Uncomfortable Conversations: 'The more people see us, the more we can challenge what’s possible'
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 Vice-owned Virtue's Krystle Watler and Genie Gurnani, the managing director and executive creative director of the Americas, respectively. The two were recently promoted to lead Virtue's expanded Americas region that brought its Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Mexico City, São Paulo and Toronto offices under the same umbrella.
When they were appointed, Watler and Gurnani together penned an open letter, “Come Through,” to their fellow diverse, underrepresented and marginalized advertising professionals. In it, they discussed having to bite their tongues on certain issues, hiding their true selves so their ideas could break through and “seeing nobody like us at the table." Watler and Gurnani wrote that they navigated all those obstacles so they “could change all that” for other marginalized people.
The following interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
First, being two people in power from marginalized groups, what are you doing with your seats at the table?
Watler: For me, it’s about bringing more seats to the table and allowing more people from marginalized communities to just be and thrive and hone their craft at Virtue. The premise for “Come Through,” as Genie and I were taking these appointments, was to recognize the BIPOC talent in the industry, especially at this time, and encourage them to keep going. As we’ve seen in this industry, time and time again, this talent is overlooked. I lean into that and I get excited about how much more talent we can bring in.
Gurnani: In addition to bringing more seats to the table, I want to change the creative taste in the industry, which is such a difficult thing to do. Good work [including] writing and design is defined in a certain way by a certain class of people. But we also know what is deemed good thinking, work, design, changes based on your experiences in life. We need to have more points of view and voices involved in the work that’s going out into the world. It can’t just come from one ECD or CCO. That is a difficult cultural barrier to shift. We need change in how creative leadership functions.
Did you ever see yourselves in positions of power?
Gurnani: I did not imagine it would ever happen. When I started my career in advertising, I was in planning and strategy. There is room for people of color and LGBTQIA people in strategy because it’s about curiosity and culture and life. Weirdly enough, creative [is not as inclusive]. When I switched to creative, I had to start all over again. I had to leave [a strategy job at] TBWA\Chiat\Day, which I loved, and start over at the shittiest of shittiest places and claw my way back up. I never thought I would be at an agency of [Virtue’s creative] caliber and now I’m leading that agency. I never saw it for myself and I hear from other BIPOC talent that they feel the same. That’s why we wrote "Come Through." They need to be seen, heard and valued. We want them to know that we’re committed to them.
Watler: I agree with you, Genie. I never, ever imagined running an agency. Probably five, six or seven years ago, I dedicated myself to being the best business development person I could be. Just like a creative or a strategist hones their craft, I’ve been honing my business development craft over the last decade. I never saw a BIPOC running an agency. There were no examples of senior people of color in business development. I was over being at holding company agencies, just because of the bureaucracy. I wanted to come to some place that was independent and digitally-led.
I can only hope that more and more BIPOC talent, seeing us, will open up and expand on what is possible for their careers. Even for non-BIPOC talent, the letter is more than just ethnicity, it talks about working class, disabled people. There’s such a large percentage of “other” that we represent. The more people see us, the more we can challenge what’s possible.
Can you talk about discriminations you personally faced in your careers?
Gurnani: I have several examples. I’ll give you a couple of fun ones, delicious little morsels. There was the one time when my creative director told me my idea was ‘too Broadway,’ which was only because I presented it. If my white, male partner presented it, that wouldn’t have been the feedback. Another time I was told my voice was ‘too sassy.’ We had shifted into a celebratory voice—Amy Poehler, that was the muse for my writing in a new voice—and it was not sassy. It’s examples like that. I laugh it off but [those instances have] the potential to affect your career if you can’t get anything approved or [leaders] don’t meet you halfway, don’t give you the benefit of the doubt and only deal with people who are like them.
Watler: Looking back in my career, I was really fortunate to have thoughtful and caring leaders who believed in me. There were other executives I had to work with that were not as great, who cared more about themselves than their people, who had huge egos, especially during pitches. I always said that if I were to lead a department or agency, I would go about it differently. I was always feeling “other” at agencies. I am a Black woman of color, a first-generation immigrant. That comes with my own perspectives. Even though I met lifelong friends at other agencies, the environment never felt 100% comfortable for me. I was always the ‘only one’ in rooms. I had one Latinx boss, a Cuban American woman, who was amazing. Other than that, I never saw any other BIPOC talent in leadership roles anywhere.
People think I’m lying when I talk about how I never imagined running an agency because I didn’t see it. I chose to come to Virtue because one of the things that was immediately clear to me was, being the creative agency born from Vice, it provided an environment to just be. It was the first agency I ever came to where there was no second guessing, no micro-aggression. People were like, ‘oh you’re the new business development person, you have the runway.’ I took the Black talent out to lunch in February and I asked them: 'What does it mean to be Black at Virtue?' What I heard warmed my heart. It was incredible to hear our Black talent say ‘I can just be, I’m not the only one, I feel valued.’
How have you been supporting your Black employees in the wake of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery?
Watler: It hasn’t been easy. It’s exhausting. All the memes that you’re seeing saying your Black colleagues are tired; they’re completely true. And it’s not just the BIPOC talent that is tired but all our talent. We had to shut our agency down the first Friday [after Floyd was killed] to give a day to mentally recharge. During the uprising and the beginning of the protests, there was one protest sign that just hit me differently. It said, “The power of the people is greater than the people in power.” Unfortunately, we see agencies clearly not listening to all of their talent and not making the necessary changes required for them to feel safe and full at work. It was important for me to listen to our staff, so I surveyed them. I said, ‘I want to hear from you. What do you expect from Virtue? What do you want?’ We came up with a list of organizations we wanted to donate to and came up with a list of four actions. We launched a book club where we read books about systemic racism. We give our talent the space to learn so we can have uncomfortable conversations, not only with ourselves but with our clients. We have an action hour where we’re going to give our staff an hour a month to be politically engaged. What our staff really appreciated is we asked them and implemented ideas from them.
What do you want to see from other agencies and the industry at large in terms of improving diversity, equity and inclusion for all people?
Gurnani: This may sound controversial, but I don’t care what other agencies do. That’s their problem. I want my agency to be the utopia for BIPOC talent. If [other agencies] keep fucking up, that’s on them. But obviously I would love for our industry to be better.
Watler: Being in this role as a managing director, all departments are rolling up to me. You as a leader set the priorities for your organization, let’s be clear. There are a lot of pathways to the mountaintop. All the D&I programs that have existed for decades, they are what they are. Agency leaders that can’t get it right need to be held accountable for D&I initiatives to make sure there is real progress. At Virtue, we are 46% BIPOC. This is the way it should be.