Interview with Jennifer Clarke.
Jennifer Clarke is someone who always inspires me—full of energy, but equally zen, a strategic and creative heavyweight, always keen to support, with a smile that can warm the coldest of days.
She was a guest on Greater than 11%’s podcast earlier this year (click here to listen), but COVID-19 and the preparations for lockdown saw her quickly board a plane and return to the US to ride out the quarantine in her native, Pennsylvania.
Within a few short weeks of her being home, the horrific news of the brutal murder of George Floyd broke in the US. Sparking national outrage, it quickly spread across the globe, spotlighting the systemic, institutional racism which Black people face daily worldwide. It could no longer be denied or ignored.
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement—which has been campaigning since 2013 (and is one of many groups that have been advocating for equality for 100s of years)—mobilised. We saw (and continue to see) thousands of people join in sodality, insisting on justice for George Floyd—not just in relation to the crime of police brutality, but demanding radical change to every aspect of society.
Jen immediately deployed both her strategic and creative talents, compiling a survey that she disseminated across the Advertising industry both in the US and the UK, with a focus on creating a resource to help brands participate better in the Black Lives movement.
A couple of weeks later she, with Lelia D’Angelo and Rodney Collins digitally published a brilliantly detailed and practical “Black Lives Matter - For Marketers” pack. It is free and you can download here.
Regardless of what sector you work in, the resource is invaluable if you want to be better at allyship and learn more about what we can do to collectively improve our industries. Download it, read it, do the exercises, read it again and share it everywhere.
“Unravelling systemic racism doesn’t rest solely on your shoulders, but it has to start with you.”
Black Lives Matter - For Marketers - Volume 1
Renee: Jen, congratulations on creating such an incredible resource. You must have seriously been burning the midnight oil to pull it together so quickly? It has depth, provides guidance on how to be more present—involved. As well, it challenges the reader to do more, to do better.
Before I ask a few questions in relation to the “BLM For Marketers” pack—I want to ask how are you doing today? The past three months have been strange and there has been a lot of trauma in the US.
Jen: Thanks so much for your kind words. We all put in a lot of extra hours on this, even with full-time jobs, Rodney and Leila made time for it. I’m grateful for both.
Thanks for checking in with me Renee. And thanks for having me, you’re always kind. You’re also always thinking of others … there’s definitely a lesson there.
I am okay today, though admittedly this has been a difficult time. It’s forced me to address things in my own life that I buried in the interest of moving forward. I am glad to be in America for it too. If I was in the UK, I am not sure that I would feel it as acutely as I do here in the States.
While I am still very much Black when I am in the UK, I have found the UK’s version of racism to be more nuanced, and most people perceive me as an American first, and a Black person second. I noticed this when I first came to the UK at 23. Though there is racism in the UK, it was clear to me that I, as an individual, was not the particular focus of British racism—that’s a liberating feeling.
Racism in the US just feels much more violent—in all the ways that violence manifests: emotionally, economically, and of course physically. To be fair, and to add a bit of levity, everything in America is “extra” comparatively, so it’s not surprising that racism too would be carried to its logical platonic extreme.
The short answer is that I’m okay.
The longer answer is that being home for this moment has renewed in me a strong sense of duty. Seeing it up close, being in a country where people are being murdered for the color of their skin, fills one with a sense of urgency.
R: I’m glad you are doing okay. I really appreciate you taking the time to catch up and discuss the “BLM For Marketers” resource with the emotional toll of all that is going on right now. I’m also conscious that, the surfacing of past experiences and traumas that the acknowledgement on a broader cultural level, of a long history of discrimination and racism that Black people have been subjected to compounds the stress. So again, thank you!
We both work in the advertising and marketing sector, and it is no secret that the industry has known for decades that they are woefully poor when it comes to inclusivity and representation. This tends to be wrapped-up and referred to as “unconscious bias” (the polite way to couch: racist, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic and ablest attitudes) and the industry has been sluggish … moving at a glacial pace to really address this issue.
What was your thinking around creating a resource for marketers and the industry—what’s your ambition for its use?
J: Working in this industry you see that even people with the best intentions don’t have the benefit of lived-experience.—You see that while organizations invest in D&I, individual bad actors undermine those efforts with careless words, and careless acts. The perpetrators feign ignorance, but in my experience, at every stage in my career, I’ve encountered at least one person that was more than biased … they were flat out racist, or sexist or otherwise bigoted. They “hide in the light.” I wanted to gather data that makes it harder to hide the reality of what Black people experience at work.
For allies, without direct experiences, it’s hard to stay motivated. We all have to learn to discern the artifice of the bigot, and address their bad behavior. For instance, recently, in a job interview someone said that they needed to make sure that I wasn’t a “chocolate hollow bunny’’—that’s not a micro-aggression, that’s unequivocal racism. If confronted, that person would say that they didn’t know any better. However, if you work in this industry and you don’t know better, you lack the ability to do this kind of work. I digress, but these types of incidents are common in the workplace, and they dishearten young Black and Brown people and keep them from persisting in their careers.
One of the most powerful effects of racism is the poverty of spirit that it creates in its victims. Once feelings of doubt and despair creep into your mind, you’re going to struggle to keep going. Having lived this, and ignored it for many years, I knew I had to act. Not for myself, but for others.
At the same time, the only reason I persisted in my career is because I always had allies and mentors, people who believed in me and encouraged me to keep going. They, as you always say Renee, buoyed my spirits when I was at my lowest. I wanted this document to lift other people up, to let them know that they are not alone. I wanted allies to feel emboldened in their efforts to help.
My hope is that people in our industry will read this document and be able to bring its lessons into their work. I want people to consider that their experience may not be the same as the experiences of the populations they serve. I want this document to be an invitation to the willing. It’s an invitation to think differently about the work that we do.
R: Jen, reading this response suckered punched me. I am floored by the racist comment. The moment I read it, I was reminded of how my lived experience as a white woman can be completely removed from the direct racism that Black and Brown people face. Firstly, I’m sorry—I’m so sorry that you have had to deal with that (because those attacks linger in the mind, body and spirit) and secondly I’m ashamed (and raging) that within the industry (or any workplace), people know that is something they can say with impunity. I’ve also realised that I need to work harder in terms of my allyship. Sometimes I’m naïve, and that isn’t good enough, it makes me ignorant of how I can support and be a better ally.
J: Thank you for your compassion. Sadly, this is normal for Black people at work. That’s what we’re working to change. These conversations between friends are important. You’re a great ally Renee! Having the ears and heart to have this conversation is what allyship is.
R: To inform the document you created and circulated a survey, which focused on the advertising and marketing industry in both the US and the UK—what surprised you most from the data?
J: I was really shocked by the legacy of racism in our industry, on both sides of the pond. The stat that showed that advertising is the sixth most segregated career in the US was shocking. It’s also the sixth most elite in the UK. I started doing this because I loved it, and while I noticed that there were not a lot of other Black and Brown people around, I didn’t understand the extent of the problem.
I was heartbroken when I read the verbatim that said, “I’ve never worked in an environment that was safe for Black people.” I wasn’t heartbroken because it was shocking, I was heartbroken because I knew it to be true. At least in my experience. I have a saying, and it’s “be ready when they come for you.” I said that once to another Black person and they nodded and added, “because they always come for you.” What that means is that you inherently understand that if anything happens, you will be the scapegoat. You know that you must document everything. You know that even a small mistake or typo will reflect poorly on all of the Black people in advertising, everywhere, and perhaps all the Black people in the world. You carry the weight of that every day, and you learn to ignore it and perform anyway. This is no way to live. It’s time that the thinking, feeling people who are allies learn that this is what life is for many Black people in the workplace.
While calling out the Amy Coopers among us has traditionally been the job of Black and Brown people, it’s time for everyone who feels differently to speak up.
The other thing that was shocking was seeing the racist imagery in ads and how profound those images can be. They lay bare what is already lurking beneath. Looking through the right eyes, you come to understand that advertising tells you more about the people making the ads than they do about the brands in the ads.
Furthermore it led me to look and see more subversive forms of bigotry in advertising. While Black and Brown people are represented more frequently now, they are still in the margins of our communications … they are represented as the helper or the friend, but rarely the star of the show—unless they are celebrities. This reinforces many stereotypes, among them, that accumulating fame and fortune is the only way to be both acceptable in polite society and Black. This started to stand out to me. While we’ve come a long way, there’s still more work to do. Things won’t change until there is representation within our organizations.
That’s not to say that white people are incapable of representing other points of view, but our planners and creatives have to make a conscious decision to do so. We need more people like George Lois, controversial as he is as a figure, putting Muhammad Ali on the cover of Esquire. We need more art and we need more copy that moves people, that challenges them. We need more people taking calculated risks. We are dying as an industry and we need an entire generation of marketers to wake up and step into their power.
There’s a reason that the work isn’t working. Great advertising is a conversation between the client, the agency, and the consumer—but to have that conversation you must have something meaningful to say. You must cultivate a voice. And for it to be a good conversation, you have to care about and understand the people that you’re talking to. I believe this equation is broken, and I know that Black people aren’t substantively part of it at all.
As an aside, the shift to digital is not an excuse to ignore our duties. There are discrepancies in the way that people are targeted and serviced by companies that can and should be addressed, even down to the language we use, influencers we engage, etc. We can do better. It’s up to us as marketers—if not now, when? If not me, who?
R: I have worked in some toxic environments but the notion that there is a “scapegoat time bomb” in relation to your race is being in a perpetual state of hyper-vigilance. That is exhausting—soul destroying! Scientific evidence shows that constantly being in a hyper-vigilant state affects the immune system. This has come up time and time again on the >11% podcast—for those Black and Brown people whose talent was recognised and praised but soon found themselves being blocked from leadership roles (while their less skilled and talented colleagues got the jobs). They acknowledge they soon burnout as a result and left the industry. Deep trauma is at play in this structure.
The advertising and marketing sector CANNOT sidestep what is happening: the global call to unite and to really start to dismantle white-supremacy and truly work to create a more equal society. This element of “hyper-vigilance” in the workplace is something I am going to research, educate and act on for sure—thank you for sharing that.
Before my next question I want to flag that some of the racist brand campaigns referenced in your resource, I had not seen before (one in particular was so violent it made me physically recoil). They are all equally shocking but also stupid! As you say - they are tangible markers of who is making these adverts, how the industry keeps perpetuating (preserving) who gets access to the creative jobs and the leadership positions. We both know the mechanics of working on a campaign—there is a long process, involving many people. The fact that those adverts made it into the world and no-one, at any point was able to say (or be heard) “whoa this is really racist—we need to pull this campaign,” underlines the measurable evidence of systemic segregation and elitism.
Your pack is brilliant at tackling those issues—filled with suggestions and questions, asking the reader to reflect and act on both an individual and an organisational level. Two (and there were many) examples that leapt off the page for me were:
"Allyship starts are home"
"Would you want to be a Black person in the organization that you lead?"
At the back of the resource are practical exercises to help people develop their thinking and develop an action plan for their allyship. What informed the structure, layout and what was included in the document?
J: It’s not too far off from how I approach strategy and transformation work. To
move an organization forward you have to be aggressive when setting goals. You must be decisive. You must incorporate what you’re trying to achieve into your processes, your vision. I wanted to make it easier for people to do this. I wanted to provide a tool that aligned BLM efforts with the work that we already do. This should be something else that we consider when we are designing experiences and comms. Our global frameworks, templates, and briefs need to ask us to consider diversity.
I included a worksheet that has high-level goals and space for pragmatic action, as well as accountability. This is going to be a team effort, so we must start thinking that way. We must think in terms of systems if we are addressing a systemic problem.
The questions were questions I was asking myself as I was writing. I imagine the answers will be slightly different for everyone, but inquiry leads to answers, so we must inquire.
R: I get very impassioned (pissed-off) at the failings of the industry. When I got your survey, I struggled to really think of global brands that were truly diverse—through who they employ and in brand messaging. After completing it, I reflected that “perhaps I don’t know what is going on well enough?” When I read your findings, it was disheartening to realise that as an industry we are failing even more spectacularly than I thought. I’m keen to know what feedback you received on the “BLM For Marketers” from organisations?
J: I only surveyed people as individuals, I wanted to make sure not to call out any one company for doing a bad job. We need those companies as allies too, the one’s doing badly, and the ones who haven’t yet heard the call have a role to play. I have had a few calls from companies who wanted advisory on things they could do—I think this is a good sign. There is an earnest desire to do better.
And hearing in my mind the voice of Carly Simon, ‘nobody does it better’—when we apply ourselves as an industry, we can work miracles. Advertising is a bit like cheerleading in that way. There are people who are just playing at it, haphazardly shouting about this or that, and there’s room for that too. But for people that understand their power, those of us that consider ourselves professionals, it’s time to step up and become allies. This is just another part of our craft that we need to perfect.
I always say to people, “be encouraged,” and I mean it. The key message there is “courage.” It takes resiliency and strength in one’s heart to face these kinds of challenges. These are problems of compassion, and not brute force, and that’s a different kind of challenge than we normally talk about in business.
From a hiring and promotion standpoint it plays back to a lot of what I spoke about earlier—people struggle to persist in their careers. Because the problem starts in our schools, we have a limited pipeline for Black and Brown talent and we have more companies competing for top talent.
There’s also the class element in advertising. In the early stages of our careers we don’t earn as much as we could in other industries given the same skillset. It’s hard to forgo earning to “do what you love,” or even to break into “thought work”—this kind of work requires a lot of intellectual confidence, and when you have people peddling in spiritual poverty through disparaging acts and words, it’s tough. But again, be encouraged—find your allies and persist.
R: Yes, the pipeline is a major issue which is what I’m currently really focusing on within Greater than 11%. How do we get the information and knowledge of creativity as a viable career but also address subsequent barriers—who can afford to have a creative career? Entry level pay (or no pay) immediately screens out incredibly diverse talent because if you can’t pay your rent you can’t work for “expenses only.” I’m so passionate about these two elements—as discussed with you a few weeks back, I have something in the mix that is going to work at addressing it in the coming month—which I’m super excited about.
J: I can’t wait to see what you get up to! It’s always good.
R: I’ve noted “Volume 1” in the title, are their plans for further resources or something else?
J: Yes! I’ve reached out to a couple of organizations about partnering on another study in the next six months to a year. It would be great to do this with even more participants, or even at the company level, though I understand we’d have to anonymize data and put legal guardrails in place to protect companies.
Ideally, this would be something we did at the industry-level at regular intervals to track progress. I would love to see companies compete for best eNPS for all people, weighted to amplify the experiences of their minority populations. I would love to see companies shouting about the pragmatic steps they’ve implemented to bring about change. We must keep the momentum up. We’re in the age of double, triple, and even quadruple bottom lines—people, profit, planet, prosperity—meaning long—term thinking about what’s best for the many, not the few. This is a beginning.
R: That is amazing news, I’d love to learn more about who those organisations are who are putting their money where their mouth is—beyond just making some “supportive noise” at this moment. Yes to interval reviews—that is logical to improve and change anything. Looking forward to seeing what comes next.
Jen, thank you so much (as well as Lelia and Rodney) for taking the time, effort and energy to create such a useful and practical resource.
J: Thank you always Renee, for asking thought provoking questions, and eloquently said at that! And thanks too for having me.
If you've got to the end of the document and haven't downloaded "Black Lives Matter For Marketers" as yet, no need to scroll to the top you can do so HERE.
Jen, Lelia and Rodney worked to create a resource free for all. You are encouraged to use and share it - send it to your manager, HR department, social groups, friends and family.
You can reach Jen via Linkedin: Jennifer R Clarke.
Jennifer Clarke is Strategist | Writer | CX and Integrated Experiences Expert | Mapping Guru. She translates brand ambitions into impactful, effective experiences. When she isn't strategising, she spends her time painting, practicing yoga, writing screenplays and going to festivals.
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