Tackling the ‘Black Quarterback Problem’ in Advertising

As black professionals in advertising, the time has come to reach out and help other talented individuals.

When is the last time you heard a white advertising professional say to another white advertising professional, with shock in their voice, “You’re a white creative director!”? Quick answer: you haven’t.

Here’s what happened to me the other week in Chicago, however: a black advertising professional — the two of us had just been introduced — looked me right in the face and said, “You’re a black creative director!” Then he put his arms around me and continued, with awe and admiration, to say, “I just can’t believe it. I really can’t believe I am meeting a black C.D.”

The thing is, for me, there was nothing out of the norm about this moment. We didn’t have to know each other to know what was what: black creative directors are an anomaly in the industry … and it’s time we talked more about it.

My new Chicago friend’s hug happened almost a week to the day that my wife and I, entertaining friends at our house, had a similar conversation. The topic of discussion with our guests: “Are black creative directors having the same problem black quarterbacks once had?”

I would argue yes, they are. When we look at what was once a massive lack of black quarterbacks — the gap is closing, there are more now, but we’re still seeing black athletes underrepresented in specialist positions throughout the NFL — I think it’s important to admit that some of this role assignment has to do with the way patterns and habits emerge, and the way they take root.

This can be a matter of unconscious circumstance. This can also happen intentionally and because of the color of a person’s skin, be it black, brown, white, whatever color. Point is, in more than one industry, management sometimes — and sometimes all too often — divvies up roles based on a set history of what’s gone before, for one or more reasons, but not primarily based on skills and evidence of who’s excellent.

Do we face a similar challenge in advertising? Well, consider this: after almost 19 years in this space, the first black developer I’ve ever worked with is on my current team. Add to that, I’ve only worked with 10 black people in advertising in my entire career. Add to that, I have only met three black creative directors in my career, and not in person. (I met them through LinkedIn). If you consider the situation by my experience, I’d say we’re facing scenarios similar to the ones the NFL has encountered.

Closing the Gap: Embracing Mentorship for Black Creatives 

If you ask a black student what a creative director is, it’s a safe bet they have no idea. That might be a problem stemming from a broader set of causes: as Joe Franklin, brand creative director at Sage suggests, the industry is probably failing to inspire young people of all types, no matter their color, when it comes to graphic design and creative work.

In my own career, I personally had no idea about creative directors until six or seven years ago. While working at a major multinational media company, my first role leading ad-product innovation, I was able to come up with big ideas that sold for millions of dollars. Still, it was the creative director on my team that took the majority of the credit for creating the overarching concept, pitching and presenting those ideas. This is when I realized that I wanted to be the creative director myself.

Beyond raising awareness of career path options, however, we have to understand and talk about what happens to black creative professionals, in particular, once they are on this road and involved in their careers.

As black professionals, we often feel that we have to present ourselves in a manner that isn’t threatening; there’s this feeling of walking on thin ice. For example, as I came up in my career, and I think this is the case for all young professionals, I absorbed as much as I could humanly take in; I studied the way my managers spoke, pitched, and presented. If I could learn from them, I would be able to execute on my ideas. Truth be told, though, I often felt like the conversation behind closed doors was, “Who does this young black kid think he is?” As a young African American in a space predominantly run by white men, I always felt uncomfortable and like an outsider. Yes, I persevered and charged ahead. I developed strong professional and personal relationships, earning trust and respect through both my actions and my words. But it was frustrating. It was demotivating as well.

Here’s what I think: mentorship is everything. As black professionals in advertising, the time has come to reach out and help other talented individuals receive the same opportunities. We need to prepare them for pushback. We need to prepare them with specific and actionable ideas that contribute to the achievement of their own success.

Making the Pledge: Creating Opportunities for Diverse Leadership in Advertising

My message is short and sweet: this New Year is the time for individuals throughout advertising to take a long and serious look at themselves and think about what actions they can take to contribute to more balanced and diverse future leadership teams.

We must reach out, in 2018, and figure out ways to help young black students who have an interest in advertising, in graphic design, and in coding for mobile creative. We can turn to our organizations, requesting the time to go to schools and talk to students. We can arrange for them to come to our organizations and shadow us throughout a day of work. And we can explore ways to bring them into other activities — from mentorships to, say, a career night at our offices that can help them meet an even wider range of professionals in our space.

In this way, I believe our pledges can help make a difference. It’s nice to get warm recognition and a friendly hug and all, but I shouldn’t be getting them simply because I’m a creative director and black. I should be getting them because my work and my organization stand for themselves.


Walter Geer is Vice President, Creative Director at Verve. 

This article first appeared at MediaPost.

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