When Walter Geer, Executive Creative Director, Experience Design, VMLY&R, was given the opportunity to create a concept for NY Fest, he immediately thought of assembling a group of peers he’d never actually met in the flesh. The documentary, Black Madison Ave, allowed viewers to watch as seven Black Executive Creative Directors (including Geer) discussed what it is like to be a Black person in the advertising industry today. The eye-opening conversation showed the unique set of challenges of this group of creatives, who are mentors to a younger generation of unapologetic BIPOC juniors as well as the powerhouses behind some of the biggest brands in the world.
Geer is a 20-year veteran of the digital advertising space, he holds six U.S. patents for digital ad formats, and has developed ad products and implemented creative strategies for a variety of publishers and leading technology and media companies including Google, Viacom, The New York Times and MySpace. His path to his current role has been unconventional, but he’s earned his seat at the table. In his interview with Culture Hub, he shares how he got started, the current working environment for Black creatives, and the impact of the three-part docuseries that is making waves across the industry.
BC: Can you share how you started your career and what made you stay in the industry despite the challenges to rising in the ranks?
After that, my career took a lot of different paths. So, I was fortunate enough to always be inquisitive. I was also fortunate to have mentors who worked with me and understood what I brought to the table.
My path is uncommon because you look at most executive creative directors, people that do what I do, and the majority have Cannes awards. All of them have certificates and went to design and art schools. I did none of that. I was always inquisitive about technology and leaned heavily into innovation as a way to get to where I am today. Instead of awards, I have patents.
BC: Looking back on your own experience, how has advertising as an industry changed for junior Black executives from when you started to now?
WG: I don’t know that it has necessarily changed in terms of opportunity. The numbers will tell you that nothing’s changed. I think the only thing that has changed is the ability to show up as yourself.
I’ve been in this space for 23 years now. If you go to my Instagram account right now and scroll through my feed, you’ll see the exact date and time where I decided to be me. I went from khakis and wingtip shoes to jeans, Jordans, and hoodies. When I did that, I started doing the best work of my entire life. The trajectory of my work just shot straight up.
I bring that up because I think that we are at a different time now, especially these past two years. We’re being vocal. We’re speaking up and we’re showing up. And I think that social media has also made a significant impact in that space because the fact is that we can say what we want and millions of people will hear it. What has changed is that we’ve just been given platforms that allow us to be more open. Many of us have become more confident in who we are. Code-switching is exhausting.
BC: How did the Black Madison Ave project start and what was your role in its conceptualization?
WG: I did an interview with New York Fest in the past. A prior chairman and CEO who partnered with them as an advisor to the festival came to me and said that he’d give me a platform to do anything I wanted to do. They understand the importance of the conversation. So, I asked for the whole set and this format was real quick and easy to pull together. Selfishly, I had always wanted to meet other people that do what I’ve done, particularly these six individuals.
For the most part, none of us had ever met in person. Twenty-four hours later, I figured out that I didn’t want to do this on a regular panel. I wanted viewers to be a fly on the wall for a conversation that has never happened in advertising. I called up everyone and asked if they were down. Everyone was like, “hell yeah.” All seven of us got to discuss how this would work.
After the first five minutes of discussion, we were straight. Our natural conversation on that call was what I wanted in our on-camera conversation – open and candid. And everyone agreed.
Everyone joked, “we might get fired for this, but let’s do it.” And, so we did and that’s how it came about.
BC: The award structure was critiqued and it was argued that there’s no way to measure Black creative talent. Do you agree? How do you measure success in diversifying creative ad space?
WG: The numbers are telling. We see this across a multitude of holding agencies. If I walk into my office, within a fraction of a minute you should be able to tell really quickly if the space that you’re in is diverse.
Like when you walk into a bar or new club, you walk around and see if there are other people there that look like you. So, I think success should be measured by how all people of color feel. And I’ll say people with disabilities, too.
When I walk into an office, do I feel welcome? Do I feel that this is a space that cares about me as an individual? That cares about what I bring to the table? Measuring success should be entirely about how an individual feels when they walk into a space.
I always work with diverse teams. I feel comfortable because I can have conversations like, “Yo, did you guys check that Verzuz last week?” And someone’s going to say, “Yeah, I did. That was really cool.”
If someone asks, “what about that Luke Bryan thing?” I’m going to say that “I don’t know much about that. I apologize.” I can’t engage in that conversation.
And that’s my point; measure success by how people feel when they walk into their spaces.
When I am asked to partake in any judging events or asked to speak at any conferences, my first response is, “I’m happy to do this, but I want to ensure that 13 and a half percent of the people that are also involved in this event are Black.” I say that because I want to ensure that there is fair representation at anything that I put my name on. Fair representation, at a minimum, is 13% – the percentage of representation of Black people in the United States.
There needs to be fair representation behind the work. When you don’t have that, then you see screwups like H&M with monkey images associated with a Black child. Or you see Kylie Jenner saving the day with a Pepsi. We’re in a moment when it’s important for brands to be authentic, which means talking to people the way they want to be spoken to.
BC: The project introduced the idea of space making within the industry. It seems to contend with the notion of Black execs going out and creating independent affirming spaces of their own. What are the stakes involved in both?
I am absolutely a hundred percent good with people going out and creating their own thing. I think there needs to be more of that. There are tons of Black talent out there who are creating incredible agencies and that do incredible work. The other part of me thinks the reason why it’s important that we’re in these spaces is because there is always going to be a person of color that’s just starting their career. It is so important that they see people at the top that look like them because it signals that they have a path here.
When we dropped Black Madison Avenue, I had so many people reach out to me privately saying that they could relate. They felt crazy, but it was nice to see that other Black executives had to deal with the same thing too. People reach out saying things like, “It’s so good to see all of you together. It made me cry, seeing you all together because I’ve never seen that many Black creatives that are executives in one space holding a conversation.” It’s important because we can inspire each other.
But I will also say that it’s not just executive leaders that matter. People in the middle and at the bottom, we all owe it to ourselves to create opportunity and space at these tables to help bring each other up.
BC: In your field, is mentoring, coaching, and sponsoring offered to Black creatives in the same way that it’s offered to non-Black or BIPOC folks?
WG: White folks create connections from a very early age. Those connections create access. Many of us people of color haven’t had that access.
Every generation, Black kids are taught from an early age to work hard, because if you work hard people will notice and you’ll get acknowledged. You don’t need to be loud or aggressive. You need to act a certain way when you’re around White people so that they don’t feel uncomfortable. White men, specifically, have been taught to ask for what they want. So often Black people don’t do that.
Mentorship and sponsorship are two different things. It’s good to have a mentor who does look like you because there will be things that you’ve gone through that they will understand firsthand – without you having to explain. But you need a multitude of mentors. I have six or seven mentors. Some are counterparts of mine. Some are more senior than me.
Sponsors will help you move mountains if you need it. So, you need both. You need to identify who are those people in the room when you’re not in those rooms, and who will support you anyway.
BC: Is there a balance between authenticity and cultural appropriation in advertising? Do you have certain ethical boundaries that are a hard stop?
WG: You have to have ethical boundaries in any work that you do. It’s really easy for a brand to screw up today with social media and Black Twitter. God forbid it’s about health, like pharma companies. Every brand wants to get it right. Getting it right means you need to really take the time before you do the work. You have to tap into the culture to ensure you have it right and involve people who get it.
A young lady in our agency, Amber, is an incredible strategist. She runs a group called the culture studio. They sit in on the work from conception to completion to assess the ideas and to ensure that any work that touches the culture is right. They help make sure that nothing we do is performative.