Lack of inclusion in creative rooms and a refusal to listen to assertive black voices led to the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad

I have read with fascination the smug opinions blaming the creation of the now infamous Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad on it being made in-house as opposed to a creative agency.

Fair or not, in-house agencies take heat for Pepsi gaffe

Pepsi showed the ultimate downside of in-house creative: A lack of perspective

The spectacular implosion of Pepsi’s in-house Kendall Jenner ad can mark a win for agencies

Opportunism knocks: Agencies use Pepsi debacle to blast in-house studios

None of these pieces name the elephant in the room which, in my experience as a minority woman of colour who has worked both agency and client-side, is the fact that agencies suffer from creative myopia brought on by a lack of diversity and inclusion.

I’ve worked in creative and editorial spaces for the last 15 years and I’m always very much an outsider in the room - black, female, Nigerian, Norwegian - name your unconscious bias, I represent it.

272 digital agencies contributed to a study by BIMA and SapientNitro with key findings showing that 18% of agencies have a workforce that is 100% white and 82% of agencies employ a minimum of 5% black or minority employees. What I often experience in creative agency meetings is an echo chamber of a self-perpetuating whiteness and a re-creation of a world which reflects the people in the room, rather than the actual real world out there as seen and experienced by people who aren’t represented in the room due to systematic barriers to entry.

Couple this situation with the covert silencing of the maybe one, two (if we’re lucky) black and brown voices in the creative room. Self-preservation is a driving reality for minorities operating in mostly white spaces, and once we spot that a creative space isn’t open to feedback, many minorities will take the smart road, and choose to continue being able to pay their bills rather than suffer the blowback of critically speaking out.

I’ve sat through audience persona sessions where black and brown people are either non-existent in the persona tool-kit or presented as consenting juniors in the corporate pecking order. On a personal level, in many agencies, I’ve experienced a barrage of intrusive questions about my hair and heritage, and been called out and policed for not being happy and smiling about this.

This in supposedly liberal, modern creative agencies. It’s hard then for me, in the face of this ignorance, to buy the argument that an agency would have spotted the racial nuances and stereotypes which made the Pepsi ad an epic fail.

Hand on heart - Would your agency with its current make-up and culture have seen what was wrong:

  1. When Kendall Jenner, a white woman took off her blonde wig and handed it to the only black woman in the ad who seemed to be an assistant
  2. Or pointed out the surprising lack of black women and other women of colour from a protest march (particularly when these women sit at the intersection of both misogyny and racism, and ergo have a lot to protest about)
  3. The Asian man stereotypically playing the cello
  4. Or called out the pointed and forced jovial colluding use of black men in upholding this ad’s silly fantasy
  5. The ludicrousness of putting a hijabi in a passive observer mode as a photographer rather than actively protesting in the front line
  6. How tone deaf it is to have one of the richest models on the planet peacefully get close enough to a policeman, when black activists have only recently been tear gassed and arrested in Black Lives Matter protests
  7. Randomly using trans people as props - happy props as well, when we know the dangers transgender people face and would face in a protest with armed police, but hey a Pepsi can fix that, right?

Hand on heart - Would your agency not more likely have said to the lone person of colour in the creative room who might have spoken up, and that’s a strong might, that they were just being sensitive and reading too much into things?

So this idea that creative agencies with their current makeup and culture would have stopped the ad in its tracks before the ink had dried on the storyboard, is very very hard for me to swallow.

Until creative agencies actively support inclusion, not just paying it lip service, do the hard work to create a culture where employees of colour feel comfortable to be who they are without negative repercussions, place a value and appreciation to the difference they do bring to the table in experience and awareness and not reject this difference nor seek to police it, work like this and this will continue to be made - in-house or agency side.


This post was initially published on my LinkedIn page.