Uncomfortable Conversations: 'I never want to work for agencies again'
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 Kadeem Fletcher, who is currently a freelance strategy executive and operator of his own company, The Blooming Union, alongside his girlfriend and co-founder, Samantha Marie Sales. Fletcher says he and Sales use The Blooming Union to release cookbooks, clothing, visual artist interviews, think pieces and more. Fletcher previously spent time agency-side at shops including B-Reel and 72andSunny.
The following interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
How did you get into advertising?
I was about six months removed from graduating from the Fashion Institute of Technology where I received a Bachelor’s degree in direct and interactive marketing with a minor in journalism and English, when I began to pursue a career in advertising. I didn’t initially because I was lucky enough to have an opportunity to do strategy and marketing for [Brooklyn Nets NBA player] Wilson Chandler. Once I was finished working with him, I wanted to get into advertising because so many professors would preach about it. Honestly, I thought it would be a group of individuals just working on creative ideas all day, so I was truly intrigued by the idea of it. One day, I applied to 72andSunny through a general application and a creative recruiter reached out to me and saw a lot of potential in me so she got me in for a couple interviews.
Why did you want to pursue advertising?
I really thought it would be a roundtable/think-tank of just creative ideas and I would be able to voice and curate ideas with the help of others. It wasn’t that, especially being that my route in was through a production internship. I tried for the strategy internship but the production was offered to me and I was given an empty promise that there would be a chance for me to transition to the strategy department but that never happened and that really saddened me because marketing and strategy are my passions.
What are you currently doing?
Currently, I work for myself but I’ve been working for my good friend John Geiger on his [eponymous] footwear and clothing brand. He’s a great person who I’ve been close friends with for about six years now. I handle his newsletter marketing, product and website management. I also do some writing for him, mainly press releases. Additionally, I work for a Black-owned streetwear brand called Heron Hues. With that brand, I do copywriting and strategy for his releases. All in all, I’m a serial entrepreneur so I created a self-published, self-written and self-designed cookbook with my girlfriend earlier this year which has done amazing thus far, selling 250 copies independently. The cookbook spawned from the joint synergy we have as my girlfriend bakes and I do the cooking. I’m also on the cusp of releasing more products, or as I would like to call them, ‘Cultural Artifacts,’ in August.
What discriminations or microaggressions have you faced throughout your time in this industry?
I faced many discriminations or microaggressions at 72andSunny. It was hard being the only Black male in the production department there and I don’t think many people tried to even understand me as a person within that department. They said I was always disinterested in meetings and calls with clients. I didn’t understand this as during those calls, I was focused on absorbing everything since I was so new to the environment. I would stay quiet and listen. I also found this disrespectful and biased as they would let a white female creative director stand on a chair and aimlessly spin on it during these meetings. But yet, I was disinterested.
My executive producer didn’t even give me the courtesy of an exit meeting in-person, then said he would call me but never did so. The situation with how he handled me was so underwhelming that [another executive] compensated me with a check for one to two weeks of pay after my freelance assignment had finished.
A few days before my freelance assignment was going to conclude, they did a seat change in the entire office and when I checked the map I wasn’t even given a seat for the last week of working there. I spoke with the facilities manager as to why that happened but he simply told me it wasn’t up to him. He got the names for my department from [the executive producer]. [He] didn’t even have the courtesy to assign me to a seat during the last week, so I sat in the eating area. He questioned my work ethic a couple times when I had to ask to leave early. I felt like it was very discriminatory and only aimed at me because, upon first getting there, I was told by multiple higher-ups that if the office was slow and all your work was completed to leave at the end of the day. But yet when I kindly asked to leave due to those very same circumstances, it became a problem.
After I left 72, I had many interviews and sit downs with other agencies (Anomaly, Johannes Leonardo, etc.) and I would always feel like I did an amazing job during the process but then a dark cloud would always come over me because I would always feel like I wouldn’t get the job because of the color of my skin. It was like getting your hopes up and then remembering the invisible walls that were in place for me not to be given access or the opportunity. Everyone always raved about me after interviews but then the ‘but’ would follow, saying they were going with someone else.
[In a statement, a 72andSunny spokesperson responded: "Kadeem’s experience is truly upsetting and not our ambition as a company. We are having conversations and taking actions for how to make 72andSunny a better place. We have work to do and this needs to be inclusive of our full-time employees, freelancers and interns."]
Did that experience change how you view agencies?
It surely did. I don’t ever want to work for advertising agencies again because of everything that I dealt with [at 72andSunny]. For my first experience, it wasn’t a good one at all. I remember so many days coming home to my girlfriend and just telling her of what I dealt with on that particular day. One person who really helped me throughout my time there was a creative director by the name of Xavier Jacobs. He now works at BeatsByDre but he still remains a mentor to me. From early on, he recognized my talent, knack for innovation and desire to help, and he would nurture that and encourage me. He has taught me a lot and I still speak to him almost every day, bouncing ideas off of him and getting feedback. He’s the silver lining of that situation.
How do you feel your diversity positively impacts your work?
I think my diversity, with the help of how I was raised by my family, has really molded me into a well-rounded person. I think my diversity is rather unique as I was born and raised in Trinidad until I was 13 before moving to New York with my parents and siblings. I think being able to live the first half of my life in Trinidad and now the second half of my life thus far in New York, has given me a worldly view and understanding of things. My diversity has also helped me remain humble and persistent, not only in my ambitions but the changes that need to be made in society and the minds of others. More specifically, it gives me an intangible outlook and approach to how I execute marketing tactics, understand strategy and build equity with those who I work with and also my very own endeavors. My diversity has provided me with many skills; storytelling being one of the most important and impactful ones.
But that’s why I’m focused on myself because I know, as a Black man in this world, it’s very uncomfortable and racist in many settings. I try to preserve my mind and energy so I can put them to use efficiently and intelligently.
What do you think of recent actions agencies have taken to tackle systemic racism?
I think everyone’s approach shouldn’t be judged in the short-term but in the long-term. A lot of agencies were very quiet when everything with George Floyd began happening and so many of them were silent throughout the years when we witnessed so many Black people be unlawfully killed on camera. I think, at times, a lot of agencies will do anything in the moment to try to pacify the situation or prevent backlash they would face if they don’t do anything. But truthfully, a lot of agencies are rooted in oppression, so real change has to come from the removal of certain individuals in leadership or actions such as putting their money in Black-owned bank accounts and utilizing Black businesses for the multiple needs and wants they have.
People have to understand that this is not a trend. It’s a reality for Black people that we have endured for so long. We are exhausted but still fighting for true freedom and equality. The scary truth is that our lives depend on this fight and that’s not something white people have to worry about. I'm not going to be quick to give props to their efforts because we have been enduring racism, oppression and its many ramifications for 400 years. I don't think credit is fully warranted yet.
What should the industry be doing to truly achieve equity for people of color?
I think programs that promote Black people being in these spaces comfortably should be more widespread, especially for high school and college students. The representation of Black people within the advertising agency is so scarce and it’s really alarming to think about. We also have to be given roles throughout all sectors and levels. Eliminate the microaggressions and discriminations. We deserve to work in a safe space that allows us to be us without being treated unfairly. The oppressive forces are scared to let us in because they have a dog-eat-dog mentality. Lastly, the money is crucial. We deserve to be paid more, hired more and also, as I said, put money in Black-owned banks, help stimulate the Black dollar and our economy.