Uncomfortable Conversations: The shift in widespread reactions, from Trayvon Martin to now
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 Janis Middleton, senior VP and executive director of multicultural and inclusion strategy at independent creative agency 22squared. Middleton first joined 22squared in 2013 and left in 2016 to spend a year away as the social marketing lead for Interpublic Group's Huge. She returned to 22squared in February 2017 and served in account and media roles before being appointed to lead diversity and inclusion this year. Earlier in her career, Middleton worked in digital communications and social media for The Coca-Cola Co. and as a social content strategist for WPP-owned Studiocom-A, which has been folded into the VMLY&R network.
The following interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Can you first talk about your background a bit and how you got into the industry?
I’ve been in advertising for 10 or 11 years at this point. I came into this industry at a time some would deem late—I was 31 at the time. I came up through content strategy and then got into the communications field. I was not originally in HR or diversity but I did see a need to move those practices forward.
Have you ever personally experienced microaggressions or acts of racism in the workplace?
I would say I faced microaggressions for the most part. Whether it was me coming back from the weekend and people saying ‘oh Janis has a new hair style’ or getting questions about where I’m from in Atlanta. I grew up in a predominantly Black area, and as Atlanta became more and more gentrified, colleagues would talk about having to ‘get through the sketchy part [of Atlanta]’ or saying ‘I wouldn’t move there.’ That was the part I grew up in. When they make comments about [my hometown] being the ‘sketchy part’ they really mean it’s a predominantly Black community.
You wrote in a recent op-ed for Fast Company about some of the feelings you’ve been dealing with in terms of the attention your white colleagues are giving diversity in the wake of the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. You wrote, ‘We’ve got your attention, but what took so long? Our colleagues see us, but we’ve always been here.’ What has it been like watching this reaction from the industry, so overdue, now? Does it feel authentic?
I don’t know if it’s just some hope in me but I do believe this time is different. What "different" means, only time will tell. When I think about where I was in 2012, when Trayvon Martin was killed, I remember coming back [to work] and no one was talking about it at all. Or you could talk about it amongst other Black friends and colleagues at work, which as we know is already a small pool. But this time, I walked into the office and everyone was talking about it. [Her white colleagues] are understanding that Black voices need to be amplified. What were they doing before they got here? That’s always the question. But there is a tiny bit of hope that this time is different, especially given the fact that things have continued. This thing has not closed down.
As head of diversity at 22squared, how did your role and focus change after George Floyd?
It changed tremendously. We started our journey four years ago by making our Diversity and Inclusion Council. We had some service activities. When you’re trying to move a culture, it’s a long-term journey. Then, when George Floyd was killed, the roadmap we had was completely thrown out the window. We decided we cannot put diversity and inclusion on the back burner. We had to take action. We had come up with the idea for Brave Spaces [where BIPOC and other employees from marginalized groups can go to share grievances and creatively inclusive ideas for client work] from Adcolor’s Courageous Conversations, but we never could figure out how to implement it [across the agency] over the past three years. We thought we’d have to have a protocol where employees couldn’t talk over each other. The weekend we came back from George Floyd being killed, we threw our protocol out the door and said ‘we need to have these conversations.’ We had an initial Zoom call that 182 people joined. Our allies were there to listen.
Can you talk about some of the recent work 22squared has been doing on the diversity, equity and inclusion front?
Brave Spaces has been a hit, we’ve gotten so much positive feedback from that. It’s allowed us to get to know each other. We sit next to the same people every day at work and we don’t know them. We tend to assume that just because they "made it," they’re "good." But we all go through things just as human beings and Brave Spaces has allowed us to share our stories. We’ve had our brave sisters and brothers within our Asian-American community talking about COVID being labeled as the ‘Chinese flu,’ and all of the other [racist] things being said to them and their children.
Another big piece was the releasing of our [diversity] numbers. We realized he had to talk about where we are. We’ve been on this journey for about five years and we know we still have miles to go. I remember meeting with our c-suite [beforehand] about that. I was scared; I was telling them that we’re going to out ourselves. But they were so receptive. I was talking to them about about the commitments I felt we should make. When my CEO said to me "this is a fair report," it was the happiest day of my life. It meant he wants to improve and we have reason to improve, both internally and externally with our clients.
And you’ve been pushing for change on the client side too?
Yup. Because I have a strategy background, I know how to use my strategy hat and apply it to how I talk to my clients. I was on the phone with a lot of our clients as the [Black Lives Matter] protests were erupting. We made it clear to them that people are going to be asking about what they look like on the inside. We advised them on how to take care of their employees, how and where to donate. Companies have been called out for posting the black square on Twitter [showing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement] but not having one person of color in the board room. Consumers today are looking at brands to be moral compasses. They’re not going to buy from you if you don’t stand for something. We are having those conversations. America’s alarm clock has gone off and brands have woken up. Conversations from a casting perspective have been going on for a long time but we’re moving from casting to cultural conversations. We all talk about how representation matters but nuance matters more. Just seeing a Black woman in a TV spot is not enough. The cultural insights have to be there too.
And you’re starting to see an emphasis on diversity appear in client briefs?
For sure. Client briefs before would be like ‘we need to reach Gen Z and millennials,’ but now clients are saying ‘we want to hit the African-American market and we want to make sure we are not just copying and pasting a general market spot and changing out the characters to make it the African-American spot.’ Before, that was OK. I don’t think the culture ever thought it was OK, but the brands saw it as a good way to save money and time. Most brands are starting to see that diversity can’t just be a checkpoint in your brief.
It’s one of the reasons we released our diversity numbers. I was on a call [with a prospective client] who is a white woman who asked everyone to turn on their cameras because [the pitch] was for a project [targeted] to an African-American audience so she wanted to see the teams [reflect the audience]. I kind of chuckled at that but was so proud.
What else do you feel still has to be done at 22squared?
Mentorship is number one. We have to make sure we are leveling the playing field for everyone, not just inside our walls but outside. I know we compete against agencies but when it comes to this topic, we need to share tips and tricks. So one of the other things we’re adding is a resource on our website that gives guidelines on how to hold a Brave Space, how to talk to your C-suite about releasing diversity numbers and implementing culture training. We are also making sure we are continuing to diversify our pipeline. When you hear things like the Wells Fargo CEO’s comment [in which he blamed a "very limited pool of Black talent" for the company's lack of diversity within its workforce], we said we are going to go on Instagram and find a whole list of diverse creatives. We have to make sure we diversify our talent pool and when we get them in there, make sure we are inclusive to all. Advertising is already a business where you get thrown into the water; we have to make sure our employees have the tools to swim.