Listen Up!

Three ad women of color have industry insiders talking

By Teresa Kenney

Remember their names: Amalia Nicholson, Leeya Jackson and Shareina Chandler. You’re going to be hearing a lot more from them. And I’m not just referring to their weekly podcast, Borrowed Interest, although that is definitely worth an hour of your time for its lively, irreverent and entertaining (if sometimes NSFW) conversations about the world of advertising. Nicholson, Jackson and Chandler — three women of color in an industry not known for its diversity — are true disrupters. They don’t shy away from those discussions that may be uncomfortable for some but are necessary for all.  

The three met for happy hour as acquaintances. Over drinks, they became friends and came up with the idea for the podcast — Jackson calls it the perfect cocktail of having the right experience and skills (Chandler’s a writer, Nicholson’s a producer and Jackson’s an art director) to make it happen. The podcast’s name, “Borrowed Interest,” comes from an advertising term that refers to taking something that is culturally relevant and incorporating it into marketing

Their podcast’s “About” describes them as “three ad women of color, kicking it in the ad business and working it all out with thoughtful discussions, screams and laughter. We’re your workplace wokebaes with something to say, so listen up.” Okay, you’ve got our attention. 

What are some of the things that frustrate you most about the advertising industry?
I think the number one thing, and the main reason for our podcast, is the fact that it isn’t a diverse industry. It’s really confusing to me because advertising is something that literally everyone has access to, every demographic is targeted. The fact that predominantly white men are making the decisions about what everyone else sees in their living rooms is wild to me. We [Jackson, Nicholson and Chandler] shouldn’t be the exception. There’s no reason why we should stand out, but we do. 

NICHOLSON: Being the only black person in your job isn’t new in Minnesota. There are a lot of fields that have this problem. It’s like this in lots of other cities, as well. My biggest frustration is this “bro” culture that is fostered within advertising communities. It’s a culture that  rejects anything that’s “other” and doesn’t create safe spaces to have dialogues about sensitive topics. It can be really exhausting. That’s what makes it really hard when you are one of the few people of color in your office; it’s an uphill battle against a lot of different things. 

CHANDLER: One of my biggest pain points is people’s reluctance to see minority candidates as qualified. I pay attention to industry chatter and there are a lot of conversations centered around the idea that diversity is consistently chosen over talent. That’s always annoying to hear because it’s completely possible for a candidate to be from a minority background and be talented. The assumption that because there’s a push for diversity the quality of the work must suffer is dead wrong. 


What about the industry do you love most? 
JACKSON: The reason I’m frustrated is the same reason that I’m in it. I love that advertising isn’t a siloed thing. You have access to everyone. I come from the fine art world, which is very siloed: You’re either into art and comfortable going into a museum/gallery, or you’re not. So the fact that the things I create can have infinite eyeballs on them, that’s what I love about it. Like Amalia said, advertising isn’t the only industry that has a diversity problem, but I feel like out of all the industries, advertising definitely has a bigger bulk of people within it who want to at least try to change that. And so, that’s the biggest thing I love about this industry. 

NICHOLSON: I can’t remember what the actual number is but apparently we’re exposed to about 10,000 ads every day. The fact that I get to help make ads that have a diverse cast or treat people with respect within our images and our commercials, that’s huge. That has a lasting impact on a lot of people’s lives and the way they feel about themselves. Seeing representation is really important. So, if I can even help make 30-second commercials that show something different than what’s out there, it’s worth all the hard stuff. 

CHANDLER: I like the opportunity to create culture. Since I was a child, I liked ads, so the opportunity to make them is cool. I’m not super keen on ever being famous, so it’s cool to think about making stuff that, like Leeya said, millions of people can see without my personal name being attached to it. Even if millions of people love my ad, I can still go to the grocery store and be a normal person. 

 So it’s the best of both worlds: it’s making stuff people see, and people care about without the hassle of having your name out there all the time ... apart from the podcast, obviously.  

What would you like to see ultimately come from your podcast?
CHANDLER: I would love for the podcast to inspire black and brown babies to get into advertising. It’d be great if minorities knew that it was an option; that they could be creative, use their skills to make cool stuff and work in a creative industry. 

JACKSON: We’d also love to connect the minorities already working in this industry. We have this platform to start conversations. That could eventually start a movement of us connecting. 

NICHOLSON: I’m excited about our opportunity to highlight people who are doing amazing things in this industry. We can share their stories and their trajectories because I didn’t have a normal trajectory in advertising, but it’s a viable career path. 

And another part of this is to expand the conversation beyond race. I think there are a lot of conversations to be had about gender, physical ability, mental health, religion. All of those things that make us unique that we should be embracing; let’s learn about what it’s like to have those identities while being in this industry. 

What are some advertising campaigns that frustrate you? 
JACKSON: The most obvious example is the recent Dove campaign that blew up and went insane. [Ed: In the ad, a black woman takes her shirt off over her head and morphs into a white woman.] The black woman in the campaign spoke out on the ad from her perspective [Ed: The actress noted she had a positive experience with Dove, which she said wanted to portray global beauty and felt the message was lost in the edited spots], which I totally agreed with her perspective.

That said, I’m frustrated with brands and creative teams not being cognizant of where we are as a society. In a perfect world where there aren’t issues with race, being stripped of your identity wouldn’t be a big deal. But we’re just not in the world where you could play with people’s racial identity as a cute little aesthetic thing. 

Look at the history of how beauty products and body wash products, soap especially, have been advertised — since advertising started. The same trope comes up again and again, the trope of skin tone being affected by cleanliness, from dark to light. It’s a very loaded trope. And it’s one of those tropes that I think a lot of people, mostly mainstream white people, have forgotten because it didn’t affect their own psyche, but a lot of black people remember. It sticks out because it’s a cut. We have a shared responsibility as an industry to do better. For me, that’s important. 

CHANDLER: The only thing apart from the Dove ad that comes to mind is a really terrible Super Bowl ad from two years ago. It was this really bad ad called Puppymonkeybaby, which I just absolutely hated. 

JACKSON: Yeah, that was creepy. 

NICHOLSON: I don’t take advertising too seriously most of the time because it’s just here and then it’s gone. One ad that kills me is an Ancestry.com ad that came out last summer; it’s so ridiculous it’s almost comical. Each spot features people talking about the important American figures in their lineage. One of the ads is a black man talking about how he’s related to Thomas Jefferson. My thought process watching this ad was “Are we just gonna skip over the fact that…Oh, okay. We are. Erm, the only way you’re related to Thomas Jefferson is through rape and slavery.” It’s interesting to me because it’s an ad that was probably made through a very white lens. Their thinking was, “Let’s celebrate this black man being related to someone really important.” And they just didn’t think beyond that. It’s tough. Taking that extra step means making an ad with a black man saying, “I’m related to Thomas Jefferson. The reason why is sad but it’s still cool.” 

JACKSON: Another layer is just bad advertising in general. I think so much of it is mediocre. It’s just forgettable, and that’s almost worse than it pushing buttons. 

CHANDLER: Like Puppymonkeybaby, which is just bad. 

JACKSON: Shareina, you gotta let that one go. (laughing)

CHANDLER: Never! (laughing)

JACKSON: The good is when it’s an ad that gets your attention, holds it. It’s aware. It’s inclusive. It makes a statement that sticks with you and, in some form, is entertaining and then it also sells a product. That’s the pinnacle. The brand is recognized. It’s a cool, interesting ad that actually moves people to have some sort of feelings for that brand.

NICHOLSON: I love seeing ads that are inclusive of body size. There have been a few retailers in recent years that have started to feature models who are not all skinny. Sephora’s holiday campaign is also great. It features actual store employees, including men, women, gender-nonconforming people and a woman in a hijab. The message is simple: “Hey guys, anyone can wear makeup. Look at all these amazing people who are in our stores who wear makeup. Come in.” I loved it. 

How would you hope that your platform inspires and empowers your audience?
JACKSON: My biggest takeaway is if you’re passionate about something, even if it’s in an industry that you might be uncomfortable in, power through because your voice is more important in that industry. The reasons why you are uncomfortable are also the reasons why you need to be there. 

CHANDLER: I would like this podcast to help people feel comfortable about being their authentic selves at work and leveraging that authenticity. We’ve all been in places where we’re like we have to act a certain way or be a certain way to fit in. That’s dead wrong! You can be yourself and still be successful.

NICHOLSON: For me, what’s really important to take away from this podcast, especially if you’re younger, is you’re not alone. The goal of this podcast is to highlight and share all these stories of other people who are doing this work. Just because I may not have another person of color in my office, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t other people doing the same work I’ve been doing. And it’s going to feel really good to not feel alone after listening to this podcast, I hope.