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Making Meaningful Change For BIPOC in the Marketing Industry with Joél Leon

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Joél Leon is a Sr. Copywriter for Taylor Strategy, a PR agency based in New York City. He’s the definition of creativity and empathy. He’s also a performer, an actor, a storyteller, father, and “recovering rapper” (according to his profile). He’s done TED talks. Has been featured on HBO, News Week, BBC News, and Forbes.

He’s also a Black man working in the digital marketing industry, a person who is passionate about telling stories for Black people. Today he joins Garrett on the Agency Ahead podcast to discuss what we should be talking about when it comes to getting more Black voices into the marketing industry.

joel leon website

The highlights:

  • [1:37] Problems and solutions.
  • [6:35] Nurturing and inspiring BIPOC contributors.
  • [9:16] Creating an agency culture that works for everyone.
  • [13:10] Taylor Strategy’s Town Hall approach.
  • [16:43] Encouraging people to speak out and address racism.
  • [21:35] Learning to identify and break unhelpful “norms.”
  • [25:07] Why we need to talk more about empathy.
  • [28:41] Joél’s cause.

The insights:

What should we be talking about when it comes to Black voices in marketing? What are some of the problems, what are some of the solutions?

Joél talked about the need for agencies to start cultivating young talent. He discussed how his first agency, Deep Focus (now Engine Group), took a chance on him.

“I was an essayist. I’d been writing a lot of essays for at the time. And my social media profile had been growing exponentially. So, my first foray into the space was as a social media publisher, which I was horrible at. But Deep Focus gave me the opportunity to do what they were calling a stretch role. And a stretch role is essentially where roles that were built out that would allow you to stretch into other departments you might have an interest in so that you could then cultivate a career in those spaces. I didn’t even know what a copywriter was, per se.”

Joél learned everything hands-on, but he thinks there needs to be another norm.

“Imagine a world in which if I was 17, 18, and an advertising, marketing, creative, whatever agency would have come and spoken to me about the potential opportunities of being a creative, what that means, and what that looks like. That might have changed some stuff for me.”

He did mention two programs that do help BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of color) individuals build their portfolios: Creative Circus, and The One School.

creative circus
one school

Black hiring in the marketing agency world: Problems and Solutions

Joél also mentioned that there needs to be a shift in where HR directors are doing their recruiting“HR is pulling from the same circle of resources. You’re only as big as your circle is.”He says he was a hybrid, someone who was able to use his experience as a creative individual to get hired.
“There are a shit ton of other Black and brown folks who I’m sure of aren’t aware of the mechanics and what it involves to work at an agency. Who would benefit from the chance to work at an agency. If you start really young you’re creating an opportunity for those students well in advance.”
In short, he wants to see marketing agencies really start investing in training people in those communities that don’t have the same access some white colleagues have as they come into the space.

Nurturing and inspiring BIPOC contributors

Joél notes that his agency is really taking on a lot of BIPOC interns, and is recruiting out of HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities).

“Just start there, not even just HBCUs but [ask] what other communities can we go into like marginalized low-income communities. Provide them not just with resources and access.”

He provided a few ideas, like working with the local Boys and Girls Club, or other nonprofits that work with a lot of Black and brown youth.

“[Ask] how you bring them into your workspace or have the workspace come to them, so they get an idea, a semblance of what it looks like, what it feels like to work out of an agency and what that could mean.”

Creating an agency culture that works for everyone

Garrett noted that just getting BIPOC people into the space isn’t enough. He asked what kind of agency culture would help marginalized people want to stay in the industry.

“Communication,” says Joél. “Communication is a big deal. Communication within departments.”

He compared it to the experience of working in theater.

“Every person is integral to the production. It’s really easy to get into a combative space like: we’re creatives, we’re strategy, and this is accounts, and this is the production side – as opposed to: how do all of these elements work together, in essence, to create a product?”

He finds value in building team structures, team dynamics, and knowing people.

“When the community is solid, the work is solid. If you’re a VP and you don’t know what’s going on with the interns, that’s problematic.”

He notes you don’t have to like everybody, but he says that’s also not the point. The point is:

“Being able to work together cohesively, and being able to communicate so that when ideas come through the pipeline there’s open dialogue about either a) an idea is great, or b) disagreeing with an idea in a way that’s respectful and mindful.”

He says it’s very important that people be able to communicate with the president, with the VP, with whomever. “If that doesn’t exist, for me, that’s problematic.”

Taylor Strategy's town hall approach

Taylor Strategy has regular “Town Halls.” Joél uses it as an example of how people can be honest and intentional about how they communicate with each other.

taylor strategy

Source: Taylor Strategy

Joél mentions a conversation about Black Lives Matter that came up in one of Taylor Strategy’s Town Halls. “Tony [Signore, the CEO] just said: Joél, I want you to take the floor, speak your mind, speak your truth.”

“I came up with some guardrails for allies, specifically white allies. Giving me the floor to call a spade a spade. Hey, listen. You have to be mindful of how you speak to your Black colleagues, especially your Black woman colleagues. You have to learn how to read the room. There were a lot of different things. I was kind of speaking off the cuff.”

But leadership immediately acted. “Brianna, who is our VP of Creative, was essentially like: we should make a thing out of this. We should put some art behind it, write these down, make this like a guide book.”

He said this was an example of leadership that is open to criticism and critique, and who is looking for ways to change. He encourages the leadership of any agency to take ego out of the equation

“Recognize it’s never personal. [Ask] how do we make this work better. How do we make our teams better and stronger? Be willing to be receptive to those kinds of conversations.”

He also notes Town Halls can be used for almost anything.

“How is the staff? Are staff tired all the time? Is staff staying till 3 AM working on a deadline for everything? Some things might call for that, especially new business stuff, but it shouldn’t happen on every project. That means we’re not managing time appropriately. That means we’re not communicating from the top down.”

Encouraging people to speak out and address racism

Joél shares a story about his 20-year-old nephew.  “He just got this new job. He was hopping on a call. His father, whom I love dearly, my brother, had told him to make sure he didn’t wear his do-rag on the call. I had a conversation with him after the call. Man. Listen. Next time just keep your do-rag on.”He said he didn’t want to be a contrarian to his brother, but
“we have to establish what the norms are. Why is one thing appropriate and another thing inappropriate? What does that mean? Part of that is us being able to lean into our truths more often.”
He says it’s not just about Black men and women, but all marginalized communities.
“For nonbinary folks. For women. There can be a level of microaggression that you’re not sure of.”
Ideally, people would feel safe to be who they are, and if they don’t feel safe, well, the conversation has to start.  

joel leon instagram
Source: Instagram

“Start with a colleague you trust first. Get them to weigh in. Validation is important.” He says you can then move on to managers and HR people.

“But discernment plays a big part in that. Discernment allows us to say: okay, given the context of the situation, was this an actual microaggression? Based on the truth of what I’ve known about this person, what I’ve seen about this person, is this something that’s happened before that I’ve heard from my colleagues?”

Someone who maybe just said something stupid or careless can be addressed individually and will likely be very mindful about doing better in the future.

He also says some people aren’t racists.

“They’re just assholes. That doesn’t excuse it. I think that needs to be addressed just as much. Far too often, especially in creative spaces, if a person is creative they get to be an asshole. No! You still need to show up as a human being.”

He says he just feels there are a lot of ways to put a lens on the situation.

“But if it makes you feel uncomfortable you have to communicate that.”

He says he always suggests people put together a written breakdown of what happened, even if it’s just an email to the manager about it.

“It’s very easy for something to become a ‘he said / she said / they said’ as opposed to saying: here’s a document, this is how it was addressed, and having some record of that.”

Learning how to identify and break unhelpful "Norms"

Garrett pointed out that this idea of changing norms and being yourself is totally doable. “Especially with the pandemic, we’ve proven that norms can be broken in a second. People used to go to the office wearing a shirt and tie. Now people are at home from Zoom in their sweatpants and people are cool with it.” Norms can become an excuse, a way to justify prejudice. Joél agrees. He talked a little bit about how some Buddhist ideas are really appealing to him right now and how one of them is asking himself how he brings his spirit into a space.“Far too often we tend to think what we care about doesn’t get to live in our work. Or we separate our work from what we’re doing on spirit, whatever that work might be. I’m not even talking about a religious practice per se or faith, but: what are the things I care about? We tend to think we don’t get to bring those things into the spaces we work in. Especially when we’re talking about advertising. For me, it’s kind of been about debunking that.”He says he likes to ask why a lot.
“Why do we use acronyms all the time? Acronyms can make communities feel like the work is inaccessible. We’re using jargon. Jargon that’s familiar to the industry as opposed to just honestly speaking English.”
Why do we do things a certain way? He says he’s even seen that it’s abnormal to be kind or empathetic in brainstorms or pitches.
“It’s easy to blame it on all the other things. That’s just the industry. No. The industry can change. We can change the industry if we want to. We have to do the work. We have to be willing to do the work to get there.”
He also says that you can call plenty of things out without being unkind about it.  
“Being kind doesn’t mean you don’t get to call a spade a spade or call bullshit when I see something that doesn’t sit well with me. Or, if it’s in idea territory, doesn’t make sense.”
He calls on everybody to challenge things they see in a constructive way. He says the industry doesn’t do enough of that.

Bringing empathy into the conversation

Joél says that the marketing industry doesn’t talk about empathy at all.

“It’s the last thing that ever comes up. It’s always all about the deliverables.”

He pauses and says:

“I don’t give a fuck about the deliverables if the people who are delivering the work aren’t happy about what they’re doing in the place they show up at. Or at least mindful, and intentional, and feeling good about it.”

What does this mean?

“Workplaces don’t need to be toxic! If we’re upholding misogyny and patriarchy and all these other systems that really oppress marginalized communities it doesn’t matter who you hire. I don’t care. Yes, I want talented people, but I don’t want to just fill quotas. I don’t want a Black man who is practicing Black misogyny in the space. I don’t want a white woman who is practicing misogyny in the space. We have to do a better job of being more connected to the values.”

He admits that people don’t always show their true colors at first. “Nobody’s going to say: hey, I assault women, or hey, I don’t like Black people. But there’s something to be said for looking at the values a person brings.”

He says a lot of agencies suffer because they have their values up on a wall, or in a book somewhere, but haven’t refreshed that wall or that book in many years.

“They’re using it as language but are not invested in the actual implementation of that language in order to ensure the people who show up in these spaces feel safe, feel seen, feel heard, feel understood.”

Then he reiterated it: “I don’t care about the work if people are suffering while they’re doing that work. It doesn’t matter at that point.”

What’s your right now cause?

Joél asks our listeners to support causes attached to the celebration and creation of safe spaces for Black trans women. Here’s a list to get you started.

“I forget the percentage, but black trans women are murdered at astronomical rates when compared to other communities.”

He also had some final thoughts about the industry.

“I think about not just hiring but who is doing the hiring. Who are the recruiters? Who are the faces of recruitment?”

He used the film industry as an example.

“Yes, I definitely do care about who is in front of the camera, who’s in the room, but my argument now is: who owns the building? Who is deciding who gets to be in that room? Who is the HR person? Who are the directors and producers?

When you have those faces and personalities reflective and representative of who you want to be in the room, who gets to show up in the room, that changes dramatically.”

Being in the room at Taylor Strategy means that he’s gotten to give the names of influencers his white colleagues haven’t known about, for example.

Bringing it back to Black trans women:

“I’m not trans at all, but I think being receptive to the conversation and wanting to elevate that community is really important.

How can we give a bigger platform to Black trans women outside of just keeping them safe?

How can we provide opportunities?

There’s a reason why Black trans women go into sex work or go into other fields that might be dangerous. Part of that is because they lack the opportunities that exist outside of that space.

The more we can create opportunities for that community the more diverse we’ll be and the better we’ll be as a society and as an industry.”

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