Tuesday was my last day of gardening leave at 72andSunny, and my last day in advertising.
After 15 years I have decided it’s time to leave the industry and jump into the start-up world.
From TBWA to MAL to agency.com to BBH, I have been incredibly blessed with great clients, partners, bosses, mentors and friends. But it was 72 Amsterdam that was a truly transformative experience for me.
In 2016, fresh from a South American sabbatical, I decided I was done with advertising. So when 72 Amsterdam called, I promised myself this was gonna be nothing more than a freelance pit stop to replenish the bank account.
But the first day I walked through those Westerstraat doors it was immediately clear that something was different about this place.
For starters, for the first time in my career, I was not the only black employee… there were 7 others! Before I could get my head around that we were ushered into the Monday morning company meeting led in a style that I had never experienced before. The leaders were smart but also clumsy, detailed but also chilled, experts but also humble. For the first time in my career I saw a model of leadership that felt honest, conscious, human.
They were being themselves and gave us all the permission to do the same.
It took me a beat to unlearn the posturing and alpha-mirroring that I had developed over the years in order to assimilate, and I’m still getting there. This has shaped me indelibly as both a leader and a person.
Thank you Steph, Nic, Carlo & Stu for teaching me.
Thank you Evin, Sedef & Keith for your priceless mentoring.
Thank you Chris, Matt, John & Glenn for the opportunity to bring that culture to Singapore.
To be honest, I have conflicting feelings about my exit. It feels ill-timed for the anti-racist movement the industry is embracing, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t wish I could have seen this commitment to change through from the inside.
72 is a progressive, learning organisation, and I was proud to see all their anti-racist posts this past month and their open sharing of diversity data. However, it would be hypocritical of me to not acknowledge that, with Keith’s departure, there is now only 1 black person across the whole 72 leadership globally.
Many agency leaders have been open about their commitment to change, so I wanted to share some parting words on here to help with your anti-racist journey.
WHEN (not if) you promote the next Black team member into leadership please do not pitch them a press release idea like “first black muslim leader” or “first black trans leader” or “first black anything…”. As well-intentioned as you may think you’re being toward us and the business, when you promote us you must empower us to own our own narrative. Celebrate our merits, not JUST our backgrounds.
BACK UP a Black team member when they muster the courage to correct clients when they give insensitive feedback like: “this guy sounds like an angry black man” or “we should cast darker skin for this role because they are in the sun all day”. Please don’t make us have to do that alone. In fact, speak up and do it yourself. That is what true allyship in an anti-racist movement looks like.
IF a Black colleague tells you that the line or idea is tone deaf and making them uncomfortable, don’t let your ego get in the way of your empathy. It’s not easy for us to be that “annoying” voice in the room, especially when we are often the only ones. Please lean into those who speak up, instead of rolling your eyes.
IF a Black creative team tells your CDs that a scene featuring a cop pointing a speed-gun at a fast black kid running is a bad idea, please ask your CDs to stop, listen and think. Now that we all know better, don’t put young black staff in the position of having to debate something so painful with their superiors for days before they finally agree.
IF you send an email rallying the troops to say that help is on the way, please think before you add links to historical battles like (for example) the one in ‘Zulu’, where white men with guns massacred Africans with spears defending their land. What might seem like an innocent cultural reference to you can be a painful reminder of oppression and subjugation to us.
IF one of the black leaders sends you a passionate email explaining why opening a talk to a group of young black creatives with a quote from someone like Churchill might be insensitive (due to Churchill’s very public racist and supremacist views), please at least respond acknowledging that you heard them, whether you agree with them or not. If called out, move beyond your paralysis and engage in learning.
IF a pitch or project asks for a diverse team, please do not ask your only black leadership team member to fly over for it unless you actually want him/her to lead it. It will make us feel used, and it makes us complicit in the problem. We are more than props.
IF you do not have a diverse team please do not go for those projects that request a diverse team. Instead focus your energy on resolving the diversity issue first.
The path ahead is not gonna be easy , but please don’t let that deter you.
Lead the way, and hopefully other leaders can learn from you.