Uncomfortable Conversations: The importance of Black mentorship
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 Britton Jonathan Jackson, the director of production for Spark44's North American offices in New York and Toronto. Spark44 is a creative agency founded in 2011, working with brands including Jaguar and Land Rover. Before joining Spark44 in 2016, Jackson held production roles at agencies MRM//McCann and FCB.
The following interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Talk about your role at Spark44—what you do now and why you wanted to join the agency?
I manage a team of 11 people across both [Spark44 North American] offices: NYC and Toronto. My team project-manages and executes all of the advertising for our single partnership client: Jaguar Land Rover, N.A.
I joined Spark44 a little over four years ago after being at MRM/McCann for 8-plus years working on the Verizon FiOS account. At the time I was looking for a change of both company and client to help expand my career and diversify my experience. Over the years, I had kept in touch with my colleague and friend Sabina Sebastian, presently out of advertising, whom I had worked with early on at MRM/McCann and was the business director at Spark44 [she left in June 2019]. I really respected her and how she moved her career along. She told me that Spark44 was looking for a senior print producer.
When I came into the office for my interview, I was pleasantly surprised. Not only was the luxury auto brand exactly what I wanted to round out my experience, but the office was the most diverse I had seen in my 15-plus years in advertising. Sabina herself is Indian-American. The managing director at the time, Tony Hobley [currently the OEM Practice Lead at Omnicom] was Black, in addition to the other people of color that I saw in different roles throughout this mid-sized agency. I knew this was where I wanted to work immediately. By seeing people of color in high-level positions, I knew that there existed a possibility of a level playing field for growth—something that is rare in this industry. I was able to go from a senior print producer to team leader and now the director of production.
How did you get into advertising?
Not the traditional path. I was an English and photography major at Syracuse University. I wanted to be a fashion photographer and write books. After school, I started my own business servicing small businesses in New Jersey with logo designs, promotional items and print brokering. After about six years of bootstrapping, with no assistance, I made the decision to come to New York and try to get into advertising.
What made you want to join advertising?
It always looked very cool and sexy on TV and in the movies. The image of a group of people in a room creating something to pitch to a client and then be potentially seen by millions of people fed my appetite to create images and words. Even though I didn’t know anyone in the industry, nor have a degree in anything advertising related, the small taste I got from running my own business made me want more. It was luck when I went looking in 2001 that the industry was hungry for bodies and I was in the right place at the right time—and I had run into the right mentor.
Who were your early mentors?
There was one person that made the most and longest-lasting impact on me and my career, Veronica (Ronni) Simmons [who retired from her VP role at MRM//McCann in 2016]. We connected very early on when I was at my first agency, Draft/FCB, working on the Verizon FiOS account.
How did she help shape your career?
Ronni was the only other Black person in the production department. At that time, she was a team leader and the savviest person on the entire team. She was originally an account executive who switched to become a production manager, so her complete understanding of a project was unparalleled. I was actually on a different team when she took me aside and asked me what I wanted for my career. She saw something she did not see often—a young Black man in advertising. I told her that I wanted to be sitting where she was, a team leader.
Shortly after that, I was switched over to her team and stayed with her for the next 11 years across two different agencies—Draft/FCB and MRM/McCann. When she moved, I moved. Her willingness to take me under her wing and mentor me, protect me from things that I didn’t see early on, allowed me to develop my hard and soft skills in a safe environment that I was missing by not having connections in the industry or an advertising degree. It also made me sure that the person who was promoting me was always evaluating me based on my skill set and readiness and not on my skin color or some unconscious, or even conscious, bias.
That was rare and I was lucky. She was tough and made me earn every step, but those lessons and her dedication to my development allowed me to be where I am today. She knew that if I was to rise in this mostly white industry, I needed the tools to make sure there could never be any questions about the quality of my work or knowledge base, and any additional skills I could layer on top were a bonus. She taught me to think not only like a production manager, but like an account person as well. I am not where I am today without her mentorship.
Why is mentorship so important for young creatives, especially Black creatives and other marginalized talent?
Advertising is a mostly white industry. While it has done a good job with diversity among women, with Blacks and other people of color, the industry is behind the curve. The implicit biases that the industry promotes by having very few Black people in positions of power not only seeps into the minds of those inside the industry, but also to those outside the industry. If I am a college student deciding on a major or if I have just graduated and I do not know anyone that looks like me that has made a successful career in advertising, my inherit risk management tells me that this may not be an industry I need to place my future hopes into. No one wants to invest their time into something that has no or very little evidence that they can be successful and grow.
It wasn’t until [Barack] Obama became president that little Black girls and boys believed what every white boy had always known was a possibility—that you could actually be president one day. Mentorship provides the protection and guidance to those few Blacks who do make their way into an industry that has given them no indication of established success. It provides a face that looks like them and offers tangible evidence that it is possible. Mentorship protects their dreams and guides them around the pitfalls that will come while navigating this industry and its statistical and overt racial challenges. Like with me, it helps that their direct supervisor has a hand in their growth to ensure that growth opportunities are provided in lieu of those implicit biases.
Do you have any mentees?
At this present moment, I do not have any direct mentees. This is something that has been weighing on me heavily over the past few weeks and I know I need to do more. We do not currently have any junior Black production managers and that is a problem. I feel that being a Black director of production provides an example of representation at the leadership level, but there needs to be mentorship. Having a mentee before this year ends is one of my professional goals. What I am currently working on at Spark44, within our new initiatives, is to start an internship program that is exclusively for students from an HBCU [historically Black college or university]. Getting those students into the agency to see what is possible, whether they are an advertising major or not, is key to making changes. It starts at the entry level.
As agencies begin making real commitments to improve diversity, equity and inclusion for people of color, what should they be doing to ensure people from marginalized groups have the resources to succeed and grow within their companies?
You have to have Black and people of color in leadership and executive positions. This is critical. We can get angry and have a lot to say, that is understood, but action is what is needed. Agencies can no longer be non-racist; they need to be anti-racist. The policies that many agencies are now enacting—bias training, internships focused on Black and people of color candidates, diversity committees, etc.—are all things that need to happen now and need to continue to happen.
This should not be a moment, but a movement. We need to take an honest look at the system, be willing to acknowledge its inherit flaws and systemic problems. Agencies must be willing to have the uncomfortable reflections, conversations and revelations that Black people in this industry have been experiencing for a long time. The pipeline needs to be filled with the young, hungry, Black and people of color that will keep agencies relevant and ahead of the curve. Bring them in, let them know that not only are you committed to diversity, but be able to show them employees in your organization, in leadership positions who look like them. Inspire them.
American advertising was created to reach the American consumer. Agencies are more dynamic, smarter and, most importantly, more creative when internal teams look and think like their consumers.