Put Some Color in “The Room Where it Happens”
This article is part of a larger series that focuses on diversity and equity in marketing through the amplification of Black and racially diverse authors. As a company, we are committed to identifying actions we can take in the fight against racism and injustice, and elevating BBIPOC voices is paramount to inspiring change. Follow along and read other posts in this series here.
Marketing, communications and advertising professionals know “the room” I’m referring to very well. From an agency perspective, it’s a room that not many people get the opportunity to spend time in. This is a special room, reserved for the cream of the crop — the persuasive, the impressive, the charismatic, the experts, the leaders. The winners. These are the people who can sell who they are and what they do so well that they are always on the receiving end of a “Yes” to their ideas, deputizing their team as the “chosen ones” and forsaking all others the opportunity to speak up.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m talking about the pitch room: The room where it happens. What begins as an invitation to present in the room evolves into a project that sometimes feels like icing a 35-layer cake, no detail forgotten. Getting there is exhilarating and exhausting. Emotions run the gamut. Sometimes there’s yelling, always a spirited debate, an abundance of late nights and maybe even tears. Stress levels are high because there’s so much at stake when you’re part of the team charged with bringing home the bacon. There’s also some fun leading up to it when you’ve got the right team with the right chemistry, all of whom are in it to win it.
It’s an honor and a privilege to be on the pitch team. I’ve been on it more than my fair share. I’ve been part of some amazing wins and a few gut-wrenching losses. I’ve traveled on red-eye flights, run full-speed through airports with my colleagues, sat in the back of minivans, crammed in a few sedans, and even rehearsed in hotel lobbies — honing my skills over the years as part of pitches big and small. In fact, I believe that’s one of the reasons I’m good at selling myself and my own agency today. It’s hard to lose a spot on pitch teams once you’re established as being good in the room.
I suspect that, from the brand or company side, it is also a privilege to be in “the room where it happens.” Though it may be daunting to review agency responses, whittle them down to a list of finalists and then sit in on lengthy presentations — all usually within a very compressed time period — and then participate in a huge decision with a ton of money at stake in most instances, it’s an important and coveted position to hold. There, too, you will find the cream of the crop: the leaders, the introspective, the key stakeholders. The decisive, whose input is highly valued by the organization.
Now let me tell you what is missing from this room where it all happens, on both sides: people of color, particularly African Americans. I was always the only one on my side. Of all the pitches I’ve experienced, I know I’ve never seen more than a total of five to seven African Americans, and I may be exaggerating by one or two.
It was so rare that when I did see someone who looked like me, we usually had a moment. A handshake during introductions that lasted a few extra seconds than the others or a look that had meaning to both of us but that no one else noticed. And on a few occasions after we’d presented, I even got a motherly hug.
For me, it was usually an African American woman, slightly older than me, who would give me what I coined “the sister wink.” I even opened up one day and told a few of my colleagues about this wink, explaining what happens when a Black woman on the brand side would see me, another Black woman, lock eyes and tell me without saying a word how proud and delighted she was to see me and that her colleagues would see me as well.
Sounds like a heartfelt warm and fuzzy tale, doesn’t it? Well, it isn’t. You know why? Because it’s not right, and the fact that it happens speaks to some of what is very wrong about the lack of diversity in both agencies and marketing teams in companies across the country, which also speaks to the opportunities afforded (or not) to those who could or should be in “the room where it happens.”
For an industry charged with, and supposedly rooted in, connecting brands with their target audiences, the lack of representation of those audiences in the increasingly fragmented, ever-evolving media environment we live in today is stunning. No, shameful.
Oddly enough, if and when there’s a call for a multicultural campaign, the people who match the demographics sometimes magically appear as an option for being in the room, or better yet, a partnership with another agency must be established to make it appear that the agency is diverse and represents the audiences the brand is trying to reach. I know you know what I’m talking about.
In my opinion, it’s a little hypocritical to do this, but what’s worse is not learning from having done it. If you come back after that partnership and fail to hold a mirror up to your own organization, ask tough questions, scrutinize hiring and promotion practices, and make diversity and racial equity a priority, you’re contributing to the problem.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion are not, and should not be, matters of convenience. You don’t parade a group of people out when the RFP (Request for Proposal) calls for it but never consider them outside of that. It must be part of your internal DNA to be sure that everyone can get a seat at the table. Then you must invest in them and prepare them for a coveted spot in “the room where it happens.”
Angela Connor is the Founder and CEO of Change Agent Communications, a two-year-old boutique PR and Strategic Communications Firm in Raleigh, North Carolina, that helps organizations navigate change and communicate when the stakes are high and they have
Angela is a veteran journalist and speaker, author of “18 Rules of Community Engagement,” and very recently launched a new consulting practice within her firm called “Now Look Inward,” and an accompanying podcast, which she calls a challenge to Corporate America to sweep around its own front door, get its house in order and make black voices matter throughout the organization.
Committed to serving the business and creative communities in her region, Angela opened Triangle Podcast Studio in April, and launched the inaugural Women Inspiring Women Conference in 2019.
Angela also pens a weekly newsletter called Women Inspiring Women Weekly.
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Sailthru is part of CM Group, a family of marketing technology brands focused on changing the world of business. Campaign Monitor, CM Commerce, Delivra, Emma, Liveclicker, Sailthru, and Vuture compose CM Group, and each brand is supporting the battle against racism by elevating the voices of Black and indigenous people of color.