Amid calls for brands and agencies to address systemic racism and hire more people of color in leadership positions, the heads of Chicago-based agency Ten35 want brands to improve how they hire and treat multicultural shops, too.
Advertising and communications industry veterans Ahmad Islam, Toni Harrison and Sherman Wright founded Ten35 in 2016 to provide clients with a combined solution of creative services and media engagement. With a staff composition of 85% people of color, 65% women and 10% LBGTQ+, the agency operates under the tagline “culture as a competitive advantage.” Agency founders said their diverse makeup helps clients better connect with multicultural, millennial and Gen Z consumers.
“When you look at the buying power of African Americans and the influence of culture that African Americans create, drive and amplify every day, it reaches far beyond just our community,” Islam said. “As a brand, being able to work with partners who are experts at taking that culture and bringing it to life through content, messaging and engagement is smart business.”
Ten35 has worked with clients including Pepsi, Bombay Sapphire, Mountain Dew and PrimaLoft. Islam recalls how a memorable campaign his team created for Coors Light, featuring rapper-actor Ice Cube, demonstrated how a brand investing in a minority-owned shop generated positive results across multiple demographics. He said the campaign began as a multicultural brief, but through the course of testing ended up performing better than most of the work in Coors’ portfolio at the time.
“The campaign showed that when you start running content into circles with more diverse segments of consumers, that work is still effective even if it’s created off a multicultural insight,” he said. “The work was specifically developed on a multicultural brief, but performed in a much broader sense; it used culture to connect with not just African Americans, but a millennial audience, too.”
As companies pledge to do better in hiring and amplifying diverse talent, Harrison said they need to understand that multicultural agencies are just as capable as traditional or mainstream agencies, and should be treated as such.
“It’s often the case when having a discussion with a new client, they expect the multicultural agency to have lower fees or they question our ability to scale,” she said. “Multicultural agencies deserve the same consideration and respect as general market agencies, as our work and ability to scale is not different—it’s our audience expertise and approach that’s unique.”
Harrison noted there should also be equal ownership and credit given to minority-owned agencies hired to work on campaigns—especially those themed around Black Lives Matter right now—alongside a general market agency or agency of record.
“It’s a serious blow against progress when the multicultural agency is asked to report to the general market agency instead of having a direct line of communication to the client. There’s going to be some tension, and it’s not tension because the agencies can’t work together productively,” she said. “We can and should be two worlds that coexist, not two worlds that collide. It’s necessary for brands to take steps to connect the agencies, so the threat of competition doesn’t hinder the work.”
Wright added that Ten35 has hired diversely to ensure it brings a varied lens to its work, and more companies need to adopt this notion and expand their horizons when it comes to hiring talent.
“Culture is transformational for a brand. Brands that have embraced culture, such as Nike, become more of a cultural icon than others,” Wright said. “In order for brands to thrive and survive, it’s imperative they add and embrace these lenses to the world.”
As the industry conversation around diversity and inclusion continues, Islam stressed that encouraging general market agencies to diversify and partnering with minority-owned agencies aren’t mutually exclusive—and hiring minority-owned shops will have an immediate impact on a company’s business.