Delivering an Authentic Black Experience in Advertising Means Reflecting the Real World

This can only happen if agencies allow marketers to feel fully comfortable

Print Hed: Being Black and Authentic in Advertising

Print Dek: If you can’t be comfortable at work, then it’ll show in client work

Bio 1:
Adrianne C. Smith is the first global director of inclusion and diversity at WPP and founder of the Cannes Can: Diversity Collective. She has been an advocate for 20-plus years.

Twitter: @AdrianneCSmith

Base location: New York

Bio 2:
Judy Jackson, WPP’s first-ever global head of culture, is driven by bringing out the best in others while maintaining her authentic self.

Twitter: @judyjacks7

Base location: New York

Authenticity at work can mean different things to different people.

We believe it’s the ability to put your best self forward, being true to your values and not having to sacrifice your integrity and who you are. When you are around people who are like you, it’s a lot easier to be your true self. But when you are different, then it can be challenging. It’s especially challenging for black people, as our difference walks in the door with us and carries a set of stereotypes that we are still fighting today.

As black people, we are inclined to bend, fold or otherwise mitigate our blackness to fit in. We hesitate to wear ethnic jewelry or wear our hair in braids for fear of standing out or making someone else feel ill at ease.

In our work in advertising, we are encouraged to express our opinions. Consumers are savvier than ever and are demanding honesty and integrity from brands. We have a responsibility to our clients and our organizations to speak up and question work that does not fit the values of our agencies and clients. However, when you are not feeling like you can be yourself, you hesitate and speaking up becomes really hard.

We have a responsibility to deliver work that is reflective of the real world.

Every decision we make comes with a price. We believe we can be black and authentic in the workplace. However, we also recognize there is a (professional) tax for showing up as our true selves.

The tax might be missed opportunities, such as not being invited to the table as quickly as you should be despite having earned the invitation. People may not like or accept who you are. You may feel lonely, isolated, uncomfortable and find yourself constantly challenging the status quo, which can be incredibly exhausting.

But once we get used to bringing our truest and honest selves to the workplace, it becomes a lot easier. We become stronger, more confident, more powerful and, ultimately, happier.

So, how do we encourage more authenticity at work?

Before we can do that, it’s important to understand what authenticity is not. Authenticity does not give permission to be disrespectful or hurtful. It’s not about getting something off your chest or expressing every passing thought that you have. It’s about making sure you are being cognizant of other people’s feelings in a particular moment. Being authentic is not about being unfiltered. Unfiltered and authentic are not the same thing.

Everyone deserves the right to show up as their authentic selves. But let’s be real: There is a balance. Being able to read the room plays a critical role in how you manage authenticity in the workplace. No one is suggesting political suicide, but adjusting your authentic self may be required depending on the situation. This is true for anyone across any industry.

To be authentic, it’s important to share your personal story with colleagues. Connect with people who remind you of how great you are, wear what makes you feel good, speak up in meetings and know and honor your values. Encourage others to find their voice. And remember that you were hired for the job you hold for a reason.


Join Adweek and this year's Pride Stars, LGBTQ leaders creating an impact in advertising, marketing, and culture, this Friday at 12pm ET for a live discussion on how they are personally and professionally navigating these turbulent times. Save your virtual seat.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 24, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

Recommended articles