Rana Reeves, Creative Director and Founder of RanaVerse, an agency which marries brands with popular and contemporary culture, joins the program to discuss how brands should be thinking about diverse representation and social justice in their messaging. Discover why the identities of the entire agency and creative team matter, and the opportunities for brands and companies to use their voice and influence for positive change.
In this episode you’ll discover:
- Rana’s earliest cultural influences (20:00)
- The types of projects that Rana currently works on (25:00)
- How the BLM movement has influenced branding (28:00)
- Why the structure of an organization needs to match their messaging (32:30)
- Why we need to enable cultures to thrive (37:00)
- Why mainstream brands really need to drive change (42:00)
- An example of diversity in advertising (45:00)
- A blind spot that Rana discovered about mobilizing voters (49:00)
- How Rana turned his perceived limitations into advantages (52:30)
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
JENNIFER BROWN: So Rana, hello and greet everybody and tell us whatever you’d like to tell us to ground us in your story. How did you become the creative director you are? The passionate advocate and the activist that you are? You can take us anywhere you want in your background and in your past.
RANA REEVES: Sure. Obviously, I’m from the UK and I grew up in an area called South End which I think the US example, I live in New York and I will be in New Jersey. I grew up in the late ‘70s and ‘80s. We had Thatcherism in the same way as you guys had Reaganism. I think I grew up in a predominantly white area. Initially single parent family, my mother divorced my father. We’re from Indian descent. She was first generation Indian arranged marriage. She married my current Father in ‘83 who was English white. We had an unconventional life in terms of it wasn’t the norm. Single parent family, particularly single parent South Asian families. A lot of rejection I would say both from the Indian community and also from… It’s a racist time the ‘80s.
There wasn’t much assimilation. For those of you that know the UK, the Indian community I like to see a parallel with the Latinx community here, in we’re very prevalent. We’re the biggest non-white group of people. It goes us and then I think probably the Jamaicans will be next but just because of colonization and you could get a passport to go to the UK. You can’t anymore. A lot of trouble in a way across school all of that sort of thing. Went to university, discovered club land. If I’m honest, the short answer to your question, Jennifer is I got into this industry to get into nightclubs for free. That would be the real reason.
JENNIFER BROWN: Time for truth. Yes.
RANA REEVES: More professional answer is that I moved to London in ‘96. If you take diversity I was thinking about this, in the 90s a lot of the things we would talk about now like diversity, racism, queer rights, queer culture, it was lumped into what in Britain they would call youth culture. Anything that was slightly different it was just called youth culture. That’s the area that I fell into. I made my name, this is a long time ago, there used to be a Spanish lollipop called Chupa Chups. We did this thing called it’s the national no smoking day and it was called the last drag and the idea was that you gave up smoking and you suck on a lollipop and there were loads of drag queens involved. It became this big phenomenon. I fell into this industry that really appreciated the “other”. Youth culture was an area that the things that I held shame around or felt different around were pluses. Being non-white. By that time, I’d come out as a gay man, being a gay man.
These were things that were celebrated. It was a crazy time. It was when club culture came in, DJ culture, all of this sort of things and it’s when a lot of what Jennifer we’ve spoken about is that things change in the brand world when it commercially makes sense. What happened was the club culture became a commercially viable thing. Mainstream brands wanted to align with nightclubs because there were lots of young people who’d spend money. They then started to do campaigns and that ethos of club culture came into the daytime in some way. Drag queens became this acceptable thing over here, you had Ru Paul, and the fashion was changing into a more club orientated thing. This is all still pre internet. Then with just these changes I just fell into something that I was good at. What I would say is that I had tried at that point to apply to practically every major ad agency that there was, every conventional network and I couldn’t even get through the door.
I couldn’t be seen. It was still very much an ivory tower if you didn’t know people, then you weren’t getting in. Certainly kids like me were not getting in. I have at home, I have this whole box of rejection letters. Because there were certain things that I’ve grown up with such as I wasn’t really in a position where I could do seven months unpaid internship to get into this industry. In the end I had to, my family helped me but it was tough. There were all these systemic barriers for young brown kids to get into the industry. A lot of that has changed I won’t disagree with. Then I progressed in my career. I was a PR and I launched PlayStation two. I worked in a campaign for Courvoisier cognac which sounds very dated now but it was the first time the brands were really interacting with hip hop. There was a Busta Rhymes track done passing Courvoisier.
Then what happened is the internet arrived and social media arrived. What that allowed me to do was transfer over into content creation because this ivory tower, these ad agencies that held on to this channel was removed. In the way that I had grown up in a more scrappy club culture allowed me to create content very quickly, flip it and get it out there. Facebook, Instagram, etc. they have their negative points but they also have a lot of plus points and that they opened up the industry. It became a wild wild west. What brands then realized is look if I’m making a 30 second film for Instagram why can’t that be a TV ad?
Why can’t that be a TV ad? Then hop, skip, and jump, I built up a reputation in the UK but primarily what I do is I interact brands in popular and contemporary I would call it Western culture. From an early age, the US, and particularly New York… New York is probably the biggest most successful PR campaign there is. If you interact with music, films, anything you think that’s where you want to be. It’s the difference between now do I want to see my work in Times Square? During the Grammy’s? During the Super bowl? Or do I want to keep in London and just be doing cool stuff for a load of cool people? I was able to move over here. What we did was we pitched for Illy coffee, I didn’t have a visa or anything.
It was still very club land. We pitched, we beat 12 other agencies and we won. My business partner at the time Mina, she just never got the plane back. Then we had to get visas, we had to make up an office, it’s a lot of making stuff up. Then I had some issues around my visa, and I went to work for Sean Combs, Diddy, as his creative director for about a year. I’ve been very blessed through my career in terms of the mentors that I have. I’ve done a lot of work for Jimmy Lovine. I think Will one of my mentors is on here. I’ve always had these people that have got me and understood what I’m trying to do. Then about a year ago I opened the agency I have now RanaVerse.
I called it RanaVerse because I really wanted to create an environment where people like me could get jobs. Could be hired and could work. I still fundamentally believe in the American dream. Part of what has been interesting for me moving to the US is as well as my Indian label and my gay label I can now add immigrant. I didn’t have that experience in the UK but I have an experience of that by immigrating to the US. We work on a range of different brands. General Motors, Unilever, I’ve worked on Dove, Axe, Coach where we were connected by Brian. I work with Equinox Gyms, I’ve worked for Beats by Dre, Adidas. Primarily the work that we do still sits within Gen Z and millennial in terms of we sell shit, essentially.
What’s shifted which is probably why I’m on this call is that the stuff that we’re selling in an interesting way now is human rights. A lot of the approach that we may take to sell a handbag or open a gym or sell a car I’m now being asked to look at in terms of marriage equality. I did a lot of work for that campaign. The election coming up is a huge area that I’m looking at now. We work a lot within LGBTQ pride campaigns. That pride is every day, I would like to add. We’re looking at how to interact around and coalesce around the Black Lives Matter movement, etc. But taking the lessons the consumer culture has and applying them around diversity, equity, etc.
Then the other thing that has begun to develop is that more and more we’re being asked to evaluate traditional ad agency work and the structures of that to shift it to make sure there’s equity behind the camera as well as in front of the camera. Things that I may find really obvious, like if you’re doing a campaign targeted to African American women, that we use African American women to make it. Some of the conventional ad agencies don’t seem to understand that. There’s a great caption that creatives use of, “they weren’t quite the right creative,” but that’s rubbish. You could always find the right creative in any community. A lot of time I’m spent in loggerheads with the conventional agencies and just like, you can just do things differently. Just because you’ve always done it this way doesn’t mean you have to carry on. That’s where we are.
JENNIFER BROWN: My goodness. Can everyone believe this story? I don’t even know where to jump in. Rana, thank you and by the way your mom is on and I know some of you noticed this. I just love it when parents are on and I know you consider her to be such a mentor and a real lifeline for you, thank you mom. Thank you for raising Rana to change our world. Rana, human rights, I think we cannot close the door that’s been opened. We are now on the road and that you and I talked about even if you did performative ally ship and you posted the Black Lives Matter, now you’re on the hook to keep performing. I loved that. Yet, there’s such a cluelessness about what does keep performing really look like?
What’s going to be interesting is to see how does the social justice conversation continue? You mentioned voting rights. You mentioned voter suppression. You mentioned the voice of brands potentially to help drive this topic and the nuances that will need to be sorted out that impact both black and brown employees, different roles in companies whether we’re frontline workers, whether we’re stores in areas where there is voter suppression versus in New York City where that’s not an issue. Tell me why do you predict that this is going to be this next opportunity for brands to walk the talk and specifically to prioritize the most disenfranchised voices? Because I think if this is done well, this isn’t just get out the vote, this is a total evolution of that to something new that is intersectional.
RANA REEVES: I think what’s really interesting is when I work with brands what we do is we look at how we coalesce around culture. That could be Coachella, it could be Pride, it could be Juneteenth, it could be for this year the election. I think that activism has become a mainstream form of activity. Black Lives Matter, the brands that I’m having conversations with around racism and deep stuff, systemic racism, even two months ago I would not have been having that. This phrase black lives it was seen as an edgy activist statement and it was seen as political. Well, human rights are not political. They’re just doing the right thing. Also, the other thing that I talk to brands a lot about is there is a fundamental difference between human rights and philanthropy.
Often, it’ll be like, this is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, then we’ll do the blacks, then we’ll do some disability, then we’ll do this charity, and then we’ll do the gays. In London, we call it chalk and cheese. They’re two different things. They sit in different groups and I think that the election is a huge cultural moment, it’s a huge commercial moment. Music, fashion, art, Gen Z culture, millennial culture, everything will coalesce. It’s an epic moment. It’s like the Olympics. The Olympics only happen every four years. There’s no reason that you can’t take the same energy that you might do around saying Olympic sponsorship and put that to this. I think that what I’m spending a lot of time doing is traversing what is political and what is a human right.
The right to vote and voter suppression, they sit for me, they’re not political statements intrinsically. Everyone should have an equitable ability to vote. That’s the law of the land and that’s not the case in this country. The stuff that I’m working on at the moment with brands, different brands have different codes of conduct. If you take Tapestry, we’re working with More Than a Vote, which is LeBron’s’ organization, which is looking at how do you protect the black and brown voters in the US. If you take someone like Unilever, they can’t work with, I’m going to get this wrong, 5013C4s, which more than a vote is. They have to remain apolitical but what they can do is champion safe and fair voting.
A lot of the stuff that I’m doing at the moment is looking at, well, how can a brand interact with this epic massive cultural moment. Intuitively for me, I want change, but in London we say there’s more than one way to skin a cat. We’ve talked about this Jennifer. What I’ve been looking at the moment is look, if I can engage black and brown Gen Z to vote, and also to volunteer, to help the electoral system move around suppression, etc., then that is a win across the board. Because we know that equity rises everyone. It rises women’s rights, queer rights, immigration rights etc. What I’m spending a lot of time doing is working out, well, how do I take these human rights and divorce them from political to create real change in some way? That has to be systemic.
These are big issues for brands to take on but in a peculiar way the current political landscape that we exist in and the current president that we have has brought all of this into the brand world. If he can take a picture with Goya beans, it means that brands, you can’t sit on the fence like you used to. It’s no longer acceptable to do that. Your consumer will pick you up on it. For me I’m giving you a very long answer but it’s about, look, how far can a brand go within its corporate governance to essentially create change for the constituents it’s saying it’s celebrating and its consumer marketing? You don’t get to put black and brown people in ads, you don’t get to have black and brown ambassadors, you don’t get to do rainbow collections if you’re not supporting the change to make equitable life for those people internally in your organization and externally. What I see is that it doesn’t need to be a divorce between making that stuff interesting and engaging and exciting.
JENNIFER BROWN: Totally Rana and you really spotlight for me the creative talent behind the camera matters and is often where we fail. Also, another area of failure is paying talent and the assumption of free work and those are these things where we talk about sometimes racism is subtle and it’s baked in to the way that we thought about things and this is exactly what we need to change. Talk about how you’ve advocated for both of those aspects. Fair pay, respecting people and changing that and then prioritizing the behind the camera talent when people say, we can’t find this person, or we can’t find that person. I’m sure you’re right there to say actually, that’s my team. How does the product end up shifting when you have that lens behind the camera in important ways?
RANA REEVES: The way that I always look at stuff is, look, what is the vibe or the frequency of the creative that you’re looking to generate? If we get a brief that is aimed at say Latinx women, I’m not the creative director to generate that. I have to have the confidence to step aside and bring other people in or open that door. That’s my job as a creative director. What I look at then is campaign direction. Campaign direction is where you create a structure that allows and opens the door for the relevant people to come in some way. If you take a pride based campaign, a lot of what I talk about with brands at the moment is that pride is not for straight people, pride is for queer people. It should be queer content made for queer people. My biggest moment with Coach this year, that my biggest issue with pride campaigns is that they desensitize queer people, that they never shown them holding hands or kissing. We’re just this abstract thing and people hide it behind a rainbow. In the Coach campaign this year they had two women kissing.
This to me doesn’t sound like a big thing but if you look at pride campaigns across this year, you find me how many show queer people being intimate. Queer people understand that if you take campaigns aimed at African Americans, for me it should always be an African American creative, an African American director. If I talk from the first person, I call it my Sunday best voice. If someone talks to me as a client often as a Caucasian client, I will emulate what I feel I need to shift myself to talk to them in a certain way. That means that content doesn’t feel authentic. In queer talk it means it’s not Kiki. You can feel it, it doesn’t feel authentic, it doesn’t feel right because people put on the lens that they feel that they have to for the majority to get to where they need to get. That may be, I’ll talk a lot to Dove about if you’re going to show black women at home, then ask black women what they want to wear to show they’re at home.
Don’t style them as if they’ve… Do you know what I mean? Just things that seem really obvious to me, the agencies and brands aren’t understanding. The way to do that is that you bring in the communities to do that. That doesn’t mean that you have to exclude white people. That’s what I mean about campaign direction. But if you’re trying to take from someone’s culture be it hip hop culture, be it NBA players, musicians, art, or whatever, then you have to enable all of that culture to thrive. What ends up happening is you get better work that is less likely to be called out or criticized which is every brand’s fear is if we do this work, we make a mistake. That and then on the flip side of that which is where people such as yourself come in, is that the brand internally has to live up to that.
We can’t do a campaign celebrating Trans women of color if you’re not supporting Trans women of color in your organization if you don’t have the rights for them, if you don’t have gender neutral bathrooms, if you don’t support people through their transitions. What’s happening more and more is your world and my world don’t just coexist they have to integrate. Because otherwise, it doesn’t make sense all this external stuff that I’m doing. You can make the coolest glittery thing externally but if there’s no substance inside you can feel it. Look at the Starbucks campaign where they did I think it coffee cups and they were writing their names since they transitioned but then loads of trans workers at Starbucks called them out that they didn’t have rights. They go hand in hand now because then that internal becomes public and then it negates everything that I’ve done in the marketing side.
One I hadn’t had much experience of working with diversity personnel pre Brian, who’s on the call, at Coach, and now I worked with Brian in coach and I worked with Meeta at Unilever. I need people like you because I don’t naturally understand the legalities of doing stuff. I didn’t know you can’t just ask people are you gay? Because I just do. I need people like you to champion what we’re doing and also to tell me what I can and can’t do and to make sure that people feel empowered internally. I know that you had a different name for it, Jennifer, but on Unilever they call it their BRG group which is they have one for the queer community, they have one for African Americans. How do we empower those members of staff? Things that we’ve talked about Jennifer, is you can’t have one rule for the corporate office and one rule for the stores.
It’s just not fair. Also, I’m more on the, how would Brian phrase, I’m more on the agitator side of things. I’m blunt. Sometimes you need someone internally that’s a bit more diplomatic that speaks Tapestry language or Unilever language or General Motors language because they have their own language to articulate this. More and more I breathe a sigh of relief when I know that they have a diversity person because it means that there’s some commitment to systemic change.
JENNIFER BROWN: Absolutely. There’s so many good questions. We’re never going to get to them all Rana but I think there are some questions about have you ever recused yourself or not taken on work when you don’t feel a client is where they need to be? That’s one question. I also really wanted you to talk about, we talked a lot about the brands on the coasts and doing the work in the middle of the country. You actually said that there are aspects of your less hip brands, if you will, that you really actually prefer to work with. I feel the same sometimes, by the way that working with the white liberal progressive as the client sometimes can be the hardest thing you’ll ever do.
Your work in the middle of the country for brands like GM, for example, I’d love to hear what are your unorthodox observations about that and what is important to know that actually unexpected brands can actually do this well? It’s the ones that I think we need to bring them along and help them come along with good and respectful creative and the fact that you’ve been able to do what you do I think that not a lot of us are really aware of that work and what’s possible there. A lot of people on this call work for companies that probably would fit some of those other descriptions.
RANA REEVES: Look, I can do all of the cool shit that I want to. I can do the Beats by Dre, the Adidas, the Equinox but I’m still preaching to the converted when I’m working with the coastal brands. That’s not where you get change. If you’d asked me a year ago whether my most exciting brands that I feel are really pushing the needle are like Axe deodorant and Dove body wash, but if I want to create change I need to be in Walmart. I need to be in CVS. I need to be in the tabloids. I need to be in mainstream culture. There’s no point me talking to the Queen’s in Chelsea Hell’s Kitchen if I want to move gay rights forwards. I get such a kick out of working with that uncomfortability with mainstream brands.
If you take General Motors, I love my work General Motors. You can imagine, you get a sense of me and then I’m brought into Detroit to talk to them about Super Bowl and clearly I’ve never even been on a football pitch. We’ll talk but they can sometimes be what I would call an honesty to the conversation. What I want with people is I want to be able to say I don’t know, what do I do? That’s what I do. If I meet a member of another community and I don’t know what to do, I want to ask you. It has to be the right setting. It’s not your job to teach me about you, but if I’m going to work with you I want to know the best way to do it. I love a brand in a crisis because when you get a brand in a crisis, all of those things that they said that they couldn’t do, that it’d take 90 days to do X, Y, and Z, suddenly they can do it.
Whereas those systems stand in the way, and so for me the mainstream brands are the ones that really change hearts and minds. If you think about it, think about soap operas. Soap operas when they have a character that is queer or they bring in any different issue, one with HIV or immigrants or whatever, that beams into mainstream homes and they change hearts and minds as much as laws do. Soap operas were just created to put around soap ads. Working with these mainstream brands is so important because I live in an echo chamber, I live in an ivory tower of happy gay life in New York City and it’s not like that. There’s a geographic privilege to where I live. Working with more traditional brands who are uncomfortable doing this is where the wins are.
Sometimes it can be uncomfortable for me, but sometimes it’s better to deal with head on ignorance, then this we’ve got it coastal idea. Jennifer we talk about that I can have an issue… within the creative world there’s this strain of particularly white, cisgender men who are liberal so they get it but they don’t open any doors they just get it right. Whereas I would much rather deal with some of the heterosexual Detroit auto guys that I’m dealing with who just say I don’t get it. Yeah, we want to make a difference. If I take GMC I’ll speak in a very specific example. I’m redoing their electric vehicle, the Hummer is coming out. Hammer was a bastion of masculinity. It was Arnold Schwarzenegger that brought it in.
It’s a real truck, masculine. I wanted them to cast LeBron as the ambassador for the brand. LeBron to me talks about a contemporary form of masculinity, he’s very much around his philanthropy, he’s a family man, but he’s still successful to the nth degree, self-made, he’s the American dream. Even to this day to have that conversation with General Motors that for this epic massive launch that you’re doing that I want the front spokesperson to be an African American man is still a shift in 2020 is what it is. That is a bigger shift and a bigger change, and I get more of a kick out of it than saying to Beats by Dre let’s put a rapper in an ad. It is what you expect.
That’s the stuff where I get a kick out of stuff. In terms of would I not work with a brand, I am materialistic to my core. I think that I wouldn’t work with a brand if… it gets to a stage where if a brand is doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, I will work with them. I own my own company, so I’m able to say I don’t want to work with a brand. If a brand has a specific stance that I absolutely don’t agree with, I won’t work with them. But I also believe and I think this comes with age as well, I’m not going to create change by not being at the table. The kids on the street absolutely you need them, but it’s not an either or. You need people going in and having the uncomfortable conversations.
Where I will recuse myself, it sounds very legal is this idea of campaign direction versus creative direction. That’s where I will shift myself. I will not creatively lead campaigns that aren’t personally relevant to me when they’re playing off of a person’s identity or beliefs. What I will do is make sure that I open the doors for those people. A lot of the creatives that we work with are incredibly talented, have never had a chance at an ad agency. But the work that they create is so powerful. I just want to answer one thing that came up in the feed from Inez about older people and elections. I just want to let you know that I’m in complete agreement. The campaign that I’m looking to do with Unilever is about how do we get Gen Z out as a form of activism to staff polling. I’m in complete agreement, I’m there with you. It’s just a question Jennifer I wanted to answer.
JENNIFER BROWN: Rana, yes, I did. Can we stay on that for a moment? I know you and I were talking about somebody named Jack in your world. It made me curious how you do your own learning about the lived experiences that aren’t your own as you build these campaigns and you gave me the example of a blind spot you had because of a lack of lived experience relating to who could instead of older Americans staff these locations. Because you said actually volunteering combats voter suppression. It’s not just get out to vote it’s literally the composition and who’s available and who has the job and the paid time to go and actually staff, and then you covered this blind spot. I just wanted to invite you to share that story and…
RANA REEVES: I’m having to learn the American political system. I knew that you could volunteer, you actually get paid $175. I know a lot of people that would probably sit at a polling station for a day for $175 but they don’t know. It was about, well, how do we get the youth out with this? Because my initial thing is maybe we can just pay them. I have to learn all the legalities around stuff around what you can do. Then it was about mobilizing queer people of color. For instance, we work a lot with the ballroom communities. It was part of something that I find particularly unique to American culture is that you have a contemporary non-white form of gay culture which we just don’t have in Europe in the same way. It’s incredible. It’s the flip side to me of the energy of a hip hop culture is ballroom culture.
It’s queer built, etc. I had this idea around, well, let’s mobilize the different ballroom houses because a lot of the places that experience voter suppression have predominantly Latinx or African American communities. Let’s get the houses out, they could staff the polling booths, etc. I’m like, let’s do this. It’ll be a KiKi, it’ll be major, and then Jack called, talked to me about the lived experience say of transgender men and women who are transitioning who won’t feel as comfortable in a daytime setting. What I have to understand is that we all come at this from different ways. I have to understand how different communities experience things. I’m just learning, I just learned today that if you speak another language, and you volunteer at polling booth, you get even more money.
If you speak Spanish and English you can get more money. These are all the things that I’m having to learn. Then how do we speak to Latinx community to say, look, if you’re not working at the moment, you can go and get $175 if you do this in Florida. If you’re younger, you’re going to be down to do that. It’s about learning that. The other thing I wanted to just touch on, Jennifer is how I learned about other communities. I think that for me… I’ll always have a curiosity. The fundamental building blocks of creativity are alienation, that sense of other, passion, am I really interested in this, and then just boredom. Just I’ve got nothing to do so I’m going to do something. I’ve always had a curiosity of how other people do stuff, experience stuff, engage in stuff. One of the things that I love about America, is this crucible of so many different cultures.
We don’t have in Britain in the same way, a healthy kind, not healthy, but Latinx culture. Just probably because of geography. I’ve never really experienced Mexican culture, Puerto Rican culture, Dominican culture, Brazilian culture, I haven’t experienced that. I love culture, I love experiencing new things, and that’s how I interact, is that if you want to know something, go and take part. I think that also I have the benefit of being “Othered” so I can immediately link with people. When I talk to people like my African American brothers and sisters creatives, I don’t understand the African American experience in this country. But on a base level I do understand racism. Already, we can find some commonality. All of those things that I used to feel like were these things that held me back, if I was white it would be fine, if I was straight, it would be fine, yada, yada, yada. These are all things now that hugely benefit me because they give me a sense of empathy with other communities if that makes sense. Even my name I used to hate having an Indian name. Now, I love it.
JENNIFER BROWN: Awesome. You’re getting a lot of comments, you’re giving people a lot of ideas right now about how to incentivize this, how to provide the time. You’re doing the work internally because inevitably you need to make sure whatever story you’re telling and advising that it is aligned with the employee policies for hourly workers, for frontline workers to participate. Do you want to give us any advice about if we do want to look at this in our organizations what do we need to be aware of that we might miss in terms of setting this up to be congruent between, okay, the brand is going to take this on as an issue and really walking the talk in terms of the allocations and the policy changes we’re going to need to make to actually enable people to do this which is a very different question. I do feel that’s that last mile in what you’re talking about.
RANA REEVES: What I’ve begun to do and this is new, this is all new for me, Jennifer. I’m learning the American system is I’ve begun to put together these groups and we have one at Tapestry, we’ve got one at Unilever, which has a range of people in it. They’ll obviously be my normal marketing clients but there’ll be someone there from HR. If they have a diversity representative, someone from there, we have representative from the different groups. There’s a black group, there’s a queer group, people internally because what I’m having to learn is also the corporate inequities that go on. There’s a difference between what happens in a corporate office and what happens say if you work in a store.
The corporate office can afford to shut down and work from home, whereas the business may say that the shops can’t close. How do you deal with that thing? Juneteenth is a good example, Nike said that they were going to have Juneteenth as a holiday which they could do during pandemic because their stores were closed already, and it was like a domino effect. Then everyone’s doing Juneteenth. But what I’ve then learned was in the corporate office, you could take Juneteenth, but when you weren’t in corporate, you got a paydays holiday to take at some point but then that defeats the objects of African Americans having a holiday aimed at that so it’s learning what are the systems and the structures internally that may or may not flex to what we’re trying to save.
Because there’s nothing worse than giving your employees a so called benefit that they can’t really take, and really deciding around that, and I’m just learning this stuff. Tapestry is an example that they’re trying to work out how do we mobilize our stores around voter suppression? But then also you can’t just tell the people in the stores they then have to do this because the other thing that often happens is if you’re black or brown you get this other layer of unpaid work called dealing with racism for the company or if you’re queer dealing with transphobia or homophobia. What I’m trying to look at is well, how do we incentivize? It’s not the job of black and brown people to stop voter suppression in the corporate world.
How do we create structures internally that empower the staff to do what they want to do but also remunerate them in some way if there’s additional work? Now, I can’t answer that because I’m a marketeer and a creative director. I need the HR people and the diversity people there to look at how do we make this equitable. For an example, Unilever are supporting the idea that there should be a two week I think span when you can vote. There’s things that are happening already like registering to vote, polling, etc. and then there are things that are being proposed like being able to vote over two weeks, etc. We’re understanding what can we change now and what do brands have to put pressure on state legislators etc. to shift to make voting equitable in its widest sense. Does that answer Jennifer?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. I love that. I feel like you’re giving us a million examples of systems change of an equity lens really which is digging into the reasons why it’s deeper than the performative piece. There’s all these other things that need to be lined up before we launch something and we need to do our homework. I think that these times we’re pressured to take quick action and then figure it out on the back end. I think it’s a tension we have because we want to do things well and sustainably and consistently but there’s this right now an urgency to brands taking positions and not wanting to miss the window. But it’s interesting to me that the consequences of not having done all those systems pieces behind the scenes can actually hurt you because you’re way out ahead and you haven’t lined things up behind the scenes.
Someday, I think we will all be in a place where we are doing them together and actually we’re setting the foundations in place before the crisis so that we’ve actually thought about these things, we’ve anticipated them. We have wonderful partners like you on the team who’s saying, “Okay, this is what’s next.” Here’s all the things that we need to evaluate before we come out swinging on this in the public square. Here’s all the things that we have to have lined up to do this well so that we don’t break the trust with both our employees and with the marketplace which is what the real risk is here.
Like you said earlier, no company wants that. But I wondered, you’ve got a lot of DNI people here, they’re probably looking at you and saying, why are we not working with Ranas’ agency? I’m sure we’re sitting here saying, how can we push our chief marketing officers, our agency partners? In DNI do we have a seat at the table to influence those choices and to voice those concerns that you’re raising if our agency partner isn’t? Do you have any advice for how to have some power in that equation?
RANA REEVES: Look, its difficult when you work at the company. There was one brand that I was having an issue with their agency. I just printed off their entire leadership team and their team and it was all white men. I just showed it to the client and just said, “Well, this is your issue.” I think that if you push diversity, then it’s beholden on agencies to prove to me that they can do that. I’m a very vocal person. If we’re creating a campaign aimed at, let’s use Trans women. The dove campaign that we just did. It was aimed at celebrating and raising the voices of black and brown Trans women, black, brown and indigenous Tran’s women. I was very vocal in the fact that then you can’t go to a PR agency where the entire team is white and cisgender and straight and have that team do it. You can’t on one side, say you’re for change and then employee the system.
As a brand I believe you’re perfectly within your right to say that this team is not diverse. Because I’m there saying it and I say it from a commercial perspective that if they don’t want to be diverse they’re not going to hire me. It’s a continuing issue that I have with ad agencies is that they would just open it up. You’re making enough money, it doesn’t always have to be invented here. Just open it up. There are loads of creatives out there. If your creative director is a white cisgender, straight male, he may just not be right for this. Maybe with the $50,000 a month retainer you can spare 4K a month to pay for a person of color or Trans person or a Latinx person to come and do the job.
I think that the issue is that there is a dearth of senior level diversity in the ad industry. What I’ll often see when I go into meetings with ad agencies is at a junior level, they’ve started to hire to the intern or the assistant account exec will be black or brown or whatever. But at senior level, it’s just all white. It’s often all cisgender or its white cisgender males. You have to voice it and it’s uncomfortable sometimes to sit in those meetings as the only brown person and say why are we having this conversation? I remember being on one conversation with a brand that will remain unnamed, they decided they wanted to reach older African American people.
I just stopped the call and said there is not one African American on this call. Why are we having this call? It seems so obvious to me. It’s shocking. It’s shocking even to this day that I will sit on a call with all men to do a campaign to reach women. I can’t even, but the difference is permission. I have permission to say that now. Probably even a year ago I’m not sure I would have permission to challenge it. But what can happen now is a consumer can go onto LinkedIn and find every single person that works on a campaign and say that these aren’t the people that should be doing this. That level of transparency and you see it happen, you saw it happen in the entertainment world, you saw it with Ru Paul’s Drag Race that they looked at the production team which is all white and were like, “What’s going on here?” It comes back, Jennifer two brands do not want to be called out. You can now call out a brand for its internal structure as much as its external structure. You can’t pick up the New York Times any day of the week now without it being seen. Hearst publishing was the one that ran yesterday. You can use that fear of being called out which hits you commercially to stimulate change. You would hope that your CMOS, your CEOs or COOs will just want a change but if they don’t want to change then it’s a bit like change or die now because that’s where we’ve got to which is hugely exciting.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love that. You just articulated the business case Rana that the moral argument doesn’t always work, I wish it would. But failing that, the data works, the changing customer demographic, the changing talent demographic, and worst case fear. Fear of not evolving fear of not anticipating what’s next. Fear of hurting your brand image in a changing world. If we can be the truth tellers about that I think there’s an openness now that you just said that wasn’t here even a couple months ago, even. This is so dynamic and I think I would recommend that we all revisit where our edges are, or were in terms of telling the truth in terms of agitating or being the, I like to call it the sand in the oyster, the irritant. I do think we have a lot more leeway to be those voices now.
I think we need to revisit perhaps the way we felt we needed to be diplomatic particularly when we were internal and not external to Rana’s point. External is the reason I became a consultant honestly as I was like, this is not going to be okay for me. I need to be able to agitate in a way that I will be able to sleep at night, but that was an evolution for me and it was also obviously privileges that come with starting your own thing and not everybody can do that. But I do think internals though, we probably have some unexercised voice right now. I think the ground has shifted under us and I think we need to revisit where we thought those boundaries were in the past and leverage your external partners. If you have others like Rana maybe in different roles, it’s a chicken and egg thing, maybe that’s not the right saying.
Its two sides of the coin to say if you go together and you’ve got the instigator expert from the outside and then you’re the internal voice, there’s some powerful force that you can apply to change in the context of that relationship. I think this is something we’ve got to do together, obviously. Rana, I know that people on this call are like, I need to know more about him and his work and his agency and our brand needs to know about what you could do for us, I’m sure. I wanted to let you give yourself a commercial really quick, how can people reach you? What is your preferred method? You may get inundated. If you even want to give your email you might want to, to Sam.
RANA REEVES: Sure I can put it in the chat. You can just email me. As I said, without diversity I don’t exist. I don’t have a business. I don’t get hired. I’m all in for this because I don’t exist without it. I just want to leave you with one thing that I use for clients when I’m going in for the commercial case is that 50% of Gen Z in this country are non-white. The top 20 cities in America, only three are white majority. It’s not about minority anymore. That’s gone. We talk a lot about the new majority. The stats, the data is on your side. It’s not even about right or wrong now. The data is on your side. That’s what I would say is the most powerful thing and like you say, if you don’t feel you could say it internally, my rent is paid. I’ll come and say it.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you Rana. Thank you for agitating like you do. Thank you for your commitment of using your voice and challenging our organizations to be better and do better both externally and internally. Let’s give Rana a lot of love here. Thank you so much. We need lights like you. Next time I see a brand doing an amazing job I’m going to know that there’s a lot of thought and heart by somebody like you behind the scenes basically making sure and doing the really hard and tactical in the trenches work of helping brands who don’t see their biases move into this place where we all need them to be and they should be. Thank you so much, Rana. I really appreciate it. Thanks, everybody, for joining us. Feel free to share your contact info, your LinkedIn in chat.
You’ll all get a copy of this chat by the way. In your replay email which you’ll get tomorrow you’ll see a PDF which in this case is going to be 20 pages long. Please download that, look at the resources, take your time, go through it, and listen to this again. Like I said, we’ll release this episode also on my podcast, The Will to Change, so you can give it a slower listen if you’d like to because Rana was just full of insights and so were all of you. I loved to your questions and please follow up with Rana as well if you didn’t get your question answered today. But thank you everybody, you stay safe. Pace yourself. You’re important. We are important and we’re doing world changing stuff. I appreciate all of you very much and get in touch with me if you’d like to give us any feedback firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll let you go. Thanks, everyone. Big hugs.
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