Adrianne Smith Leads Diversity Initiative At 2019 Cannes Lions Festival

Adrianne Smith, Founder Cannes Can: Diversity Collective and Managing Partner, Vision Corps Media Group

A series of interviews with creative and marketing innovators changing the business landscape at the 2019 Cannes Lions Creativity Festival: Adrianne C. Smith, Founder “Cannes Can: Diversity Collective” and Managing Partner, Vision Corps Media Group.

 Bruce Rogers: Tell us about the “Cannes “Can: Diversity Collective” and how it came together?

Adrianne Smith: I’ll answer that by going back a bit to help put this initiative into context. My background is in advertising and marketing. I started at Leo Burnett in Chicago many years ago where I worked on the Kellogg’s account. Once I left there I came to New York and started working in sales and advertising for a black-owned television syndication sales company which licensed movies from movie studios and then repackaged them with “wrap-arounds” featuring Hollywood icons Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee under the African Heritage Network. This was an opportunity for people who had not seen some of the old great black movies and other video content that were just sitting on studio shelves. It was also the birth of one of the most successful minority owned television syndication sales companies.

Every time we would go into ad agencies, before we even got to the details about the great product we had to offer, we would have to sell them on the importance of the African-American consumer and our buying power which in the late 90’s was about $600 billion. Today, the African American buying power is well over $1 trillion. If we were a country we’d be one of the top 20 largest countries. Once we got the money part out of the way, we had to educate the ad agency buyers on why it was important to purchase African-American television programming. The simplest way to explain at the time was this, our Must See TV on Thursday night was “Living Single” with Queen Latifah and not “Friends” with Jennifer Anniston.  For some media buyers that was the ‘Aha Moment’ – the moment of insight and discovery which generally followed up with a media buy! But, as soon as that buyer switched accounts and a new buyer came to the table, we’d have to start the education process all over again. Instead of an ad sales person, I felt more like a professor in economics, psychology and Black History.

Around this time, Reverend Al Sharpton and the National Action Network started the Madison Avenue Initiative in reaction to the perception of discriminatory media buying practices by some in the industry. As a result of the formation and activation of this advocacy group, more opportunities for African American and other minority owned media companies started to get more contracts and a larger share of media buys started happening, in 1998.

A few years later, after a short stint in digital ad sales, I became an entrepreneur and worked more on the advocacy side. In 2009, Mehri and Skalet formed the Madison Avenue Project and released a report revealing that racial discrimination was 38% worse in the ad industry than the entire labor industry and African Americans were paid on average 20% less than their white counterparts with similar professional and educational experience. There was a discrepancy of pay, as well as who was in management positions. As a result of this report and an EEOC filing against advertising agencies and a few programs were started with the mission to recruit, train and hire more people of color and underrepresented communities into the advertising industry.

I was recruited to work at Howard University as their first executive director for the Center for Excellence in Advertising (CEA). Our mission was to recruit and train people of color with non-traditional advertising backgrounds with transferrable skills for entry and mid-senior level management positions in the advertising industry.  Sixty eight percent (68%) of the people that were trained in our Boot Camp and Lateral Movers Program are still employed in the industry ten years later.

Love Malone was one of those people.  She made a lateral move from the pharmaceutical sales industry and landed  a job at BBDO as a Strategic Sr. Manager and later became a Global Director at Ogilvy before starting her own agency. We hadn’t seen each other in about 6 years when we met for lunch in Harlem and she told me it was my fault that she had started her own agency! She said had it not been CEA, she never would have been in this industry. She told me she was going to Cannes Lions to network and launch her company. Although I had never heard of Cannes Lions, I wanted to join her in Cannes to see what the festival was all about.

While we were there I ran into another Lateral Movers Program participant, Gerard Critchlow, who started his agency career at R/GA as a Senior Strategist for Mobile and Social Platforms. He is currently at BBDO AMV as Head of Culture Strategy. He told me, “If it wasn’t for you and the CEA program, I would not be here today. I have won six Cannes Lions Awards!” That’s when I got inspired.  It was at that point that I decided that it was my duty to bring more people that look like me to experience the magic of Cannes Lions.

That year, 2017, Halle Berry was also at Cannes.  During her talk at the Female Quotient’s Girl’s Lounge, Halle spoke passionately about taking charge of your life. She said, if you see something that needs to be done, just do it. Stop talking about it and take action, just as she had done in her life with the passage of her Papararzzi Bill in 2013.

I said to Halle, “I’m so inspired by what you said. And I’m committed to bringing more young people back to Cannes Lions next year. There are not enough diverse faces here and I’m going to stop talking about it, I’m going to be about it.” I didn’t realize it at time, but it was being taped, and it was on YouTube! Once I saw that, I said, “Oh (add expletive here) now I really have to do this!”

Rogers: How did this idea get off the ground at the Cannes Lions Festival?

Smith: I emailed and called Steve Latham at Cannes Lions, who runs the Young Lions Academy and told him about my vision of starting the Cannes Can: Diversity Collective (CC:DC) to bring more young people of color to the festival.  Without hesitation he shared that Google’s Creative Campus was supporting 10 minority students to participate in the Roger Hatchuel Academy. Two of my young people were chosen as Google scholarship recipients and FCB, BBDO and TVOne sponsored three other CC:DC scholars to attend. In my first year of starting the program, 2018, I was able to take five young people back to Cannes with me. They were amazing. They show up and showed out! My most memorable moment came was when one of the participants said me, “if it wasn’t for this program, I would have never had the access or opportunity to realize that I could successfully compete on an international level or that I have serious options to work places outside of the U.S.”  What a message of inspiration! It just shows you, once the barriers for access and opportunity are removed, you are destined to shine. In 2019, our goal is to take 25 young people back and we’re going to host a beach!

Rogers: How did the Inkwell Beach Cannes idea come about?

Smith: There is so much excitement and great creative energy at Cannes Lions. If you walk down the Croisette at night and take a minute to listen, you’ll hear the best Hip Hop and R&B songs being played. If you’re one of the lucky ones you’ll get to see one of those music genre top performers live and in action. You might even get to see a top entertainer/celebrity on the main stage at the Palais but very seldom would you see large numbers of industry executives of color on the main stage. It seemed that our culture was being co-opted with no regard to the creative genius or subject matter expertise that served as its underpinning. My initial thought was that we needed to help to curate the co-op.

There were also a few conversations and panels about the need to attract and bring a more diverse group of people to the festival. There were also a few talks about the industry’s issues as it related to equality, diversity and inclusion scattered throughout the festival but unfortunately those conversations were not translating into any actionable steps. I thought there should be one consolidated space where more subject matter experts of color and underrepresented communities could be heard and seen. My goal is to also help to elevate the conversation beyond the topic and show what it looks like in action.

Rogers:  Give us some background on Inkwell?

Smith: Inkwell is a beach in Martha’s Vineyard. It’s a cultural hub for many affluent African-Americans. About one hundred years ago, white families would go to Martha’s Vineyard to vacation, and they would bring their Black help with them. Over the years, many of the Black families started to buy property there as well. The beach that was specifically designated for Black people was named the Town’s beach. And since that’s where all the Black people hung out, some of the white locals started calling it Inkwell, because it was where the dark people were.

Although the name was meant to have negative or derogatory intentions, today the name Inkwell is synonymous with family, affluence and creativity. Inkwell is a source of inspiration and has inspired many great works of art, literature and cinema. Going to the Vineyard and spending time at Inkwell each summer is an annual pilgrimage for many Black families. It’s the place where people feel safe, welcomed and at home. It’s a place where people embrace differences, and see how those differences can create moments of opportunity to grow. We want to create that same environment for Cannes Lions.

CC:DC’s Inkwell Beach Cannes, will be a place that you can feel at home. The place where everyone feels welcome.

Rogers:  Tell us about your personal journey? Where did you grow up?

Smith: I was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I’m the youngest of five from my mom and dad’s marriage, but my dad has two daughters (my bonus sisters) that were born prior to him marrying my Mama. From an early age, I knew I had to claim my space and always do something that was different. I was always doing things on my own, not really asking for permission, but just doing it. I remember joining the neighborhood cheerleading squad for the Westside Pirates baseball team. I walked in the house with my black and gold uniform complete with pompoms and told my Mama that I was a cheerleader!  She just looked at me and sighed and said, “Ok”.  Doing my own thing has been a natural part of my DNA. I’ve always enjoyed charting my own path and finding ways to make things happen without asking for permission. Fighting for the right to be heard as the youngest sibling of five definitely helped to hone my skills to fight for the rights of myself and others to be heard today.

Rogers: Where did you look for inspiration for a vision of what your future might look like?

Smith: My dad is an entrepreneur. He’s always owned his own businesses and real estate. He also taught. One of the things that he would always tell his children in particular was to buy land, because “they’re not going to make any more of it.” So it’s always been important for us to be landowners, and own property. You’ve heard of Army brats, right? Well,  I was an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) brat.  My Mama worked at various HBCUs throughout her professional career. So I grew up on the Stillman College, Talladega College, and Wiley College campuses and went to Spelman for my undergraduate degree. They were my inspiration to always strive to be the best at whatever I truly wanted to be and do.  They taught me welcome change and to be fearless.

I also grew up in a family of mixed religions. My father was Muslim and my mom was Christian. They were married for 53 years before she passed away. What I learned from growing up in that environment is that the basic tenets of most religions is love and respect. If you have a foundation of love and respect, then you don’t have to believe exactly what the other person believes. My parents definitely did not always see eye to eye on religious beliefs or anything else for that matter. But I think my siblings and I are better for it because we learned how to respect others and their differences. We learned how to love people for the very core and foundation of who they were as a human being, with the understanding that everyone does not have to be like you to get along with or to love.

Rogers: Thank you.