In November 2021, I attended my first ever WACL dinner as a member or even attendee. And the guest speaker, the AMAZING Bake Off Queen, Nadiya Hussain, spoke these unforgettable words. More than a brilliant quote, the words were a call to action to all in the room, people who were quite literally seated at tables full of senior folk in the advertising and communications industry:
You are lucky enough to be seated at this table. Don’t just sit complacently enjoying your status - get your elbows out so you leave a space for someone else to join you.
As I heard those words, that call to action, something clicked. I spent the first 8 years of my career in advertising. Not once did I get a seat at the table. Despite rave reviews from clients and strongly performing campaigns, I wasn't invited to industry events or celebrated for my work. I didn’t have mentors or allies cheering me on, or speaking up for me in rooms where I wasn’t present. (And before you ask me how I would know this as I wasn’t there - one hears these things, am I right?).
I am not alone in this experience, nor has much changed in the 15 years since I left the industry. In the last Wave of MEFA Measures in 2022 (the current wave has not been published), Black women in the advertising and media industry were far less likely than any other group to agree with the statements "I feel confident that I am able to thrive in this industry", "People new in my organisation have an equal chance to rise to the top", "Everyone in my organisation is treated fairly" and "I am offered enough training to support my career development".
And, on a not unrelated note, the All-In census in 2023 showed that the the advertising industry is at risk of losing 30% of its Black talent. Clearly, the industry needs to do more to get those "elbows out".
When I moved brand-side, I definitely had a seat at the table. I was in the room where decisions were being made - in fact, I was often the voice of the brand in those rooms. I championed creative ideas, pushed for meaningful representation beyond tokenism in casting, spoke up for colleagues who weren't in the room, challenged agencies and internal leadership teams on decisions that would fundamentally compromise our work (I worked mainly in the charity sector) all in the name of fairness and justice. But that seat came at a cost - I was often the lone voice (and person that looked like me). I was labelled angry if I was assertive, yet told I lacked gravitas if I didn’t push. And my seat seemed to come with WAY more work, yet less pay than my white, and/or male colleagues.
Also, whilst I had a seat at the table when it came to decision-making, it was another story when it was time for recognition. I found that my pivotal role in the brands that I built was erased or rendered invisible - at awards, in the trade press - and this was before the optics of diversity was even a thing so my employers saw no benefit in promoting or championing me externally, even in a superficial way. Not that I am saying the cynical manipulation of diversity in place of equity is a good thing - far from it. But this sadly seems to be the main driver for companies to improve representation (usually only on the outside).
Side note - this appetite for representation may have been shortlived as research recently reported in the Drum (https://www.thedrum.com/opinion/2023/08/31/nearly-half-uk-marketing-agencies-are-100-white-increase-last-year) shows that nearly half (43%) of UK agencies are 100% white – a 4% increase on last year’s figures. And client-side marketing teams fare little better - according to Marketing Week,( https://www.marketingweek.com/skills-wages-tenure-5-interesting-stats-salary-survey-2023/) 46.9% of marketers who identify as Black (African, Caribbean or British) currrently believe their company is not doing enough to offer career opportunities to people from a variety of socio-economic and demographic backgrounds (versus 23% of white marketers).
Starting my business in 2016 changed everything. It gave me the ability to build my own table. For the first time, I had full agency over my career. I was free to pursue opportunities without someone else taking credit for my success. I was able to select clients based on values fit alone and purpose - without compromising or code-switching to get ahead. I won my first ever award in 2018 (no, Grade 5 piano in 1994 does not count) and have won at least one award every year since then (including Campaign 40 over 40 this year).
Here's the thing - entrepreneurship is not for everyone. And it’s not ok that this is often the only path to visibility, resources and recognition for people from many minoritised communities, especially Black women.
However as a businessowner, I also know how many opportunities we have to get our elbows out. To use our resources to create and support platforms, create opportunities and uplift others. And the larger the company or organisation is, the more opportunities we have even if it sometimes feels like the opposite is true (just due to all of the silos, sign off and general bureaucracy).
It's time for our industry to get its 'Elbows Out' and both create space for, and celebrate Black women in this industry. Not just now, during Black History Month or when the world is watching (we all remember the black square summer of 2020). But in a consistent, sustainable and meaningful way.
That's why a group of 8 brilliant Black women, fuelled by a conversation in Cannes about the lack of Black British women represented on stages and panels, have launched Join Our Table, an initiative to celebrate and shine a spotlight on Black women in the communications industries. We're not just creating our own table, we will be amplifying others too - and we're inviting all to join (to be celebrated or to celebrate Black women in our industry).
So if you are looking for somewhere to start, Join Our Table. (LINK to get involved page)
Collette Philip is co-Founder of Join Our Table and Founder and Managing Director of Brand by Me, a brand and strategy consultancy that help brands drive social justice and embed equity. You can find out more here (LINK https://brandbyme.co.uk/workwithus/) or head to her personal blog (LINK https://www.collettephilip.com/press)