My journey to a career in advertising was full of rejection, unexpected detours and trying to shoehorn my way in the door. It is hard to find the motivation to keep going when faced with obstacles others never encounter. The good news? There are several Black leaders in the industry challenging the status quo and inspiring many to forge ahead and envision themselves in leadership positions.
From shining a spotlight on young Black creatives to advocating for diversity and inclusion, these individuals are leading by example, and are the driving force for change that the industry desperately needs:
Bozoma Saint John, chief marketing officer, Netflix
Bozoma Saint John has a formidable reputation as a trailblazer and industry change agent. As Netflix’s first Black woman in a C-suite role, Saint John has had a career to which any marketer would aspire. At first, Saint John wasn’t familiar with the advertising industry and worked as a temp for Spike Lee’s ad agency, Spike DDB. From there, she started to climb the career ladder.
Her experience has led Saint John to be very vocal about the importance of bringing your authentic self. In a Stanford Business article, Saint John said, “I’m very intentional and showing up very Black, very femme all the time, because that’s who I am. And my hope is that in doing so it actually allows other people to show up in the way they are.” Saint John advocates for young professionals to show up with their whole selves and to never speak or dress a certain way that doesn’t reflect their authentic selves.
Walter T. Geer III, executive creative director, VMLY&R
Walter T. Geer III is always willing to have difficult, public conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion. He often talks about the lack of diversity and how brands fail to accurately execute their diversity messaging. Geer spoke out against LinkedIn and directly reached out to the platform’s CEO after several shared experiences where people complained their posts centered on diversity and anti-racism were removed from the platform without warning. “I would love to have a candid conversation with you about how Black voices on LinkedIn are being blocked by your algorithm," Geer stated in his post. "Not only has this occurred to me numerous times, but I can point to many other individuals who have had the same problems.”
Geer continually works to hold brands accountable for their diversity initiatives. Geer also works in partnership with the 4A’s foundation, Dear Black Talent, a strategic platform focused on addressing the diverse talent shortage in advertising and putting Black talent first.
Jerri DeVard, founder, Black Executive CMO Alliance
Jerri DeVard is nurturing the next wave of upcoming talent. She has created an intimate and trusted space for Black marketing C-suite leaders to share, connect and create. As founder of the Black Executive CMO Alliance, DeVard believes in paying it forward to create opportunity, access and equality for the current and next generations of Black marketing leaders. DeVard created the organization to create, allies, action and accountability—and achieve meaningful corporate diversity.
DeVard is a great lesson in doing whatever it takes to get your foot in the door. Your path may not always be what you expect it to be, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for you. DeVard progressed by putting herself in a position where she knew she would be successful and had networks of support to get her to the next level.
Derek Walker, founder, Brown & Browner
Derek Walker is a fearless leader and advocate who is never afraid to speak out about the ad industry and its lack of diverse talent, specifically Black professionals. Walker’s brutal honesty about diversity led to a regular post that shines a spotlight on talented Black professionals in the industry. “Businesses say that they support diversity and inclusion but the reality of it is their actions don't bear that out,” said Walker. “Some agencies purport to be champions—but have no African Americans or Black staff. Publicly, people know what to say. Privately, they let me know how they really feel about me.”
Walker has also called out LinkedIn for removing posts without warning centered on diversity. Walker inspires diverse professionals to remain authentic to themselves.
We have a long road ahead, but the time for talk without action is over. There are a host of Black luminaries in the industry lighting the way, and it’s time we listen to them and follow their lead. When you are the only Black face in a crowd, it is all too easy for imposter syndrome to set in, and it’s easy to imagine how many talented individuals have likely left the industry for an easier path. As a young Black person in the ad industry, it's inspiring to discover people that look like me doing amazing things in advertising. They should be celebrated—not just during Black History Month—as they chart a route in which others can see themselves succeeding.
The time is now. We must let the courage of those who have traveled the path show us the way to a better future.
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