As many of my millions of readers know, my wife is also in the advertising business, making her prodigious living as a creative director in the healthcare realm of the industry.
For the last three years, since she left a giant holding company agency after decades of service and four decades of acclaim, she has been freelancing.
Along the way, Laura (my wife) has freelanced for Michael Austin. He's currently Managing Director of GSW NY and LA, Creative & Technology. My wife, speaks of Michael as a rare breed: a mensch in a world of minnows. A stand-up, honest, hard-working creative person who is more about substance than nonsense.
Over the weekend, Michael published the article below. I thought it was worth reprinting. And I do so with Laura's help and Michael's permission.
Thank you, Laura. And even more-so, thank you, Michael.
I have 45 years’ worth of stories about being black in a white world. But this note is focused on the 20 of those years spent in creative departments of advertising agencies. The advice I always give to younger creatives is—trust your voice. This is me taking my own advice. I’ve been asked to speak up at work. And I’ve struggled with what doing that will really accomplish, other than relieve others with paler skin from having to own the uncomfortable spotlight of the moment for how messed up our office corridors are, not just our city streets.
I’ve never had a black boss in all the years I’ve been in this always crazy, sometimes maddening, occasionally intoxicating game called advertising. For my caucasian constituents, think about if you’d spent your entire career only reporting to black bosses. And 96% of your colleagues looked like your boss and not you. Hard to imagine. But you know you’d settle in and get down to it, deadlines looming, clients clamoring. To spend time and energy doting on the ethnic makeup of the shop would be of no use. You’d just deal. That’s certainly what I’ve done.
Sadly, I think you can correlate how much hope you have in this moment for things changing by how old you are. How long you’ve settled in and just gotten down to it. My dad is the proudest black man you’ll ever come across. He has an inner strength that I marvel at. But ask him what he thinks about Black Lives Matter and he says, “it’ll be interesting to see what the system does.” He’s been hardwired through his 78 years’ worth of stories about being black in a white world to not give the system the benefit of the doubt.
And therein lies the record scratch America is living right now. The viciousness of the system was caught on tape, in broad daylight, with no initial hint of remorse from the system. How can anyone watch that and think that the black community can afford to give the system the benefit of the doubt.
Settling in and just getting down to work (wherever you work) does nothing to combat the inertia of racism that plagues all of us. It’s been free flowing for so long. It has centuries of momentum on its side.
I spent the first half of my career working up the ladder in the trenches of creative departments. Trying really hard to get to ideas that stuck on the wall, back when printing out was a thing. It wasn’t me that I was selling, I was selling my ideas. There was a freedom to that. I wasn’t conscious of it back then but I think I found comfort in letting my work speak for itself. It felt like an equal playing field. It was my brain and heart on the wall, not my skin color. Never once in all my years did I feel my work was slighted cause the creative arbiter of the moment was racially biased against me. Thank God. And it does me NO good to speculate otherwise. I guess this is me giving the creative system in any agency worth its salt the benefit of the doubt. But that’s because I revere the creative process. To this day I have a very romantic notion of an agencies mission to use creativity to solve problems.
I do think things have changed as I’ve moved up into leadership positions. As the stakes have risen and my titles escalated, so have the suspicions of me as “other”.
When asked about the role gender played in her unsuccessful presidential run, Elizabeth Warren replied, “You know that is the trap question for every woman. If you say, yeah there was sexism in this race, everyone says . And if you say no, there was no sexism, about a bazillion women think – what planet do you live on?”
I know what planet I live on. And I think our majority white populace just got a raw sneak peek into it. It’s a world that is overtly racist at times, covertly racist always. We have an idea of America that is intertwined with exceptionalism. Heartbreakingly, the idea of America has proven threadbare.
But as an ad guy, I still love the idea. As a human, I still love the idea. As a man and a father, I still love the idea. But the idea of America has certainly borne strange fruit.
As my agency positions have ascended, so has the lily whiteness of the rungs. And I stick out on those rungs. My smile gets coded as mischievous. “Up to no good” simply because I’m managing to smile through it all. My personality sometimes coded as disingenuous. My confidence coded as arrogance. My intent coded through an imperceptible haze of doubt. That I’m more interested in siding with ‘the people’ than with ‘leadership’. In an effort to decode me, because I’m not the norm, I get coded. And that experience is at best exhausting and at worst stifling – dare I say suffocating.
But my wiser than wise dad has taught me, “If you put yourself in a box, then the system doesn’t have to. And then you’ve done its job for it.” It’s no cakewalk out here, trying to exist and flourish outside of a box. But being outside of the box is the point of being alive as I see it. Automaton existence is no existence for me. That’s why I’m in advertising—to get paid to roam outside of the box.
What I want:
I don’t want a diversity club, I want the agency. What I want is for ad agencies to overthrow the conditioned racist thinking that chokes the hiring, promotion and unbridled embrace of black employees in other kinds of companies. I expect more from ad agencies. Novel thinking is an agency’s stock in trade. Semantics lesson: novel thinking is diverse thinking.
(Similarly, I don’t want a month, I want the calendar. I don’t want a lawn sign, I want the house. I don’t want a civil rights act, I want the constitution. I don’t want a single president, I want the presidency. I don’t want a fleeting moment of being seen, I want the country to never unsee again. I don’t want woke sympathy, I want lasting humanity.)