One/35 CEO Shante Bacon-Cius on fighting for Black-owned businesses and media
In 2016, Shante Bacon-Cius was honored as an Ad Age Woman to Watch for her accomplishments as founder and CEO of 135th Street Agency. Over the past five years, Bacon-Cius and her agency have continued to shine a light on Black-owned businesses and Black-owned media.
The agency, which Bacon-Cius founded with Saptosa Foster in 2005, rebranded as One/35 Agency in 2017. It works with clients including Disney Pictures, Disney Channel and Disney+, Google, National Geographic and Oprah Winfrey Network.
Bacon-Cius recently caught up with Ad Age to discuss the highlights and challenges of the past five years. She also shared the excitement she feels as a mom, having given birth to her son in August 2020. And she gave a shout-out to her own mom, who took care of the baby during the conversation. “Grandmothers are a national treasure,” Bacon-Cius says.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
How do you feel you’ve grown as a leader since 2016?
That was a special year because of the incoming Trump administration. I was literally waking up in the most turbulent time in my lifetime. Emotion and anger were at an all-time high.
What it helped me to do was to stand more in what I consider to be my purpose, to be an activist fighting for marketing equality, meaning economic equity in the marketing services industry. Whether you’re talking about a holding company, an ad agency, PR or other areas, the playing field is definitely not level, especially when you look at ownership. I’ve really refined my message about marketing equality and that’s what we fight for every day. At One/35 our culture is rooted in advocacy for Black-owned businesses and Black-owned media.
What was the biggest challenge your company has faced during the past five years?
When you don’t have equal access to capital to scale your business, when you don’t have equal access to be invited into the RFP process, when you don’t have access to the same type of budgets and clients, but you have a burning desire to create prolific campaigns, you can feel pigeonholed, and that’s frustrating.
I felt like as a country a lot of progress we made during the Obama administration and really, over the last 30 years, a lot of it was rolled back (during the Trump administration). The blatant segments of institutional racism felt revived, renewed and unapologetic. They were there before but were hidden. Because I feel such a passion for Black-owned businesses and Black-owned media, the last four years were draining.
If you could relive any moment from 2016 to now over again, what would it be and why?
There were several highlights, starting in 2016 with that Woman to Watch [event]. That was probably the most notable award of my career so far. Everything about the vibe in the room, and having a table of my sisters there to celebrate ... I still look back on that time and it’s a great memory.
In 2017, we rebranded the agency from 135th Street to One/35. The “one” in One/35 speaks to the idea that we are stronger when we’re together than when we’re apart, there’s one universal human experience that we’re trying to optimize. One of my most fun marketing campaigns was to rebrand the agency.
Then, 2020. It was like every month you lived was a year. The silver lining was two things: I became a mom, which was something I wanted to do for a long time. And, as horrifying as the George Floyd moment was, I think that the silver lining to come out of that was that during this accountability moment, a lot of our clients circled back with us, saying they wanted to partner with us to accomplish new goals. It’s the narrative my business partner and I have always driven with our clients, rooted in advocacy.
What was the biggest change to your own life in 2020?
A lot, lot, lot less travel. It was probably the first time in 15 years that I haven’t been living out of a suitcase. Instead, I was conducting all of my business on Zooms all day long.
What advice do you have to others who want to start their own businesses?
This is probably bad advice, but I would say start your business early. Make a lot of mistakes up front while you can. It’s a journey. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. You will make mistakes.
We started it in our mid-20s, we had the time and the runway to make mistakes.
Also, be fearless. When you feel the fear, and you do it anyway, you come out on the other side better for it.
Do you know a female executive who's empowering her team, driving change, advocating for diversity and inclusion, and galvanizing the business? Nominate her for Ad Age's annual Leading Women program (formerly known as Women to Watch) at adage.com/LeadingWomenUS. Entries are due by May 6.