I Cannes-NOT do it anymore:
A woman of color’s experience in the ad industry.

In the Summer of 2014, I had the “privilege” to attend my first Cannes Lions Festival, and it was life-changing. But not in the way I hoped for.

The week before Cannes. Full of hope and dreams.

Being there helped me clearly see what the industry was. It was what it had always been: white, male and privileged. Not only were there barely any people of color in attendance, but being a woman at Cannes was nothing short of traumatizing.

During that week, I felt my dream shattering, and with it, my sanity. I couldn’t see myself in the industry anymore. How could I? People like me are not welcome even though the industry publicly says so. Most people like me CLEARLY don’t make it to the top. And I am not one to stay at the bottom. So how? How could I keep going knowing I might never make it?

This was NOT the industry I dreamed of as a young girl…

It was early 2000s, the beginning of a new millennium that filled us with hope, and shortly before the major event that shook our world forever.

There I was, a reserved teenager growing up in Morocco, navigating life, puberty and family drama, just trying to find my place and purpose in the world. Funnily enough, I stumbled onto that purpose while watching one of the lowest rated movies on Rotten Tomatoes. No, I will not tell you which movie it was.

The movie had a scene where a creative director (a white man, obviously) was presenting work to a client. It was not great work — and the movie was not even about advertising — but that scene alone was all I needed to have one of the biggest realizations of my life:

There are actual people whose job is making ads? They come up with ideas and spread messages to the masses?

Mind. Blown.

I realized that people in the advertising industry got to create messages that affect millions! That’s some real power right there. And what happens if those messages bring people together? Messages that heal societies, countries and families?

If ad people had the power to speak to millions, they might as well do it for the good of everyone. Right? RIGHT?

That’s when I decided I would become an ad woman — to my Finance family’s surprise. Little did they know, I had a burning desire to speak up and bring people together, in a way I couldn’t do at home.

My parents divorced when I was 12, and they’d decided that after 30 years of marriage, they would never speak to each other again — they still haven’t to this day. So naturally, I was very attracted to the idea of being able to speak to the masses with the mission of bringing people together. ​

I had found my purpose.


Fast forward to Summer 2014, it was day 1 of 8 days of intensive learning at Cannes Lions Festival. I had been selected to participate in the Young Lions Academy, and spent months saving to be able to attend — of course, my employers at the time refused to pay for it but that’s another story altogether. So there I was, about to embark on THE most life changing experience as an ad creative, and guess what? That’s exactly what I got.

While the Academy itself was a great, curated experience, the rest of Cannes got me scratching my head. As I spent my week there — one of the few women and people of color — surrounded by white privileged men, I felt my dream shattering and with it, my sanity.

When they announced winners during award ceremonies, I would hear campaigns from Thailand, Tunisia, Pakistan, Nigeria, UAE and I’d get excited for them — I’d get excited for people of color like me — to be able to walk that stage proudly. But no. Guess who walked the stage almost every single time: a group of white dudes. It was ridiculous. Did they even send the people who created the ads to Cannes? It didn’t look like it.

Even when I wanted to get some peace and take a walk on the croisette to process this alternate reality, it didn’t feel safe. There were drunk men misbehaving everywhere.

The millennials were somewhat chill, but the older ones were acting WILD. Wilder than your first unsupervised Spring Break in Mexico. It was surreal.

And don’t get me started on the fact that Cannes is a FOR profit organization—but who is profiting exactly?

I remember waking up aching and crying without knowing why. I’m not even the crying type. But now I know, it was the pain of grief. I was grieving the loss of my dreams for a diverse industry focused on making a positive change. Of course my dream went to die in the land of million dollar yacht parties and magnum bottles of Rosé!

All of that extravangance showed me what the industry cared the most about: its ego. Its awards. And its lifestyle. Dassit.
Source: Google “Cannes Lions Party”, this is the first pic to come up. Accurate.

After Cannes, I fell into a deep depression, and it took me well over 2 years to recover and see clearly. The depression didn’t make me give up, I actually came back and started fighting harder because I had no other choice. I fought publicly for Diversity. I helped curate discussions around millennials and reverse mentorship; I started a movement to encourage people to declare themselves Feminists; I continued to mentor diverse professionals.

I fought alongside my peers and tried to never lose hope. We worked nights and weekends to bring real voices to the industry, to educate people on the lack of diversity and its consequences, to tell the stories of the diverse people trying to carve a path for themselves and those coming behind them, all without the proper tools.

We tried to warn the industry, to show them they needed us.

We wrote endless letters and emails recommending people for jobs they could master but still didn’t get.

We worked thrice as hard as our white counterparts to show what we were capable of. But we still didn’t get the proper recognition or compensation for the work we did. This happened over and over again. In conferences, at events, festivals and agencies.

There was much brouhaha about diversity, but the numbers simply didn’t add up.

Eight years into my career — as an ad creative and a Diversity advocate — I realized there were now even LESS people of color in the industry that there were when I’d started.

All the work we’d done didn’t seem to matter. Because the big boys at the top didn’t think WE mattered. At least not beyond paying lip service and checking a box.

So we began to leave. In droves. Myself included.

And here I am now. Jobless but full of hope again. I’ve quit my (almost) 6 figure job to pursue my dream and purpose. The same dream I had when I discovered the industry almost two decades ago. I came very far across the sea with hopes of making advertising what I thought it could be: a powerful tool that brings people together.

And guess what? I (we) will not rest until I achieve that dream.

The thing is, I’m not the only one yearning to speak my truth. We are everywhere. We are each doing our part. But, we have begun to understand that the industry will never let us do our thing and so we leave and create our own path.

Don’t get me wrong. We love advertising. We always will. But we can’t keep torturing ourselves. We’re going to have to do it our way.

Assimilation was never the right answer.


The industry still doesn’t fully understand Diversity.

Diversity is not about hiring people of different races or genders and then asking them to edit themselves to fit in. It’s not about letting them sink or swim in a culture that is not welcoming. True Diversity means you hire them, then get out of their way and let them take the lead.

In order for Diversity to thrive, the boys club will have to take a step back, listen and FOLLOW. There’s no other way.

After the world’s worst election, the reality really settled in. This isn’t only an ad industry problem, it’s a societal problem. It’s an America problem. There is tons of hate, racism, sexism and even more misunderstanding plaguing our world. If this isn’t the time to step up and speak the truth, I don’t know when is.

In 2020, the majority of the children in the U.S. will be non-white. That’s the
new generation. That’s our future. And it is Diverse AF. If we don’t create for them, we will become obsolete. Our brands and businesses will become obsolete.

We are in a critical time of change, and only the ones who can imagine the future will survive it.

After eight years of oppression, discrimination and countless bizarre encounters in the advertising industry, I finally see the truth.

This is not only about business, it’s also about morals. What can we do NOW to change a little piece of the world? What can we do NOW to bring people together? To heal societies with the power we have. To contribute to the good. Wouldn’t that be a huge achievement? Certainly one that’ll last well beyond any awards ceremony…

The last advertising revolution happened in the 50s and it completely changed the face of the industry. The Diversity revolution is next. And it will change everything.

Agencies will begin to fold if they don’t stop everything they’re doing and seriously address the lack of diverse leadership in the industry. What the industry is currently doing is NOT enough.

It. Is. Not. Enough.

Do better.

Try harder.

Real change will not come from organizations but from individuals. You cannot change a system, but you can change the people in it, and together we can tackle the system.

After quitting my job, a sense of zen and calm came over me. My dream and purpose of using advertising to bring people together has never been clearer. I cannot achieve this dream at any ad agency — because they’re not ready.

But I am. We are.

I will wait no longer. I will no longer ask for understanding or permission from organizations who only care about the bottom line. I will no longer allow myself to be tasked with fixing problems that I didn’t create.

It’s time to rise up and do better. It’s time to organize and create for the future we’ve always known was coming. And it’s time to start having real and honest conversations and (debates!) and stop patting ourselves on the back. Enough.

Now is the time to take action.
Let’s get to work.

Like what you read? Give Mariam Mouna a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.