Culture Hack

Culture Hack


By Joe Anthony

The senseless death of George Floyd, Breanna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery urgently brought to the forefront what most of us already knew – that the socioeconomic system that was built on the backs of free labor, pain, and blood provided by African Americans is morally corrupt and broken. This is a system that we allowed over the course of generations, silently benefitting from it and fearing that an admission of humanity, equality, and privilege to Black Americans would somehow mean less for us.  Blacks did their part, resilient yet patient and hopeful that America would change and keep its share of the promise. We were wrong and will no longer tolerate a status quo that denies our equal existence.

Blacks continue to be denied an integral role in American culture, absent from the societal power structures after the passing of hard-fought-for civil rights legislations. This disparity was most urgently felt during the Covid-19 pandemic, when Blacks, forced to work and abandon shelter-in-place, were more susceptible to contagion and death. The death of George Floyd showed us America’s other pandemic, an uncured, untreated form of systematic racism and violence that should have no place in modern human society. And just as Covid-19 has forced us all to reimagine a new normal, our urgent racial conversation requires a bigger reset, a new contract between America and our Black community. Anything less than this will give America a free pass to go back to its comfort-seeking ways, a luxury no one can afford.

Franklin D. Roosevelt instituted, “The New Deal,” in the early 30’s, in an attempt to usher in sweeping reforms to re-invigorate the economy after the first great recession.  Well, it’s time for another New Deal, one focused on empowering Black professionals and entrepreneurs.  However, this deal/contract needs to be agreement between Corporate and Black America.  This new contract between America and our Black community must be one of equals, one that is open and appreciates the full perspective of Black culture, and that is focused on real action and not just lip-service. In this new contract the lives of Black Americans will be valued, their rights protected at all levels, their voices represented in the highest levels of power, both corporate and political. In this new contract with Black America, Black culture will be fully compensated with contracts, opportunities, and related leadership roles connected to the powerful creative and commercial movements it generates. This is the part of the contract that impacts brands, corporations, and investment institutions, one of the worst perpetrators of Black silencing.

Brands, especially consumer brands, have benefited the most from Black culture while paying out tokenism to the Black community. Black culture is one of the most powerful economic machines that exists on Planet Earth. Yet, to this day, Black people have little to no equity in their creations. Industries that have produced $100’s of billions of dollars, which if appropriated fairly, could have had transformative effects in Black communities. Let’s take the music industry for example. Blacks invented Rock and Roll, Hip Hop, Blues, and Jazz. The fashion industry is another notorious thief of Black culture.  Streetwear, for instance, is a global behemoth that began in Black communities, and now spans across continents, with kids from all socio-economic backgrounds self-proclaiming their love for the streets by wearing clothing inspired by Black culture. Let’s not even get into the global impact that Blacks have had on sports and entertainment. Behind these creative and commercial movements lie a systematic machine of brands, media, and corporations that ignore Black power and stereotype them as a community, with pernicious and long-lasting repercussions on how America and the world sees Blacks. Yet these brands pose as our allies and supporters when it financially benefits their needs.

We know better and in much of this posturing, we see condescension and opportunism. This past week there have been hundreds of brands who have seemingly jumped on the bandwagon of justice. Brands now suddenly unafraid to the utter the words, “BLACK LIVES MATTER,” make contributions to the NAACP, or are quick to share a Black square on their social feeds representing their support for #blackouttuesday. Amidst the emotive brand posts, the question from the Black community has been, where is the substance, where have you been all along when we were telling you there was a problem? We accept your empathy but are more interested in learning about your plans to empower us. Please show us your corporate boards, your support for Black workers, executives, suppliers, and telling our stories in a way that creates equity for us. Tell us about your political contributions, your hiring practices, your plans to create jobs in communities where our people are in desperate need. Black America now demands a contract. We are asking the Nikes of the world for our fair share of the deal in which Black America has already delivered so much.

The new contracts between Black America and brands should include:

  1. Blacks should be represented at all key executive levels within a corporate structure, including the C-suite, board of directors, and other executive decision-making positions.  These need to extend beyond the traditional Multicultural and Diversity roles, that are necessary but often created to limit our potential to contribute on a macro level.
  2. Corporations and brands must over-index in the engagement of Black and minority suppliers throughout their entire supplier eco-system. This should include the highest level of their agency partners, consultants, and other suppliers that are critical to their success and operation.
  3. The ad agency world itself needs to finally embrace Black talent, shedding its echo-chamber of like-minded professionals. This begins at the entry-level by paying young talent fairly so disenfranchised groups can actually make a living from this industry. The perspective of young Blacks is critical to the ad industry’s survival, so the systemic exclusion of this group does no one a favor.
  4. Blacks should be able to own their narrative. Corporate America and brands must increase their investments in Black stories, creators, media, agencies, and talent.
  5. Venture capitalists, institutional financial services companies, brands, and private equity firms must make proportionate investments in Black startups and businesses, to ensure we are the owners of the intellectual property that we create.
  6. Brands must re-invest in Black communities in an effort to create jobs that ensure Blacks are not being displaced via gentrification and forced to leave neighborhoods they lived in all their lives.

As a founder of a Black-owned ad agency, we have benefited greatly from the unique power and vibrancy of our Black culture. From it, we draw our unique sense of introspection, self-expression, humor, and boldness. We thrive with Black creatives that are more resourceful and ingenious as a means of survival, having to outsmart what is still a white club between clients and agency leads.

And despite great successes, working with world-class brands, we have seen the very low ceiling given to agencies and companies like ours. We see contracts that we’re more capable of handling given to agencies more politically entrenched with clients; told that we can handle the multicultural piece of business; or that the client is opting for a total market approach, which has become code for the safeguarding of the white-entrenched ad establishment.

As we advocate for this new contract with Black America, we must remind all parties that this new approach is the right thing to do as humans but it’s also the right thing to do for business. By respecting, safeguarding, and promoting all aspects of Black culture and enterprise, you are tapping into formidable consumer and cultural opportunities. Black culture is powerful, and it must be treated in its full humanity. Anything less will not be accepted. This is our new contract.