Why did you get into advertising?
I got into advertising because I love culture. And by culture, I mean all art, music and entertainment that our larger society gets to see through TV, music and in digital spaces.
I had always wanted to be part of the creative process of making things that people enjoyed, and after landing my first real job in advertising in 2007, I was hooked.
Did you have any mentors who helped you in your early career?
I had a great mentor at my first advertising job, which was at a multicultural firm. I will always credit Dameon Pope [who now leads a digital studio for IBM iX], my first mentor, with understanding how to direct my energy and my ambition within advertising. In the beginning of my career, I didn’t always know how to handle every situation but he was patient and saw my potential. He’s the reason why I also applied to portfolio school because he told me the real creativity was in strategy.
Do you feel like your past agencies did enough to support you as a Black woman in this industry?
Not at all. If anything there were certain places I worked that made it harder for me to operate in the same way as my white counterparts.
Can you give some examples?
Outside of my account management experience, I never had someone who wanted to mentor me in my early days as a strategist. It wasn’t until I got a job at Wolf & Wilhelmine that I got more support from the founder (Heidi Hackemer). She took a chance on me and put me on important projects. It’s important to be a sponsor to a person of color when you see they have potential.
When I raised concerns about senior leaders or other co-workers being problematic, no one took my grievances seriously. Listening to people’s experiences of discrimination is often not a vanity complaint. It’s usually a sign of someone in management not being checked for their bad behavior.
In the few times I did speak up about specific events or issues, nothing was done. Often [I] was ignored. Taking swift action when people in senior management have transgressed against you within the work environment is the key to creating a safe work environment.
There are so many more, but these are the big issues that stuck out to me in my experience.
Can you talk about any specific instances in which you experienced racism or micro-aggression at work?
Early in my career, I was hired as a senior strategist and part of our work was to get downloaded on new client work from our management team.
In one particular meeting about a client, 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. I just wanted to leave the meeting as soon as possible.
There were so many other cringe-worthy moments, that I can’t name them all. And there are also so many small micro-aggressions that happened to me on a regular basis that I began to just cope by ignoring them or physically isolating myself from my coworkers.
In the last three months of me working at [that] agency, I used a strategy of booking small conference rooms to work in for most of the day, so that I could avoid interactions with problematic management. It was more for my sanity than anything else, but of course, I got reprimanded because I wasn’t visible enough and he said, “I don’t know when you’re doing work because you’re always in the conference room.”
I left shortly after that conversation.
Why did you decide to leave the agency world?
I was constantly feeling unsupported and unsafe in my work environment. At the time I was still learning as a strategist; story development, presentation development, cultivating client relationships. But the culture of my company wasn't one where you could feel open to asking for genuine help. While they sold me on being a "family" in the beginning, I quickly found out a few months in that the culture was not emotionally safe for me, but I wanted to stick it out and not leave at the first sign of trouble.
The fast-pace and amount of work was becoming unsustainable for me. Having to manage four to five brands and constantly be plugged into the culture and also contributing to new business pitches was completely exhausting. It wasn't until I went freelance that I realized that I could still learn and do the work I liked without the exhausting schedule. I also realized that working in open office spaces was too stimulating for me. I prefer a quiet environment so that I can work uninterrupted.
Most importantly, I just didn't want to deal with the dysfunction and politics of the work environment. 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.
Ultimately, I know I could have been a senior leader within a company if I had stayed somewhere long enough, but I also felt like I didn't want to risk ruining my mental and emotional health just to advance in an industry that didn't value my cultural background and unique leadership style and talent.
Is there anything you want your white colleagues to know about what you experience that they don't?
There are a few things that I’m always thinking about that I know my white colleagues rarely have to consider.
How we wear our hair. Because I have natural hair, I change my style quite often. While I don’t worry too much about my hair styles, when I’m interviewing for projects or jobs at agencies, I’m constantly having to police myself on what will make white people feel more comfortable just so I can get the job.
Having to be silent about micro-aggressions. This is something most white people rarely have to worry about. Whether it’s an off-handed comment about people of color as a target audience or just having to keep your cool when a senior executive says something anti-Black or just outright racist, the emotional labor that most people of color have to deal with is incomprehensible.
What do you want to see/need from your industry?
At the root of the diversity issue in the industry is getting people to actually care about equity, opportunity and creating a safe space for black people to work in.
Diversity and inclusion work is important but it needs to be a part of the values of the company, not just a fail-safe position to keep companies out of trouble and off “cancel lists.”
We need more Black women and men in senior leadership positions; but not as tokens. I honestly feel like we’re all waiting for white men to share the power of decision-making in the industry, and it’s infuriating to think that we have to petition and beg for the right to execute and showcase our talent and leadership.
If we all know that Black people and other ethnicities play a major role in shaping culture, then why do our boardrooms and ad agencies look like they do?
I would like to experience walking into an agency and be relieved by the diversity of gender but more specifically race and ethnicity. It’s no longer good enough to have creative agencies run by and filled by only white people. We honestly all deserve better, especially Black people.
Do you have a story you want to tell for the Uncomfortable Conversations series? Please email Jeanine Poggi at [email protected]