My first job in advertising was an art buyer at a multicultural ad agency. Learning the structure, process and workflow in advertising came easily, but I soon realized the career limitations of only working for a minority-focused ad agency. They produce campaigns with more limited reach, smaller budgets and lower production values than general market agencies. While multicultural ad agencies offer the most opportunities to black creatives and photographers, I didn’t want to pigeonhole myself in what amounts to a much smaller scale of advertising. I had to move over to general market to work with global brands with a broader focus. Through a stock agent referral, I managed to get hired by a general market agency, which back then didn’t seem to hire many black people.
In the move to general market, I landed an art producer position at a hot boutique agency that was producing award-winning work. In the blink of an eye I was producing creative work with only top name photographers such as David LaChapelle, Nadav Kandar, John Akehurst and Richard Burbridge. Rarely did black photographers’ portfolios even make the initial cut with the creative teams. Their work—shot mostly for multicultural agencies— just didn’t measure up against white photographers who had been shooting more compelling concepts with diverse casting and bigger campaign budgets for general market agencies.
Several years later, when a senior art producer left the agency, I asked for a promotion to the vacant position. My boss told me I wasn’t ready and not deserving of a title change since I didn’t work hard enough. She hired a white senior art producer, along with another art producer, also white, who happened to be my boss’s photo agent friend, someone with no prior ad agency art production experience. Then, when my boss took a leave of absence, I was left to train both new hires, field all department problems, pick up additional work, etc. It soon became apparent that the new senior art producer had over-sold her experience and capabilities. She was struggling, and the creatives weren’t happy with the quality of her work. When I complained to the creative manager about the unfair circumstance, I was made to feel like a problem for speaking up.
Eventually, my boss left that agency, and I asked the creative manager about a raise and promotion. Again I was told No. Soon after that, the creative manager announced that the photo agent my former boss had hired as an art producer—the woman with no prior ad agency art production experience whom I had trained—would be promoted to department head. She was a cute, tall, blonde who baked cookies for everyone, and had pretty much became everyone’s BFF. At that moment, I realized it was never about my work or not being ready for a promotion, but about the color of my skin. As a result, I quit to find another job.
After that, I continued to hit career walls because of my race. At an agency where I was producing upwards of 27 celebrity shoots a year for an iconic pop culture brand, I had hoped the ECD would promote me from senior art producer to executive art producer. But during group status meetings in his office, he would cut his toenails and chew tobacco while I gave my status reports. He often mocked me, and once said in front of the group, “You always act like these photographers are your friends.” I wasn’t surprised he gave me no promotion, and no raise, and instead hired someone over me. She was white. She also had much less experience than I did. The ECD told me it would be up to her whether I deserved a raise or promotion. I knew it wasn’t about my work, but about the stigma of being considered an “unqualified” black woman in advertising.
At my next ad agency, I worked for several years as a senior art producer on global shoots for the biggest brand in the agency. When I asked for a promotion to executive art producer, my boss—who had no art production experience—told me I wasn’t deserving and that keeping me as a senior art producer was the only way he could control me.
I recently freelanced at an agency where the white head of the department treated me like it was my first job out of college. She micromanaged me and told me my 26 years of work experience meant nothing because she has a lot more experience. Whether her treatment of me was about my race, or her insecurity—or both—I can only wonder.
I’m not sure how to fix the prejudice and racial bias that exists in advertising. I think some agencies are making an effort to resolve the agency diversity issue but most are still all talk about it.
I fight every day to stay positive and not let it make me a bitter person. I love being black, working in advertising, being a producer and the work I have done. All I’ve ever wanted was a voice in the conversation. I only wish agencies would erase the cancer, the white-biased people they put in key positions of power. One’s race should never be a hindrance to career growth. I’m not opposed to hard work. All I want is to be valued and properly rewarded for it. In the interim I’m going to keep pushing ahead and believing in myself.
Shena Hickman is a freelance art and content producer with more than 20 years of experience managing productions for Rolex, PUMA, Levi’s, Pepsi, Maybelline, Samsung, GMC, Ford, Verizon, Bank of America, HP and other brands. She has held senior art producer positions at JWT New York, Deutsch and Lowe New York and was an art producer at Bozell.