If you know me, you know that I love to cook.
For me, cooking is similar to crafting ads: imagination, multi-tasking, organizing, and improvisation. Sauce too salty? Ease it with some fat. Need to eat in 15 minutes? Grab some pasta, oil, garlic, and cheese. No matter the situation, you find your rhythm and dance through it to the final plating. And when it all goes to hell — there’s wine and chips.
Last year, I decided to take up baking. I blame my friend Nakia Hansen, a brilliant IP attorney and digital strategist who is a genius with flour and a rolling pin. After a few years of watching her crank out pies, cupcakes, and biscuits I thought I could easily get into the baking game. And I’d start with pancakes.
It should’ve been easy. The basic recipe for pancakes has been around for as long as I can remember:
1.5 cups of White Flour
3.5 tsp of Baking Powder
1 tsp, Salt
1 tbsp, White Sugar
1.25 cups, Milk
3 tbsp, Butter
In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar. Make a well in the center and pour in the milk, egg and melted butter; mix until smooth. Heat a lightly oiled griddle or frying pan over medium-high heat. Pour or scoop the batter onto the griddle, using approximately 1/4 cup for each pancake. Brown on both sides and serve hot.
Simple right? Just follow directions, commit to memory and go from there with some fruit, syrups, fancy flavored butters and other things we love on Sunday mornings. But I work in the business of ‘disruption’ and ‘thinking outside of the box,’ so naturally, I decided ‘innovate’ the recipe with some new ingredients. Why just make the same pancake when there were so many healthier, new ingredients like coconut flour, stevia, avocado and plant-based milk to get to a healthier pancake that everyone loves?
[Sidenote: They also say that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”]
So one weekend morning I woke up on a mission: pancakes! I took that classic recipe, swapped in those new ingredients for the standard ones and prepared to dazzle some friends we had in town. A modern take on a classic.
Instead, all I got was shitty pancakes.
It was a personal embarrassment that couldn’t have come at a worse time. At work, I was starting to buckle under a series of micro-aggressions that were drawing me into a deep depression. That week, an instance of unwanted physical contact and the subsequent handling of it had pushed me over the edge and uncovered what I can only describe as a commitment to comfort in my workplace. In short, work was killing me. I was alone, anxious, withdrawn and masking it because I had a team to lead and protect from the bullshit.
My home, specifically my kitchen was a refuge to let loose. So naturally, I had a Lady Edith style meltdown complete with streaming mascara and matching cutlery. Then it hit me — you can’t add new ingredients to an old recipe and expect the same results. I realized I wasn’t talking solely about pancakes. At work, I was the new ingredient, the consistent ‘first,’ who was stuck in a recipe that had not been revised for decades. It sucked, and I was hangry.
So what does this have to do with the advertising industry? Everything if you call yourself a leader.
There’s plenty that has already been said about the work we need to do to become more inclusive, intersectional and other words you hear at conferences. Often this conversation centers on recruitment which is great. This is about what happens after, written from the perspective of someone living it.
What are the new ingredients?
Evolving social and cultural norms, non-traditional talent pools, creatives that don’t fit the white/hetero/male/extroverted binary and so much more. These are the people and points of views that can’t be taught. The consumer expectation that our work does more to embrace and affect culture, authentic corporate social values, etc. In reality, the new ingredients aren’t new at all — they’re just not what the mainstream will have us to believe as normal.
In advertising, we love a ‘new ingredient’ candidate! They bring new energy and new opportunities. They are a proven pathway to better creative, better work environments, effective work, and profitability. But more often than not, we don’t know what to do with them.
What’s the old recipe?
This is tricky because the old recipe is often masked with a ‘new and cool” agency culture, complete with well-curated Instagram accounts and sponsorship of diversity initiatives.
To the untrained eye, it’s hella attractive. But once you look closer and start asking some hard questions — the old recipe, and it’s inherent schizophrenia, is right in front of you. The old recipe is what has allowed us to accept workplaces that look nothing like the audiences they serve, to prematurely promote individuals into management roles without proper training and to see a person’s title as permission for bad behavior. The old recipe normalizes classism and gives little room to those who exist between marketing and cultural binaries. But at the same time, it rewards disruption and bucking the status-quo — just not from everyone. The old recipe does the bare minimum of the right thing and often for optics. Its perpetrators may look different, but the attitudes that exist in our organizations are the reason why many new ingredients like myself often leave our industry frustrated, bitter and bruised.
We try our best, but after a while, it’s just too much. Especially for those in leadership positions where the proximity to power comes with a much more brutal reality. After all, it’s hard to “bring your whole self” to work and do the job you’ve been given when you’re consistently being made to prove why you deserve to be there. Or being mistaken for your own assistant. Or the cleaning lady. Or your boss’s nanny. It’s hidden the tax we pay on work that is being done for free.
“The thinking and talent that get rewarded are the people that are status quo and make the leader look good. Not the people challenging convention and coming up with bold ideas. That’s a fundamental challenge in the industry.” — The Truth About Talent Report, 2019
This is what leads to shitty pancakes. With good intentions, we seek out the new ingredients we need without giving much thought to the environments we are asking them to work in a la, the old recipe. We think that we don’t have to change the recipe while expecting the same, if not better results. Or worse, we expect them to fully adapt to how we think they should be, versus who they actually are. And when people leave, they unfairly get labeled as angry when in truth they are trying to protect themselves. As leaders, it is our responsibility to create and shape our workplace culture, not HR or operations. And as leaders, we share this in the failure to retain our best people.*
As a creative leader who is also a black woman, I’ve had my share of interactions that are based on the fact that I occupy a position of power that few of my colleagues have ever encountered, not only in our industry but in their personal lives. While that may be a hard pill to swallow, it’s very real for many people like myself. But it doesn’t get any better if we don’t confront this and other truths by looking at our organizations and it’s people through a critical lens. What kind of industry are we opening our doors to? Are we considering dynamic shifts with every new addition? Are we open to those who will challenge our own truths, norms and dare I say, our titles? Are examining our workflows and processes critically or just doing “what everyone else” does? Are we seeing our people for not only what they do but who they are? We’re willing to Marie Kondo our skinny jeans and chairs that no longer bring us joy, but what about that mid-level director who perpetuates toxic behavior but brings in awards? Think about it like this: If your teenage kid decides to go into advertising — you could very well be working alongside their future ECD or CCO. Do you really want little Harper working for a solidified douchebag? If no, why invite someone to work with them now?
Creating a new recipe starts with us as leaders on the ground. Our own points of view and how we manage teams, groom future leaders and build our workplace culture. It’s not on the people we recruit, it’s unfair to place that burden on them. A new recipe means tough conversations, tougher choices, raw introspection and redefining not only what we know to be true but to be right. It means evolving how we operate and creating a space to listen and engage all levels of people. In my culture, we never start a new year without deep cleaning the house aka not “starting the new year with last year’s dust.” If we’re going to make an effort to attract and promote ‘new ingredients’ it’s time we first commit to doing the same. We won’t always get it the new recipe right, but the fear of failure is a poor excuse. Done well, we create work and workspaces that are vibrant, inclusive, effective and profitable, it’s just way easier said than done.
Just as I could figure out how to make fluffy, low-carb, low sugar pancakes that have become a hit on Sunday mornings, we can commit ourselves to at least trying for a better recipe within our own little worlds. Eventually, everybody eats.
This essay is based on a presentation recently given at the 2019 One Club Creative Leader’s Retreat.
*Unless they’re just plain horrible. It happens.
Shannon Washington is a creative director and entrepreneur currently based in Los Angeles trying to recruit all of New York to move to Los Angeles. She’s also a fabulous brunch guest.