Uncomfortable Conversations: 'I'm the worst kind of ally'
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 will spotlight 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 Angela Yang, VP of growth at T3, an Austin, Texas-based agency that is part of marketing services company Material (which rebranded today from LRW Group). Yang recently put out a spoken poem, "To Sit At The Table," which was posted to T3's website and discusses her own experiences as a woman of color in a position of power in the industry. She opens up in the poem about how she feels she hasn't done enough to fight for Black inclusion and equity with her seat at the table, calling herself "the worst kind of ally," but promising to do better.
The following interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
How did you get into advertising?
I actually wanted to be a writer; I was a journalism major. I went to the University of Missouri and Columbia. I wanted to focus on creative writing; then I learned journalism is straight-fact reporting so I decided to take a different route. I focused in on key tracks like strategic communications; that opened the door to advertising. I got my first gig [after graduating] right before the downturn in 2007. A professor recruited me out to my first job, at a media marketing agency in Ohio. That was my first shot in advertising. I’ve typically worked with independently-owned agencies ever since.
What discriminations have you personally faced in the industry?
The most pervasive [discriminations] are the microaggressions people experience daily; not having the privilege to express yourself as you would like. A lot of things I have experienced personally have fallen into that vein. I am Chinese American; my parents immigrated to this country from Taiwan so a lot of the cultural norms [that she grew up with] don’t translate here. At my first agency, I was given 30 days notice to improve my performance [because] people thought I wasn’t being aggressive enough in [expressing] my point of views. I wasn’t raised to be that way. I struggled with bringing myself to work and to fit a white male model. [Leaders] need to be open-minded and understand that your experience might be different than theirs.
You say in your spoken poem that you are the worst kind of ally. What does that mean?
It’s a little bit of an indictment on myself but I hope it [encourages] others to question themselves; for leadership to question themselves. Most of us in the advertising industry go to conferences, we talk about issues and our experiences. This conversation now is very performative, but what am I going to do after this call? People of color, we think we have a hall pass. We get to the top, we sit at the top and then we say, ‘Hey, look what I did. I am a minority and I am sitting here, isn’t that enough?’ It’s not enough. Lives are at stake here.
Was it difficult to come to terms with that and publicly talk about these feelings through your poem?
It was difficult but very necessary. It was a moment to take stock of what I’ve done and be a mirror for others who don’t want to admit [to feeling the same], or for others who don’t know how to vocalize [the same feelings]. The point was to say, ‘Yes, this is how I feel’ and to say it out loud and make it public. It gives people permission to feel the same way. The bigger point is we can’t sit in our guilt and wallow. This isn’t about me at all. It’s about recognizing the shortcomings we’ve all had and move past them. For me, I needed to get that off my chest and now I can move on and do something.
What will you do with your seat at the table now?
Being a woman and Asian American and being at the table, I want to be bringing people like me to the table. But the bigger goal is to bring someone who might not look like me to the table. I hope I can bring someone who is Black to the table. Part of what I can do is beyond the performative piece, which is important for awareness, but the sustainable things to help my underrepresented colleagues; devoting the time, energy, money and just emotional mental load to [foster diverse talent]. It’s not a project and I’m ready for it. We all need to do it. It’s just like making a commitment to a client, you have a deliverable, but that client [relationship] is for three or four years. This is a job to be done and it needs to be looked at that way.
Another issue is, people look at me and think, ‘Oh, we have one person of color so that’s great’ but I can’t represent the Black experience and we so sorely need that. It’s not just about one type of person.
Do you feel supported by T3? Are they doing enough to advance diversity, equity and inclusion for people of color?
We’re starting. It would be inauthentic to say we’ve done enough. I will say though, the fact that I could write [the poem] and have it be shared and endorsed by T3 and our parent company [Material] is pretty damn good; that they would give me the platform to do that.
Do you think, given the momentum behind this movement now, the industry will change?
I sure hope so. I think the way to describe it is, I’m carefully optimistic. I might be copping that from someone else. The fire and momentum is there. One thing we can’t do is do it ourselves. From the agency perspective, we need brands and clients to get on board also. It’s an ecosystem.
To learn how small agencies are working to fight racial injustice, sign up for Ad Age's Small Agency Conference & Awards Aug. 3-5 here.