But Really, Where Are All the Black People?

Why are agencies struggling with recruiting and retaining Black talent?

But Really, Where Are All the Black People?


Many brands and organizations have used tweets, billboards, jerseys, and commercials to indicate support for Black people fighting against police violence. Advertising agencies have increased their diversity efforts by holding listening sessions, promoting staff, and making donations, but many Black creatives are not convinced of the long-term commitment to an inclusive work environment. Are agencies doing enough to attract, nurture, and develop Black talent?

Advertising is known to have a high barrier of entry for prospective employees. With much of the recruiting done in-network, Black talent seems to find it difficult to break into an industry where less than 3% of executive management and only 4% of mid-level management looks like them. Still, the creative field is an attractive landing spot with many perks and the promise of creative nirvana. Despite agencies providing career-defining opportunities to creatives through opportunities with big brands, many Black artists find access to be elusive. Kettelie Dubuisson, Visual Brand Manager and Founder of Quietly Loud says people compare the industry to a country club: “They make it so difficult to get in.”

The recent, industry-wide dedication to employ more Black people peaked this summer with explicit statements declaring Black Lives Matter. While well received by the public, Black creatives remain unconvinced that these presentations are representative of structural change in the business. For Black talent, agency life often mirrors the social norms of corporate America, which calls for a more diverse and inclusive work environment.

Author and Professor Dr. Charisse Burden-Stelly defines culturalism as a type of meaning making where Blackness is culturally specified and abstracted from the material, political, economic, and structural conditions of dispossession. Expressing the same concept in agency terms, Michael Stover queries, “If we peel back that post, what’s really going on behind the scenes? It all just seems very performative.”

Agency employee-turned-founder of THRSHLD, Chris Duncan, sees multi-cultural as a four-letter word. He clarifies, “You [say you] want ‘one culture,’ but you want ‘multi-ethnic.’ Context is stripped away.” As a Black creative who successfully navigated the agency world, Chris is keenly aware of how the expectation to conform manifests. He says narrow definitions of professionalism and camaraderie feel limiting, especially conflict arises: “We are always told to be something else. I feel like you placate so much to not try to become the angry Black man that you end up [becoming] the angry Black man.” 

This silencing can be what bell hooks calls the most oppressive aspect. As Kettelie Dubuisson shares, “We exist. We’re there. But not in numbers that are truly impactful. So, it’s definitely silencing because we don’t have a true voice.” These circumstances lead to anxiety and isolation, which is why she feels that “The alignment of values means so much.” 

From process and compensation to authorship and recognition, long-term retention of Black creatives requires that agencies practice their values and not just post them on social media. Generally, culture fit is discussed in terms of talent’s relationship with the organization, but Black talent is looking critically at the values of the agency and the clients it represents. Michael Stover, freelance writer artist developer at Taste Creators, sees Black creatives being “trained to not have confidence in ourselves.” But he believes that the potential validation from working in these environments is hardly worth the hassle if the company doesn’t hold true to its values, which starts with engaging talent as whole people instead of mere cogs in the wheel.

Fresh out of grad school, creative strategist and coach Alison Knowlton Mason decided against joining an agency because she wanted to be sure that her work mattered. She also wanted to work in a firm where she could grow in areas outside of just graphic design. While some talent can make a good salary in the business, Alison used a different approach by starting her own: “I don’t believe in doing things just for money. AT ALL. I’d never be happy in a high paying job that didn’t connect me with my purpose.”

When values are aligned and all voices are embraced, agencies will find more success recruiting and retaining Black talent. Traditional agencies will benefit directly from the contributions of Black creatives if they prioritize evolving their culture and practices to be more holistically inclusive. This evolution should include full engagement of culture and context, along with a more equitable distribution of influence, resources, and pay. Failure to accept this reality could result in agencies’ loss of talent and ultimately, business.


Joshua E. McCoy is a writer and photographer based in East Point, GA. His work examines structures and status quo aiming to find the seams and bare the threads.

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