Marketing, Racism, and Two Octobers

As companies started expressing public support for the Black Lives Matter movement and protests against police violence, I felt conflicted. While I and many of our team support these things, who are we to make a public statement? More specifically, what good is a public statement from any company in the face of big societal changes? How does it actually change things? And I have to admit, public statements from companies engender a fair amount of distrust in me. How do I know if a statement reflects actual values and action, versus just good PR? I tend to look for evidence that a business is applying values in an impactful way, and if I’m being honest, we weren’t actually doing all that much.

But as a values-driven company, and one that encourages employees to bring their whole selves to work, we need to step up. Our team asked for more–and some former employees even provided a nudge. We opened up the conversation, so everyone could have a voice in how we could and should grow:.

  1. We started by acknowledging that these events outside our company were impacting our team. People don’t leave the outside world at the door when they show up at work. So we want to notice and give space for people to be who they are, all of who they are, at work.
  2. We used the occasion of Juneteenth to initiate the use of company time for personal education and reflection on race. Team members have been sharing resources they’re using to educate themselves, which has generated a great list of movies, podcasts, articles, books, and organizations. 
  3. We held discussions, with topics led by the group. We talked about public statements, we talked about what we as individuals and as a company can do by putting in time & effort. And we brought the discussion to two areas where our work is most affected by racism: in marketing’s lack of diversity in the workforce, and in how racism plays out in the execution of marketing.

Diversity in the workforce 

Marketing and advertising is not a very diverse industry. Only 0.7% of advertising executives nationwide are Black. In Colorado, where 33% of the population is not white, we see mostly white people at conferences, networking events and our own offices. We want to hire from a more diverse pool, but the candidates we see have been predominantly white. 

What more can we do? We’ve advertised job openings on diversity-oriented websites, to little avail. Earlier this year, we realized we needed to think about how individuals get into the pipeline of job candidates in the first place. So, several people on our team have started developing a job training program aimed at removing barriers to access to our profession. The team is working with several state agencies to get it approved as a Registered Apprenticeship, which will provide a framework for other employers to get involved. We are very excited to join a small, but growing number of organizations creating professional apprenticeships as a viable career path for marginalized people. We’ll be sharing more as we make progress.

Racism and the practice of marketing

For another perspective on racism and work, we looked at how racism played out in our profession. What does marketing itself do to perpetuate racism? We held a brainstorming discussion with a high-level prompt: Where do marketing and race interact? How is marketing part of the problem?

The discussion was engaging and lots of individuals contributed. The biggest takeaway: just having the discussion is valuable to thinking more deeply and bringing awareness to things often unseen. Beyond that, we uncovered a few things that we want to consider as we do business going forward:

  • There has been at least one situation where a client asked us to use ad targeting that was specifically intended to racially bias. We successfully sidestepped the issue, but our process for handling such a request hasn’t been clear. We want to develop a more explicit policy for addressing values concerns with clients.
  • We realized that there could be unintended racial implications with some of the targeting methods we use, such as household income or zip codes. So we are researching the racial implications of targeting methods, and will be sharing our findings. 
  • As we increasingly rely on algorithms in marketing (such as Google’s automated bid strategies), what implicit biases do these perpetuate? As users of these algorithms, how can we measure the implications, and how can we respond?

Key takeaways for Two Octobers

For many of us, this was our first substantive conversation about race in a workplace environment. We talk about gender bias, harassment, and family-friendly policies. We talk about accessibility of information on the web for people with disabilities. We talk about encouraging a diversity of thought to generate better ideas. But focusing specifically on race generated new ideas and thoughts.

We were uncomfortable talking about these things, and that was okay. Some of us wanted reassurance afterwards that we hadn’t said the wrong thing, and that’s also okay. It’s all part of educating ourselves, broadening our awareness, and being comfortable asking questions and speaking up. 

Key takeaways for me

I took a class in college about the history of Black education in America in which part of the grade was based on class participation. In a classroom full of Black students who, I reasoned, had more experience with the topic, I didn’t think I had much to add to the discussion. I didn’t participate much. I have to admit I was intimidated.

That class has stuck with me because I failed to rise to the challenge of overcoming my discomfort. Speaking about racism out loud when I am not an expert on the topic doesn’t come naturally. But whatever I do to read, watch, and educate myself, it’s only in my actions and discussions with others that I can start to actually contribute towards anti-racism. 

Getting started was the hardest step. Fear of making mistakes, unintentionally hurting someone’s feelings, and showing my ignorance held me back. But the discussions themselves have been fruitful, for my own thinking and for others at the company.

In the spirit of curiosity, learning, and continuous improvement, I look forward to more conversations that help us explore what racism means in this country and how our profession wittingly and unwittingly supports racism. It’s all part our goals at Two Octobers to become better humans and a better company.

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