Building Diverse Agencies with Social Impact Strategist Kirstyn Nimmo

social impact strategist Kirstyn Nimmo

A social impact strategist help brands and organizations connect with their true purpose. 

Social impact strategist Kirstyn Nimmo builds disruptive campaigns like #IAmAMan for justice reform, the Purina partnership that opened NYC’s first pet-friendly domestic violence shelters, and the #WithoutMom campaign, just to name a few. She’s worked with brands like L’Oreal, Nespresso, Tiffany & Co., the Chan Zuckerberg Institute, and Samsung, just to name a few.

She’s recently founded GOOD WORX, a social innovation consultancy developed to help drive equality and equity among marginalized communities.

She’s a 2016 Shorty Social Good Social Justice award winner and advises companies to look at their own DNA and rebuild their brand before they get called out for problematic behavior, as well as championing both the marketing industries and the power of brands in general to influence broader cultural narratives.

Today Kirstyn joins Garrett on the Agency Ahead podcast to talk about what the landscape looks like for BIPOC communities and what our industry could be doing better.

The highlights:

  • [2:05] What it’s like to be a Black female in the ad agency space.
  • [3:51] Current problems, and solutions for improvement.
  • [6:27] Red flags in organizational culture.
  • [9:09] Dealing with clients who display inappropriate or racist behavior.
  • [11:30] What happens when Black voices are ignored or challenged.
  • [16:07] Authenticity in inclusive messaging.
  • [17:49] An example of effective action.
  • [19:49] How brands can choose their approach.
  • [23:03] Kirstyn’s Causes

The insights:

Kirstyn's experiences

First, a bit of background.

“I’ve spent about seven years of my 12-year career in the agency environment. I’ve done full-time work and also consulting, which allowed me the opportunity to bounce around on projects with different agencies. That experiencing has been very rewarding, if really challenging at times.”

Kirstyn says she’s had a lot of experiences that are really impacted by the fact that she’s a Black woman in that environment.

“Often the only Black woman. Sometimes the only woman of color at the table. I’ve sat with leadership of different brands, global brands who sometimes were surprised by my appearance once I entered the room after having lots of calls with them and leading their brands through challenges.”

She said it took some work to overcome that surprise and to just push through it. 

“I feel like despite the slight increase of people of color and Black people at agencies there’s so much opportunity to present and it really takes alignment throughout the entire organization, but there’s a lot that can be done to really focus on true diversity when it comes to agencies and the industry.”

Black hiring in the marketing agency world: Problems and Solutions

“The first problem that pops up,” says Kirstyn, “is that it’s very natural for HR and for recruiters to look for key indicators that overlap with their own experience.”

She brought up LinkedIn as an example.

“You’re overlapping connections with someone, right? And that can really, easily limit you to a bubble, who is in your community, who is very similar to you, and it makes it easy to stay within that.”

She says she would really like to see HR and recruiters undergo mandatory bias training.

“That can really motivate the way they reach out to people or don’t reach out to people, or feel someone is a culture fit or not a culture fit.”

She describes a sort of inertia that keeps people locked into doing the same thing over and over again.

“When you think of some of the universities that agencies recruit at, it’s often because someone on the executive team went there, or one of the recruiters has a relationship there. And so being really intentional about looking outside of that is so important.”

While Kirstyn didn’t seem to be indicating she thought many of these recruiters were being malicious, she did make it clear that additional thought is required to end these inequalities.

“Systematic inequality in this country has intentionally blocked Black people from a lot of those places, universities, those companies that people see on a resume or feel familiarity with. So it’s really important to be committed to stepping outside of that.”

Yet she also wants to see more Black students exposed to the advertising industry in general.

“I think there is a lack of outreach from the agency world to really connect and ensure those opportunities are really represented. That this type of work is something that is taught and that Black students know is a potential way they can impact culture and activate on their own talents.

But again, agencies really need to believe in this and foster it, and everyone needs to feel empowered to be able to take those leaps and then support the talent that comes in.”

Red flags in organizational culture

Kirstyn explains that she has often had some uncomfortable experiences while working in certain organizations. 

“I feel like my successes entering the agency world really has a lot to do with the fact that a lot of my experience overlaps with those of HR and recruiters, where I can relate to them and be a culture fit in the way they see it.

As someone who has attended majority white private schools a lot of my life and was afforded the opportunity to get that education and some of that access that isn’t necessarily always offered or ensured to Black people, and that has helped me to ensure that people feel really comfortable around me.”

While this has afforded her opportunities and has made it easy to “get the culture references right, the things that make people really comfortable,” it has also led to some cringe-worthy situations.

“For example, a certain Black person may be removed from an account and replaced with me, because something wasn’t working, the client didn’t feel completely comfortable.

That reference to that ambiguous culture fit pops up, so it’s a very clear example of an agency wanting to show that there’s diversity but ensure that diversity is in a comfortable package for the client and everyone else on the account.”

She relays a similar story of being younger, in middle school, when she would be pulled out of class for any photoshoot just to make sure the school looked diverse.

When clients are disrespectful

Sometimes the agency isn’t the problem. As agencies and consultants, we’re all familiar with problem-child clients, but what happens when they start to create a hostile environment for our Black employees?

“Those situations are really tough,” says Kirstyn. “Especially since advertising agencies tend to be so client-first. Which I totally understand, but in situations where a client is intolerant and ignorant to those brought in to work on the account, it can be very uncomfortable.”

Kirstyn says that she believes agencies have a responsibility in this circumstance.

“Agencies and their leadership really need to champion the presence and the celebration of everyone they’ve staffed an account with. When someone is brought onto the team they need to be supported and defended. They’re there because their work is excellent, and everything outside that should really be secondary.”

She encourages agencies to really band behind their staff and make them feel like they are supported if they need to speak out about things that may happen on accounts.

“Clients are also more successful when there’s more diversity on their teams. Black culture is American culture, and missing out on having Black people on teams, especially in leadership, is a miss for the client.

I think that agencies have a really great opportunity to educate clients, remind them that when they’re thinking about consumers that representation should be a factor, the people they want to sell and market to are diverse, and so, therefore, having diverse thought in the room is the only way to really reach those audiences.”

Why diversity makes companies stronger

“Connection and proximity to a situation drive empathy, which opens people up to education and then allows them to take action. Whether that is a social impact action or a consumer action.

So if you lack diversity, you’re lacking that proximity and you’re missing out on opportunities to tell that story in the best way possible. It’s a huge missed opportunity.”

She points out that when Black people are denied opportunities there’s a loss of inventions, innovations, cures, and thought leadership for everyone.

“When you don’t have Black people at the table or adequate diversity at the table, everyone is missing out, including the client.”

She also notes that simply hiring Black people doesn’t fulfill their impact or their commitment to being really intentional about an overall creation of equity for Black people in these environments.

“A lot of that really perpetuates that I have a Black friend kind of approach. There are Black people here, so everything should be done the right way. I just think it’s really important for agencies and leadership to ensure they are not placing that burden on people who are there to be a copywriter or to be an account manager.

Not everyone is comfortable in that position and that shouldn’t be placed on them just the same way it isn’t placed on employees that check other diversity boxes.”

Pursuing diversity in the right way and for the right reasons

“I feel like it’s really important that brands connect with their purpose,” Kirstyn says.

She points out that today’s consumer feels like they’re voting with their dollars every time they make a purchase.

“They’re very decisive about where they’re spending their money, and so much of that is linked with values and purpose that a brand stands behind.”

She says she’s seeing lots of brands make pledges but wants to see the demonstrations of actions to show they’re not just spouting empty words.

“This isn’t just a moment. It’s a Movement. There’s a real opportunity right now for brands to expand on that, to not forget this moment, and to not return to ‘normal’, but to really push forward and make a real statement and take real action to show their commitment to the Black community and to equality through their organizations.”

She cites Netflix and its recent CMO appointment, Bozoma Saint John. 

netflix CMO
“Something like that, putting Black people into senior leadership positions, is something that will ensure longevity when it comes to this commitment. That’s really a place where we need to keep applying the pressure and looking for shifts.”
She says appointments like this will run through an organization and everything they do.  
“This is a really good time for those who work in social impact strategy to help brands think about their make-up inside and out, break things apart, and really build them if they need to. But really understand exactly what their actions have been communicating about their brand vs. their words.”
She asks brands to consider what they’d stand for if they were evaluated only by their actions.  
“Where are they putting their money? Who are they connected with politically? Who are they supporting, and what does that person stand for?”

Strategic implementation of social impact

Kirstyn says every brand has a unique role to play when it comes to implementing social strategies.

“Don’t see another brand doing something and assume that’s the best way to take part in it.

The way a brand supports what’s happening right now needs to be part of their DNA, to connect with their brand ethos, the values they stand for, and what they offer: Is it a service? Is it a product? Where are they present? Is there any culture they’re potentially making money off of that they could be giving back to? Are there communities where they’re present where they could be investing?”

She talks a little about her new company, GOOD WORX.

“I’m able to provide turn-key solutions that equip brands and the people behind them because we need to remember that brands are groups of people that are all working towards the same goal, but they come with the challenges all of us come with.”

These turnkey solutions “help those people to develop understanding, to act with accountability, and to create culture shift for progress.”

Kirstyn feels brands have a huge opportunity to impact culture, to speak to mass audiences, and to introduce topics that people need to be talking about, to start mass conversations and massive shifts in the way the world operates.

“The goal of my organization is to offer opportunities for education because there are places where education is needed.”

She also says she’d like to address cancel culture. 

“There are some things that need to be completely dismissed and not accepted, however, the people behind those things need opportunities to learn, so [it’s about] providing a safe space for that accompanied with a commitment for change and for progress, and to help organizations really ensure there are education and opportunities for impact throughout a company, giving all employees education and support they need to really support the Black community through action.”

What’s your right now cause?

“The thing for me that is still top of mind, that is, unfortunately, starting to fade a little bit from the news cycle, is Breonna Taylor’s case. That is something that is painful for me to think about and just feels completely packaged with injustice, and so important.”

Breonna Taylor

Breonna Taylor was a 26-year old EMT with no criminal record who was killed by police who entered the apartment on a no-knock warrant even though neither resident of the home was thought to be involved in any crime. Police murdered her in her bed, in her sleep.

“Just yesterday there were almost 90 people arrested for protesting about Breonna’s case, but no criminal charges have been filed against any of these officers.”

Kirstyn says this is near to her heart because “that could have been me. That could have been so many of us.”

So she encourages people to follow the work that Color of Change is doing around Breonna’s case. You can text the word “ENOUGH” to 55156 and they’ll text you back with ways to put pressure on the Louisville community.

Note: in the podcast Kirstyn mentioned Color of Change will tell you how to get in touch with the Mayor. As of right now, Louisville’s Mayor has apparently disconnected his phones to avoid hearing anything more about Breonna Taylor, so they’ll give you a number which allows you to auto-dial cycle through all the City Council members instead. 

It’s pretty easy to use – you just hit * each time you’re done leaving a message and you automatically move on to the next one. It takes less than 15 minutes to help out. 

Connect with Kirstyn Nimmo

Want to get in touch with Kirstyn? Here’s her contact info:

Garrett Sussman

Garrett Sussman

Garrett is the head of content at Traject , a suite of digital marketing tools, and host of the Agency Ahead podcast. When he's not crafting content, he's scouting the perfect ice coffee, devouring the newest graphic novels, and concocting a new recipe in the kitchen.

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