Creating a network for Black women in advertising

A McCann event aimed to spur long-term change in the industry by opening up avenues that might otherwise be blocked.

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On Feb. 27, at the end of Black History Month, McCann opened its doors to “Your Work Goes Here,” a networking event aimed at helping Black women in Canada’s advertising industry come together to address the hurdles that have prevented better representation and ensure the next generation doesn’t feel locked out from success.

A fireside chat as part of the event featured 18 Black women from the agency and brand side of the industry – and went more than 20 minutes over its planned running time. It covered topics ranging from the foundational issues that have prevented Black women from being more successful in the industry, to how they have changed things from their hair to their personalities more than others would have to in order to be seen as professional.

“Many women were saying they don’t even bother to put a picture up on their LinkedIn profile,” says Kristie Baxter, McCann Canada’s VP of operations.

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The event was born out of an existing McCann Canada initiative called “Women of Worldgroup,” led by Baxter, that focuses on what it means to be a woman working in the advertising industry. For Black History Month, the agency decided to specifically address the lack of representation for Black women in the industry – according to numbers from the ICA, only 2.9% of the Canadian advertising industry is Black – and Baxter worked Alyssa Dominique, one of the agency’s account supervisors, to organize the event. Specifically, it aimed to address issues that black women face but are often missed in more general discussions about diversity and inclusion.

“It’s focusing in on a group that’s not specifically represented but in a way that’s trying to action something,” Dominique says. “We hear so often how we need more diversity and inclusion, but we don’t hear what [companies are] doing to actually change that.”

Last year, Gavin Barrett of Barrett and Welsh profiled Dominique as part of a series of articles on what it means to be a person of colour in Canadian advertising industry. She says the most interesting thing to come out of the experience was the volume of younger black women reaching out to her to find out how she managed to break into the industry.

“It was like I was some kind of unicorn,” she says. “But it kind of made sense, because there aren’t a lot of us, so clearly there is something there. What I find even more insightful is when I looked around for information about black women in the industry, it just doesn’t exist. It’s not like the industry hasn’t been informed at all, the information to inform them with just doesn’t exist.”

On top of 40 attendees from within McCann, Baxter says roughly 40 students and people from outside of the agency attended the event. Opening the night to students was an important element of the event, as they need to feel like they are being invited to the industry at a point when they are making their career decisions – while at the same time acknowledging that the same entry points might not be available to them.

“By the time you’ve gotten to graduation or choosing a graduate program, you pretty much have your mind made up,” Baxter says. “Advertising is known for being something that people tend to just fall into, and you get in by knowing someone, and it can feel like that avenue isn’t open when there aren’t people in the industry that look like you. So how do we clear that path and open up those avenues to make sure that these women actually have those connections, because right now there aren’t the same opportunities for them to do that.”

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Going forward, Baxter says McCann plans to regularly hold more events tailored to other groups that would benefit from having the spotlight shone on them. But when it comes to Black women, both Baxter and Dominique say the goals of the evening have been fulfilled. Instead of regularly holding panels and discussions about what to do about the issue, the hope is that a community-focused approach will be able to carry the momentum forward. While there is a desire among Black women to mentor and be mentored, they had not had the same organization points that the community could rally around.

“We’re trying to incite some kind of change by creating this community and network,” Dominique says. “It was really great to hear all the amazing insights women had to share during the chat and hear how nice it was for everyone to hear things that resonated with them. But we’ve already had women starting to talk to people in the industry that have roles open at their companies, and that’s going to carry change forward.”