A Diversity Panel Isn’t Enough, Says Essence’s Associate Operations Director

Kai Lawson on being in mixed company

Kai Lawson posing against a pink background
'I'd like to see advertising take action to fix the problems that we're identifying,' Lawson says.
Margarita Corporan

Kai Lawson never anticipated a career in advertising. After working as a college rep for record labels, Lawson—now associate operations director at Essence—assumed her next step would be in the music industry.

Instead, a recruiter from Wunderman reached out about a junior project management position, which she started in June 2011.

“I was a complete fish out of water,” Lawson said, adding that she faced unfair assumptions that she was apathetic when really, she just needed mentorship to learn “how this business worked and what the expectations were.”

While she continued to gain industry knowledge and experience, she found that this attitude persisted. Over time, she made friends in her field facing similar experiences.

“We started speaking more deeply about how those experiences felt emotionally, what they meant for us monetarily,” she said, adding, “My friends that were not white and [were] also women … found that there were disparities in how we were treated.”

"If you don't contribute your perspective or your thought to your question, you're robbing people of the opportunity to learn and be better."
Kai Lawson, associate operations director, Essence

Conversations with freelance associate creative director Simeon Coker and Saatchi & Saatchi project manager Karinna Schultz ultimately led to the creation of the podcast Mixed Company. The goal of the podcast is to shed light on an overlooked perspective from middle management, a point at which the rate of  career progress depends on how much agencies are willing to invest in given employees.

“Mixed Company came about [due to] years of feeling excluded, years of trying to decide collectively, ‘Are we crazy or is this really happening?'” she said. “We found that it wasn’t just our peers listening [to the podcast] anymore. It was people who had close ties to management or people who make decisions at an agency level.”

Lawson said that while there has been some progress for women in the industry over the course of her career, she hasn’t seen that kind of vigor and investment when it comes to race.

“I see a lot of … pats on the back just for having a panel and not enough [slaps] on the wrist because your numbers haven’t changed in the last five years,” she added. “I’d like to see advertising take action to fix the problems that we’re identifying.”

How She Got the Gig

After breaking into advertising in 2011 when a Wunderman recruiter reached out, Lawson worked in the industry for a few years before deciding to take a break for her mental health. When she decided it was time to return, she began talking with a friend at Essence, shared her resume and got in touch with a recruiter at the agency.

Big Mistake

“When I first started out, I didn’t speak up in meetings—I kind of just went with what senior leadership told me,” Lawson explained. One client gave her very specific feedback about creative on a given campaign, saying she didn’t want checkboxes. After reviewing feedback with the client, she took it to her internal team, at which point the senior copywriter and creative director told her the client couldn’t have said that and included them anyway. When she sent it back to the client for approval, the client said she hated it, telling her, “I am your client. You’re supposed to advocate for me.”

Lesson Learned

Lawson learned not only to advocate for the client, but for herself, too. “I turned back around and walked immediately downstairs to have a conversation with this creative director and explained to her, ‘You just got me yelled at from this client for not listening to me and this is what I need you to do right now,'” Lawson said. “That was the first time I ever felt empowered to really stand up for what I know to be true and what I know to be right.”

Pro Tip

“It is always in your best interest to say something during a meeting or to ask the question. It’s not that people know more than you, they just know different things,” Lawson said. “If you don’t contribute your perspective or your thought to your question, you’re robbing people of the opportunity to learn and be better.”

This story first appeared in the Sept. 30, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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