What The Big Lebowski Taught Me: Your Icon Isn’t My Icon
Teres Rodney, Head of Client Management, New York
AIGA recently released their Design Census Survey. For this, they polled 9,602 designers internationally about a variety of issues that help illustrate the state of the industry. One of the most telling – and for some, surprising – things that came out of the survey was that the design industry is 73% white (source: Fast Company).
While some might have been surprised by this, I certainly wasn’t. In fact, this is something I’ve encountered repeatedly throughout my career, but more on that in a moment.
It’s incredibly important that we come together to champion change to create a more diverse and inclusive industry, not only because it’s morally correct, but also because we’re hurting it by not being more diverse. We will be much more effective branders, strategists, designers and leaders if we diversify our teams.
To help illustrate this, I’ll offer a frank story from the early days of my career. I found myself leading my very first crit on one of the most important projects the agency had at the time. I remember thinking this was a tremendous moment in my budding career. I was young, enthusiastic, hungry to learn and a bit nervous. The team had been working around the clock on a presentation that would make or break our careers. At around midnight we all gathered around for the final review of the night as the Executive Creative Director reviewed the work skeptically – he clearly wasn’t blown away.
To help hammer home his point while he was critiquing the work, the ECD talked about the target consumer – young and male. “Picture him as a ‘typical frat boy’”. He then referenced The Big Lebowski – and looked at me, the Account Manager, for confirmation. I nodded my head nervously in agreement, simultaneously making a mental note to look up The Big Lebowski, whatever that was, the moment I got out of the review.
I quickly learned from my flabbergasted colleague that it was a movie – a cult classic, in fact! News to me… I went home and watched it – I needed to understand this crucial reference from work. It was hilarious! And it made me wonder, why didn’t I know this? Why hadn’t I ever once in my life heard of it? I reached out to my close friends and quickly learned none of them had ever heard of it either. But then it dawned on me that a lot of my friends look like me, and while we went to a range of schools and work in a range of different professions, the common thread between us is that we are all people of color. “The Big Lebowski” didn’t mean anything to me because it wasn’t represented in my popular culture. My fundamental reference of what was “cool” wasn’t the same to me as it was to my colleagues.
Moments like that have cropped up across the course of my career. And while the world has shifted and changed around us, one thing has stayed the same. Our industry is still filled with like people from similar backgrounds creating work for the broader population.
As the Head of Client Management for Pearlfisher New York, there isn’t a client that comes through our door that I don’t work with. Our portfolio is vast and diverse – and each of our client’s products is targeting a different type of consumer. That means that within the span of one day, I can go from discussing the way we’ll be positioning a premium bottle of whisky, to the way a website of a local yoga studio is coming to life, to the packaging solutions we’re designing for one of the world’s largest fast food providers. I have to keep the target consumer for each of these very diverse projects in mind. Each one of us that works here does. But how can we authentically do this if we all come from the same walk of life?
The thing is, the world you grow up in defines you. What is cool to you when you’re young and impressionable matters – it shapes the way you view the world. Here at Pearlfisher, we view the world of brands through the lens of Challengers & Icons. But what happens when a brand that’s quintessentially iconic to you isn’t to me? The world that we grow up in – the world that shapes us – forever impacts our perspective. What each of us considers to be iconic, or cool is steeped in our backgrounds and upbringings. The most impactful strategies and designs are the ones that have a diverse team behind them, shaping them from a range of opinions, each one making the outcome stronger and more human.
Thankfully, the best brands recognize the importance of diversity and are enacting real changes, because they’re clued into something important. They know it’s good for business. Don’t take my word for it – it’s fact. A McKinsey study found that an increase in women’s overall share of labor in the United States (women went from holding 37% of all jobs to 47% of all jobs in the past 40 years) has accounted for about a quarter of current GDP. Another study found that in the United States, there is a linear relationship between racial and ethnic diversity and better financial performance. For every 10% increase in racial and ethnic diversity on the senior-executive team, earnings before interest and taxes rise .8% (source: McKinsey). These businesses will not only be more profitable, but they will be able to more authentically connect with their consumers.
Sadly, the agency world hasn’t embraced the importance of diversity as wholeheartedly. In fact, there are fewer than 100 black women executives in advertising, PR or related industries across the country. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that there are only 93 black female executives – out of 8,734 total executives. That is a staggering statistic – and one that isn’t sustainable. It isn’t enough to just have a representative at the table – diversity should be reflective of the world we live in.
Here at Pearlfisher, we understand that diversity is the basis for creating bold and disruptive ideas. A diverse set of opinions, cultures and viewpoints is the foundation for impactful strategies, designs and teams. I am proud of my team for our wide and varied backgrounds, cultures, and perspectives, but as proud as I am of my team, I know there is so much more that the industry can do to make itself stronger. It’s time to be an industry that recruits from a broader base, considering talent from unexpected places who, in turn, will provide our clients and their consumers with the very best and resonant ideas.