When asked why advertising has remained so exclusive over the years, Jazmin Burrell, a black advertising professional, did not hold back. "Advertising is an industry of rubbing elbows," she told POPSUGAR. "As a minority, they tell you to go through all of these advertising diversity programs to 'get in.' You have to have the GPA and the connections and the look, but on the first day at your dream job, you find out that your white boss got her degree in philosophy and used to babysit the CEO's daughter. The advertising industry is so white because it chooses to be. We shouldn't be treated as prizes and anomalies when, in actuality, we are the culture that inspires these ads and the consumers that follow these brands."
"The advertising industry is so white because it chooses to be."
While Burrell is speaking from experience, the numbers tell a similar story. In 2017, 72AndSunny — a prominent agency with offices in Los Angeles, New York, and Amsterdam — published a playbook that shows the advertising industry is 81 percent white and only 19 percent people of color. According to 2017 Census data, white people make up 63 percent of the country's total population, while people of color make up 37 percent. Without realizing it, 72AndSunny proved that diversity in advertising hasn't changed much at all over the last decade. In 2008, economist Marc Bendick Jr. conducted a study that projected African Americans would make up almost 10 percent of the industry by that time. In reality, African Americans were 5.8 percent of the industry, almost half of what was expected. 72AndSunny's 2017 numbers show that African Americans make up 7 percent of the industry currently, a mere 1.2 percent climb from the numbers collected in 2008.
However, it's not just the numbers that are cause for concern; the lack of diversity is causing tone-deaf ads as well. In April 2017, Shea Moisture ostracized its most loyal fan base — black women — after releasing an ad that featured almost no diversity. During the same month, Pepsi released a short that positioned Kendall Jenner as an activist who solved inequality with a can of Pepsi, and in October of the same year, Dove came under fire for a soap ad that showed a black woman cleaning herself and becoming white.
To say the least, the advertising industry has some work to do. Despite diversity and inclusion campaigns from powerhouses like Leo Burnett, the numbers have barely budged. Burrell, the founder of Lizzie Della Creative Strategies, is determined to redecorate the celebrated "Mad Men" boardroom with a bigger room that offers a seat for new faces who inspire and drive the culture forward.
"My great-grandmother is everything that I want my brand to represent: boldness, creativity, bravery, and authenticity."
During the Summer of 2017, Lizzie Della Creative Strategies, a boutique agency run out of Brooklyn, NY, was born. The agency is named after Burrell's great-grandmother, Lizzie Della Figgous, who had a passion for creating but wasn't able to pursue it as a career — she was a black woman with a sixth grade education in the segregated deep South during the early 1900s. "I knew from the jump that I wanted to name my agency after my great-grandmother," Burrell said. "She always supported me in carrying out my dreams and nurturing my imagination. She's everything that I want my brand to represent: boldness, creativity, bravery, and authenticity."
Jazmin Burrell and her great-grandmother Lizzie Della Figgous.
What sets Lizzie Della apart from the rest is a conscious commitment to diversity and authenticity. The Lizzie Della team — made up entirely of women of color — is spread out across the country in the South, Midwest, and Northeast. In less than a year, Lizzie Della Creative Strategies has landed projects with BET and Loud Speakers Network, home of popular podcasts like The Read and The Friend Zone, along with many minority nonprofits and small businesses.
Burrell isn't new to the advertising world. She got her degree from the University of Missouri School of Journalism — the oldest J-school in the country — where she majored in strategic communication. Since graduation, she's gone on to work for some of the most notable agencies in New York City: Spike DDB, 72andSunny, and even a stint at Viacom. Currently, she's working on her master's in advertising and digital innovation at Syracuse University.
"I knew I wanted to use my voice to represent people who look like me."
But the companies Burrell has been able to work for and the brands she's represented are not what keep her moving forward. Her thirst for independence is. "I knew I wanted to start my own agency before I even broke into the business. When I went to college, I knew I wanted to use my voice to represent people who look like me," she says. "After being let go from 72, I had to put into perspective that you really are collateral in this business. It's always convenient for companies to want diversity but not nurture it. Being in corporate America, you see how people can work at a job for 20 years and still get let go due to 'office culture' shifts or political changes. I decided that wasn't going to be my fate. I was not going to be a trend or a convenience."
Burrell had no interest in moving to NYC, but when her dream agency, Spike DDB, called, she couldn't pass up the opportunity.
The lack of diversity and especially the lack of inclusion was also a sign for Burrell that if she wanted this industry to represent her and her peers, she was going to have to forge her own path. "It's always interesting to see the discussion of diversity in advertising, the conversation is always [centered around] white women," Burrell explained. "Look at this year's Agency A-List. I truly believe that we're at the point where we need to stop begging for a seat at the table and make our own. We have the network. We are the talent and almost every one of these top list agencies started off the same way . . . with a vision. No time is better than the present and that's how Lizzie Della came about."
"I truly believe that we're at the point where we need to stop begging for a seat at the table and make our own."
Burrell isn't just trying to be one agency in a sea of many; she wants Lizzie Della to create a power shift within the industry. A shift where the agency producing the work reflects its intended audience. "The world is becoming more culturally diverse and brands are looking for agencies to authentically and truly represent them," she said. "The world is moving forward and the advertising world isn't. They'll have to catch up soon and we set the pace." She's not wrong. In the last year alone, Airbnb, Pepsi, and Verizon have called for more diversity of the advertising staffs they work with. In 2016, General Mills refused to work with agencies that didn't meet its diversity requirements as well.
The driving force behind Lizzie Della is Burrell's passion and determination to create what her great grandmother never got the chance to. She's not just doing this for herself, but for all women of color who have been deemed too "sassy" or "bossy" for a traditional agency. Her advice to women looking to break out and do their own thing: don't be afraid to challenge the status quo and be yourself. "These companies do not care about you. You can sip the Kool-Aid and fit the mold if you want to, but it's not going to get you as far as staying true to your values and beliefs," she said. "You'll be a lot happier and a lot more successful with your own navigation. You'll be known for being you, and at the end of the day, that's your legacy. If a place doesn't like it or accept it, you have the right to move on and make your own table. The time is now."