Where Are All the Black People?

A couple of months ago, I got an email from Zach Woolfork, a recent college graduate from Cal State Long Beach. It read, in part:

You have some awesome work and a bunch of experience under your belt. I am a Graphic Designer and an aspiring Art Director from California, 3 years out of college. So I have a question.

What are some of the challenges of being an African American Art Director in the industry? What advice would you share to someone like myself trying not to be discouraged by the scarcity of prominent African Americans in Advertising?

I attended California State University, Long Beach and I studied under Archie Boston and Mike Whitlow. I met with them regularly and I never asked them that question because it was kind of a non-verbal understanding, that being a Black Designer seemed to be a greater challenge.

I was kinda flabbergasted. On the one hand, the fact that I’m at the stage of my career where young creatives are looking to me for advice is kinda mind boggling. I know for a fact I haven’t figured anything out yet, so I’m not entirely sure I’m the one who should be giving out advice. On the other hand, this graduate is going through the same struggles, and facing the same barriers that I’m facing as a black creative, and if I can’t crack the shell, how in the hell can I lift him up to do the same? If I had a dollar for every time a recruiter saw my portfolio, and excitedly told me about a job opening over the phone, only for that opportunity to turn into an “informational interview” when I walked into the lobby, I probably wouldn’t need to work.

The really weird thing about all of this was at the time, I was reading through Archie Boston’s memoir, Fly in the Buttermilk, whom Zach studied under in college. The thing that really stood out to me was that Mr. Boston acknowledged that while things were going to be harder for him because he was black, he wasn’t really bitch too much about it-he just went out and did great work. Talking to Zach further, it seemed as if that carried over into his teachings as well. I’ve never really bitched too about my career-I’ve just chalked it up to my work not being good enough, and up until the last few years, I hadn’t really put a ton of energy into improving my situation. But when I made that switch to really chasing a career in advertising a few years ago, I noticed something interesting.

In the last three years of talking to agencies, taking classes in agencies, and just kinda being around advertising in Seattle and Minneapolis, I have encountered exactly zero people who look like me. I had chalked it up to being in Seattle and Minneapolis, where there aren’t a ton of black people anyway, but to find out this is a problem industry-wide, it left me completely speechless. I had a conversation with a creative director in Minneapolis a few months ago who told me he was trying to think of the other black guy he knew working in advertising until he realized he was thinking of me. How is this okay?

Advertising has a diversity problem-everyone seems to acknowledge it, nobody’s proud of it, but nobody can really explain why it’s happening, and I don’t understand why. Why does this happen? Are black designers in college being pushed towards graphic design away from art director positions? Are black high school kids being pushed towards more “scholarly” majors? Is this a problem in the black community-are we telling ourselves that the only acceptable career is one where you make a ton of money? Are veteran black creatives just giving up on advertising and move toward being an independent creative? I want to ask the questions, but will anyone answer? Is anything being done to address this?

Excerpt from The Pursuit of Passion: Diversity in Advertising

Luckily, the answer appears to be yes. The Marcus Graham Project, named for Eddie Murphy’s ad executive character in Boomerang, is entering its sixth year of training and mentoring young minority creatives in all “all aspects of the media industry, including advertising, entertainment and marketing”. VCU Brandcenter and The 4As celebrates the diversity that exists with its’ inspiring film, The Pursuit of Passion: Diversity in Advertising. The AdColor Industry Coalition honors  professionals of color and companies who to further diversity with its annual AdColor Awards. Earlier this month, the One Club held their second annual Where Are the Black People? Career Fair in New York City. Hundreds of Black creatives, rookie and veteran, gathered for a fascinating roundtable discussion on the struggles Black creatives face in the advertising industry. I was inspired how they kept their head down and kept hustling in the face of adversity. I wished I could have been there to be a part of the discussion. And that’s the problem-all of these conversations are happening everywhere but here in Seattle.

So, dammit, I’m going to do it myself.

Over the next few months, I’m going to reach out and have a conversation with creative directors, art directors, hiring managers, teachers and anyone else in Seattle that will sit down with me, to try and answer the very simple question, “Where Are All the Black People?” Maybe we can have a roundtable like The One Club did in New York. Maybe we can set up a creative network like the Marcus Graham Project. I feel very certain there are a number of young black creatives here in the Pacific Northwest with no idea what to do next-let’s help each other. I’m not doing this to get a job. I’m doing it because I want to help guys like Zach, and the next generation of black creatives, and to give a voice to those of us who don’t live in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles.

Oh, my response to Zach?

It took me a while to write this, because I feel compelled somewhat to tell you that it all gets better at some point, but to be completely honest, I’m still struggling with the same issues you’re going through-even after eleven years in the business.

It sounds cliché to say, but it seems like you really have to do 150% more as a black creative in this industry to really get ahead. […] But if I put everything I have into a freelance pitch or job interview, I can at least leave those opportunities feeling that if they turn me down, it’s their loss.

My advice: work your ass off, keep creating work, and don’t settle. People are going to try and tell you that you’re a great “technical designer” and place you in production jobs, less creative design jobs, or in-house stuff. And there’s nothing wrong with any of those jobs, but if you want to be an art director, go be an art director. Don’t settle for anything less.


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