Kai Deveraux Lawson isn't the biggest name in advertising, but she’s got a big voice—and she’s not shy about using it to speak out from what she calls adland’s “messy middle.” An associate operations director at GroupM shop Essence by day, Lawson blogs and podcasts candidly about diversity and inclusion issues on the side. In an industry where black women are often unseen and unheard, she’s making some noise.
“The issue isn’t when I walk in the door: I feel welcomed. I get my water bottle; I get my backpack with the company name on it,” she says on the current episode of the “Ad Lib” podcast. But what’s missing, she says, is “someone to help us get out of the messy middle and to formulate a new pipeline that takes us from the middle to senior executive leadership.” Her warning to the C-suites: You don’t have trouble finding multicultural talent; you have trouble nurturing and retaining it.
Lawson, a first-generation American child of Central American parents who has worked on digital campaigns for clients including American Express, Coca-Cola, L'Oréal and Verizon, co-hosts the “Mixed Company”, a podcast launched in 2016, and shares her personal experiences on her blog, Mylifeofkai.com. Her advertising career began almost inadvertently eight years ago and, lacking proper mentorship, she says it took her a while to find her footing.
“I didn’t feel like I had guidance. ... I was getting my hand slapped everywhere and while everyone was telling me what I was doing wrong, no one was telling me what I was doing right or what I could do to improve,” she says. In one specific experience, she describes a decision she made last year to quit her last job due to treatment that ranged from exclusion to outright harassment that she says many of her peers endure every day.
Lawson, however, remains passionate about the industry but sees that the model needs some major updating.
“It’s working for what it was built to do. It’s out-of-date for what culture looks like and feels like today,” she says. “Everyone likes to talk about the ‘boys’ club, boys’ club, boys’ club.’ It was built for that. And it works. If we want to create this more equitable industry, then we have to create a new model. I don’t think the answer is to dismantle the old model. There’s a lot we can take from it.”
She also has a few words of advice for young black women entering the industry today: “It is really easy to feel intimidated because you feel like your voice doesn’t matter and all these people are smart, and they’ve been doing this work longer, so, therefore, those are the people that should speak up, and you are not,” she says. “Be OK with being wrong. Don’t be OK with being silent.”