she was sitting next to her white male boss and they were reviewing the budgets for a global campaign.
“Everyone is taking turns and such,” she recalls, “but it was my budget. The client looks at me and says, after I go through the budget, which was based on the direction I got, ‘Are you on crack?’ You know the stereotypes associated with Black people and crack cocaine. I wanted to die.”
She says not one person came to her defense and her boss, furthermore, shot her a warning look to not say anything either.
“I remember leaving that meeting with my boss and he didn’t even say, ‘I’m sorry you had to hear that,’” Rahaman says. “I remember feeling so small at the time and it is something I will never forget.”
She continued to work on the account because she felt she had no choice. “From an opportunity perspective, there are very few Black people who got the experience I did,” she says.
Rahaman says Black employees, women especially, working at general-market agencies have to swallow their experiences with racism all the time out of fear they’ll lose the one shot they were given in the industry. Many of the professionals interviewed for this story say they only were given a shot at an agency position after someone of color vouched for them.
“We are pushed to accept racism because we’re always just trying to take care of our jobs and not get fired and not look like the angry Black woman,” says a Black female business operations manager at a holding company-owned agency who requested anonymity.
Instances of microaggression, especially directed at Black women, are widespread on ad shoots, too. Rahaman, Curtis and Jennifer Ekeleme—who is the founder of JennZen Co-Creation Studio and also held roles at agencies like Spike DDB, DDB Chicago, Wolf & Wilhelmine; WPP's UniWorld Group and Havas Media's Cake—all recall instances where they were on ad shoots with Black talent, but the agency didn't hire beauticians on set who could do Black hair and makeup.
“I’ve had to go and double smudge and buff out makeup because it looked ashy on the talent,” Rahaman says. “I’ve had to go in my own purse to get makeup and help because no one thought about how this isn’t a white person.”
Eventually, both Rahaman and Ekeleme branched out on their own, opening up their own consultancies, because they say they couldn’t deal with the constant microaggression at agencies any longer.
“I didn’t want to deal with the dysfunction and politics of the work environment,” Ekeleme said in an Ad Age “Uncomfortable Conversations” Q&A, explaining her reasoning for leaving agencies. “There are moments where I knew that advancing within the company meant I needed to play the game and operate in management with people I didn't respect or agree with their values, in terms of leadership. I had to really come to grips with the idea that I may not become an executive VP or C-suite leader in the agency world because the examples I saw really turned me off. I rarely saw people of color in senior or C-suite positions and few that I did see in those positions rarely looked happy.”
Ekeleme says specifically she was working at Havas' Cake, a social media shop, when she came to the decision that enough was enough. She says she found "the culture" at Havas "wasn't one where you could feel open to asking for genuine help." She remembers that once in in a client meeting at the agency, "my manager turned to me and said, 'We need to come up with something cool. You know, you’re Black, what’s a cool thing we can do? We should just find some Black people and put them in the next campaign.' I was so shocked that I just didn’t say anything," Ekeleme says.
"Our ambition with every employee that comes through any of our agencies is to offer them a positive experience and inclusive environment," a Havas spokesperson said when asked to comment. "The work around this continues every day, and we welcome an open dialogue with any employee in the spirit of our continued commitment to advancing our culture and upholding our principles of diversity, equity and inclusion."
Two Black women who spoke on condition of anonymity recall working at IPG’s McCann in Toronto, where they were only two of six or seven Black employees at the 300-person agency. The women say they were having lunch with one other Black employee when a white co-worker passed by and commented to them, “Oh my god, wow, diversity!”
The one woman says the VP on her account at McCann also followed every single person on their team on Instagram (they were all white) except her. “While these minor experiences may not seem like much, they all made me feel like an outcast and out of place within that agency,” she says. McCann declined to comment.
Feelings of isolation are commonplace for Black agency professionals, as they are usually the only Black employee, or one of maybe a handful, who they see alongside themselves in the office.
Rahaman says that’s why even though she left the agency world, she still mentors young Black professionals working at agencies, because they don’t have anyone to turn to for advice and guidance.
“I have made [mentoring] a point,” Rahaman says. “I help guide them because I didn’t have that in my career. I know they need to feel themselves, see themselves in leadership roles. I had a mentee who was told she was aggressive and it really messed her up. She had to step outside and call me to talk it through.”
One senior agency designer who requested anonymity says he feels as if he is constantly being used for “my blackness,” meaning some of his colleagues lean on him as the token person to consult on all diversity and inclusion matters.
“I’m the only Black person on my team so there’s been a lot of micro-aggression,” he says. “Sometimes you’re not able to be in a room where decisions are made or creative ideas are thrown around that can be insensitive. I get called ‘kid’ a lot, which sounds like it’s nice but there’s some undertones there.”
He says he’s “a creative guy,” and like so many agency professionals in the industry, he likes expressing his creativity through how he presents himself.
“I’m a bigger guy, my hair is kind of crazy,” he says, but because he’s Black “I think people see me and they feel intimidation. I personally don’t think it’s something I give off. I’ve noticed walking through the office, people try not to look at you in the eye. And now I’m doing my best to be overly friendly and overly communicative because you want people to see you.”
He says always having to put on a front for his white colleagues and educating them on diversity on top of his daily design duties is “exhausting.” He says he wishes his white colleagues would educate themselves.
Another anonymous agency employee who works within a holding company says Black employees never get “free passes. There is a different standard we have to abide by,” she says, or they fear losing their jobs especially during the pandemic, which recent studies show has disproportionately affected people of color. She adds that the discrimination Black agency professionals face are different than the experiences other marginalized groups face, and should be treated separately. But that’s rarely how agencies handle diversity and inclusion, she says.
“All these companies are coming out saying they’re inclusive now,” she says. “Are you providing a pathway for Black people specifically? A lot of agencies say they hire people of color but what does that mean? People of color does not equate to Black people.”
What will it take for agencies to finally change?
Agencies have long claimed the problem they have with being more diverse and inclusive is a “pipeline problem.” They claim they simply don’t know where to find diverse talent. However, many diverse employees, Black employees especially, are feeling forced out the door because of the microaggression they experience while at these agencies—including Rahaman, Ekeleme and Jessica Hartley, who is now a VP of strategy at MDC Partners’ Instrument.
Hartley left agencies after stints at Digitas and Publicis Sapient because she didn’t feel she was given a proper path toward promotion. She says at Sapient specifically, she watched as white males would be promoted around her and when she asked what it would take for her to move into an account director role, she was never given any “concrete” steps or guidance from leadership. Publicis Sapient declined to comment.
“People talk about diversity and you hear [leadership] say, ‘We gave that person a job and they bombed,’” Hartley says. “But, it’s like, did you adequately prepare them?”
She left Sapient for Accenture in 2012 and spent more than seven years there, most recently as a North America strategy lead. Hartley says she only agreed to go back agency side, to Instrument, after five months of conversations with the shop’s leadership, where she says she opened up about her past experiences and why she was hesitant to return. Hartley says Instrument’s leaders had an “inherent trust and belief” in her abilities, and she ultimately was convinced of it being a place for her to “thrive and grow.”
“I never imagined I would come back,” Hartley says. “But I love advertising. I love coming up with new ideas and working with clients. It hurt leaving.”
Many Black professionals who have left agencies, like Rahaman, have not yet seen the actionable proof they need to see—like how agencies are actively preparing Black talent for roles in leadership—to convince them to return.
“I don’t think they have a real drive [to change],” Rahaman says of general-market agencies. “I think right now they are being forced to have a drive. They have had the data. This is not new. The change is going to come because the change is going to be demanded, but not because it’s something they felt they should do.”