Why One Black Creative Just Walked Away

A Stellar Book Wasn't Enough to Break Into Executive Ranks

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Tiffany Warren
Tiffany R. Warren
Ralph Ellison wrote "I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me." For different reasons -- fear of financial and professional retribution -- the subject of this post will remain invisible, or at least unidentified. Like it or not, such retribution is still a very real possibility for those individuals who seek to make visible the invisible struggles they face.

Being a creative in the advertising industry is not easy for anyone. But since the age of 13 it is what one young man -- let's call him Tony Jackson* -- has wanted to be.

Tony, thirty-two and African-American, is a member of my large extended family within the advertising industry. He came out of a top portfolio school where, he said, "a daily regimen of harsh, critical feedback and rejection" was as much a part of the curriculum as creating spec ads for a local charity or small business. Tony knows that "great ideas feel new and completely uncovered and for every great idea that makes it, ten are rejected."

But what he and many creatives of color have experienced on their way to the top is that even though they've proven themselves, even though they've won the daily battles between perception and reality, compared to their white counterparts they often can't get the traction needed to become the executive creative director or the chief creative officer. When the bruises heal from the concrete ceiling they bump up against daily they usually hit the pavement and exit agency life for the greener pasture of a highly paid day-rate freelancer.

Before Tony left to become the hired gun he currently is, his first job out of portfolio school had all the right elements to make him stay: creative challenges, diverse team (international and domestic representation) and access to senior creative leadership. "It was a dream, and at the end of the day all that mattered was the idea. No ass-kissing involved, my contributions were colorblind. We all got a chance to shine or crash and burn."

Tony eventually moved on from this utopia and hooked up with creative recruiters that would help him land his next opportunity. Tony's book showed his impressive range and not -- as he puts it -- the scars from the ghetto-ization of black creatives: "basketball, soft drinks and cars" (It's a similar fate inflicted disproportionately on female creatives who always seem to be handed assignments on weight loss, feminine hygiene and fashion brands.) His phone often rang with calls from agency recruiters who just had to meet the man behind the book. In one of these meetings with the amped-up agency recruiters -- people who'd wanted to hire Tony based on his book alone -- Tony was subjected to a critique of his work instead of a discussion about next steps.

What happened between the phone call and the face-to-face meeting? He suspects, because it has happened way too often to him and other creatives of color, that he wasn't what they expected.

Tony is a working, successful creative and has experienced all the highs and lows the industry has to offer. He has received awards, financial reward and the visibility that comes with hitting creative homeruns.

But promotion to the higher ranks has eluded him.

Instead of completely walking away from it all, Tony is creating his own destiny and has some advice for the agency recruiters and creative directors he has come across along the way.
  1. Don't compare me to the last black creative that didn't "make it."

  2. Hire me because I can do good work, not because I can provide the urban point of view

  3. Although, like in sports, you hire the individual that can do the best job agencies still need to make a conscious effort to diversify your creative departments.
Of course, as an African-American art director working in a major general-market agency, Tony understands his duel responsibility. "As a creative person my ethnicity and cultural background contribute to my output or creative product. I appreciate being one of the few people of color in a position to influence popular culture. But I also feel a responsibility to portray honest and uplifting representations of all cultures and not exclusively the ones that have influenced me the most."

How sad, though, that Tony and others may get tired of all the ass-kissing and say "Kiss my ass" to the advertising industry because it refuses to see what is clearly visible: a talent that has little to do with their skin color.
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