Uncomfortable Conversations: How a card game helped this exec realize what change looks like
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 Tennant, founder and CEO of Curiosity Lab, an entertainment company for building products, content and experiences "that change narratives." Tennant also created Actually Curious, a card game that encourages people to have tough conversations, in 2018. The game consists of four levels: blue, green, yellow and pink. The more advanced the level, the more intimate the questions. Before branching out on his own with the launch of Curiosity Lab in 2017, Tennant held director roles at media agencies PHD, Starcom and UM. Since founding Curiosity Lab, he also spent time as chief marketing officer of The Public Goods Project, a public health nonprofit.
The following interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
How did the idea for Actually Curious come about?
Actually Curious is a card game that came out of a thought leadership project for my agency, Curiosity Lab. When we created Curiosity Lab, we experimented with a couple of different models, including consulting to media companies with unique voices deserving of investments. Where we got the most profit though was working with brands. We found a narrow niche that aligned with our vision, which is that all marketing spend should be made for the betterment of the consumer, whether that is an investment in social causes or making a direct investment in your community. To make sure we are practicing what we’re preaching, we decided we would invest time in thought leadership programs.
In the summer of 2018, we had this amazing team of interns, all female and people of color, working out of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. I’m from Bed-Stuy, born and raised, so it was great being able to to invest and recruit from that community. We were really listening with curiosity to the people we brought in. We had meaningful discussions on divisiveness in our families, communities and even friends. We saw this problem we wanted to tackle, of people seeming like they wanted to have the conversations and make progress but coming to the table with a posture of a fight on both sides. The tactic we came up with was the cards. We thought of it as a pay it forward tactic, something fun.
We were trying to get some attention [to the game] by doing stencils overnight—true graffiti stuff—outside the offices of Ad Age, Refinery, Vice, The New York Times; pretty much all the cultural voices in New York. We hit up everywhere over the course of two nights.
Did it work?
Yeah. We got our first order after the campaign had been out for 48 hours. We sold out 50 [games] in five days. We realized we were onto something. What I’ve come to understand more now is the shame of our history in a way. What I’ve come to at least believe is that one of the most powerful human motivators or instincts we don’t talk about enough is shame; being part of a system you know you don’t align with but haven’t fully accepted your role in upholding it.
With so much divisiveness in our current culture, and the call for racial justice sweeping the country, are you seeing interest and sales for Actually Curious growing?
The game is really picking up steam. We’ve started getting coverage from Beyoncé, Bumble, Goop, Cosmopolitan. By October, we will be in 100 trendsetting boutiques—Chillhouse, Ethels Club, West Elm, Free People, The RealReal. We started doing pop-up workshops, for up to 70 people [due to COVID restrictions], and we’re getting booked by organizations to bring our workshops to them. The game is now translating back into a corporate setting.
2019 was a crazy year for me and my family. There were two significant losses in my family within three months: two of my older brothers. Both fathers, both under the age of 50. Coming out of that, I had a lot of searching to do. I was chief marketing officer for [nonprofit The Public Good Project] but I couldn’t maintain the sort of level I needed to with this role, so I needed to take some time.
So I left in November 2019 and set out on this trip to take the game across the country. I left New York City on Nov. 22 and made my way down to Florida, where my parents live. I drove back up through Tennessee, to L.A. and San Francisco. That was the first time driving by myself across the country, and in the south by myself, which is a whole different thing. When the lockdown happened on March 13, I was back in Florida so spent the next few months quarantined with my parents.
When I arrived in Florida in November, it was crazy because the game was in 70 stores already. I actually met my high school bully in the Florida Panhandle and played the game with him. I grew up in Bed-Stuy in the ‘80s and ‘90s, so it wasn’t the gentrified place it is now. I went to boarding school, which was my first emergence into a predominantly white community. There was this discussion questioning my merit being there as a scholarship kid. I’ve realized that’s a narrative that has carried over to the job market.
The fact that my bully responded [to the request to play the game] after 19 years, maybe more, was a win. [While playing], he pulled a card that asks: If you can relive any moment in your life, what would it be? He talked about a story in high school. There was one kid who always made me feel welcome and my bully and another kid got behind him and pushed him over. The kid [who was bullied] was not having a good day and he lost it. He said, ‘If I could relive that moment, I wouldn’t have done that.’ It was healing for me, even though he didn’t confront our situation. It was a really powerful moment.
When you’re driving around the country by yourself, you have a lot of time to revisit pain and get comfortable with that pain.
Can you talk about how early experiences at boarding school carried over to professional life?
It was maybe not as overt as it was with high school boys. But the biggest thing my experiences prepared me for was what corporate America would look like. I had a really tough time my freshman year [of high school]. I hung out with the 13 kids who were Black in the boarding school, and many of them couldn’t afford [tuition] and eventually had to drop out. I learned what choices, defenses or maybe even fights I had to choose to take up versus just letting [certain things] slide off my shoulders to make the space feel comfortable for the dominant party. I learned all that at 13. I became well assimilated, which definitely helped me advance [in the industry]. I learned to be safe and agreeable but at times confrontational when I needed to be.
I remember being an associate director at an agency, where I developed a branded content program for CoverGirl for the Hunger Games movie over 18 months. When the project took off and gained notoriety in Cannes, I was distanced from the project. I just got in a case where I should have been promoted but I was being passed over.
Did you ever get promoted at that agency?
I did. I eventually got the head of department role, but I realized what could have gone differently in that role to make me stay longer in corporate advertising. When I rose to a director level, I reached a whole new level of politics that I didn’t have the training for. I was dealing with the politics of 15 different account leads. I never once was invited to senior leadership meetings, which could have set me up for success. It’s like they were testing out whether I was the right person to give this access to rather than believing in the person they hired. I needed more mentorship to survive.
So what ultimately led to you leaving ‘corporate advertising’ to branch off on your own?
At the time, 2017, we were pretty early in the purpose marketing boom. I tried to find an opportunity sitting within a media agency to provide authentic value; bring purpose marketing to these larger media partnerships. But [those efforts] kept hitting dissonance internally. Someone would ask: ‘Why are we doing this?’ Or, ‘Why are we pitching this?’ If I didn’t pitch it myself [directly to the client], it would get butchered. We would end up doing the same sponsorships, the safe things. I was saying ‘this is where I believe we are going’ [as an industry] and asking for a small portion of the budget to do it. It shouldn’t have been that hard. But it was mired in months of internal development and then would get killed because one person wanted it killed.
Do you think agencies’ tendency to ‘play it safe’ has caused a lot of the issues in the industry?
I think it’s analogous with diversity initiatives and the work that needs to be done to create a safe space where Black employees can flourish and bring their true selves to work.
What do you want to see from the industry to create that space?
Investment. Investment in identifying talent and putting talent in the right roles. Investment in education around the bias that surrounds [diverse talent] for the people who control the bias. In the past, it was about checking a box. If you believe in putting talent in the right place and setting them up to bring their full selves, then you should also be aware of the conditions they will be operating within and what investments need to be made to make sure the return on them as individuals plays out, otherwise it becomes a shallow attempt. The industry hires really amazing, talented people but then trains them to be on an assembly line versus inventors.