Black and Brown Female Creative Leaders Talk Growth and Retention

December 5, 2018

Adia Betts

Adia is a freelance copywriter with experience ranging from agency to in-house, from traditional to social, and from Chicago cool kids to Boston bros.

She's in the process of relocating to her hometown, Atlanta, where she plans to build a life where her advertising talents and life passions no longer have to be mutually exclusive. At the moment, her extracurriculars include an herbalism apprenticeship, blogging about black-owned businesses, trying to grow out her fro, and aligning with the universe.

MODERATOR: Candace Queen - Founder of Queen Creative and Blacks in Advertising
PANELISTS: Della Matthew, Group Creative Director Ogilvy - Tracie Roberson, Sr. Copywriter Leo Burnett Group - Shannon Washington, SVP/Creative Director Deutsch 

Upon introduction, each panelist drew enthusiastic cheers from throughout the audience. It was easy to tell these women are highly loved and respected. Definitely a good start. 

Candace Queen of Queen Creative and Blacks in Advertising moderated the panel that focused on building sustainable teams and growing future creative leaders. Queen set the tone by asking each panelist about her journey to and through the advertising industry. 

Della Matthew, Group Creative Director at Ogilvy, started things off by taking us through her non-traditional path in the industry. The self-described “late bloomer” began with a fine art background, but was able to make her way in the industry by finding people who “nourished” her. Then, and only then, was she able to come into her own and begin to produce her best work. 

Tracie Roberson, who thought she’d be the next Oprah, studied broadcast journalism and subsequently attended The Creative Circus. Now a Senior Copywriter at Leo Burnett, Roberson mentioned that she has remained at a senior level by design, not wanting to be forced to lessen her focus on creative if she moved up the ranks. However, Roberson took a moment to delight in the fact she was sitting between two women of color (specifically one black and one brown) creative directors. “They’re real!” she exclaimed. She made a point to mention that she now feels obligated to move up the ranks so creatives under her can look at her one day and notice that she, too, is real. 

Shannon Washington credited her success to being “fearless and ambidextrous.” The SVP and Creative Director at Deutsch originally comes from the Hip Hop publishing world, which parallels the advertising industry in many ways. Despite coming from outside the ad world, Washington knew she could reach people, build concepts, design, and create things that move people.

“Even if I was wrong,” she said, “I knew I was good.”


“You know your team is good when people are more worried about being effective than being right,” said Washington. For her and her team, the collective determination for finding solutions was born from the fact that she knows they support her and they know she supports them.

Matthew agreed that camaraderie makes things work. In addition, diversity and openness to candid feedback help create a “we” atmosphere. An environment where everyone cares means that care goes into the work.

Queen segued to retention and growth. There’s no shortage of recruitment initiatives, but turn over is still high. She wondered, “What’s causing the exits? What do you do to help the growth?”

Roberson was quick to criticize the lack of training that plagues the advertising industry, saying “experienced based growth” only creates bad CD after bad CD after bad CD. “You’re a good creative for ten years and boom, you’re a creative director. The management team at Popeye’s has more training,” she stated matter-of-factly to uproarious applause. Too many people are learning what not to do from their creative directors, and there needs to be an emphasis on fostering growth so people aren't afraid to pursue the next level in their careers. This gave the audience further understanding as to why Roberson chooses to remain at a senior level. 

Washington echoed Roberson’s observation that too often women of color creative directors are forced to manage from a deficit. They’re often teaching based on what wasn’t provided by their predecessors. Thusly, Washington attributed her ability to foster growth to something she called a “natural state of intersectional living.” Essentially, by simply belonging to multiple identity groups, Washington is able to better understand multiple perspectives. This heightens her awareness of things that could potentially create more successful teams. Her career success took off once she encountered a manager who helped her address specific needs she had as a black woman. She emphasized how seeing the specific needs of others creates an environment where people feel like they’re always learning. And that’s what gets people to stay.

Matthew noted that the industry is too top heavy, and there’s simply a lack of opportunity. She aims to give everyone a seat at the table in some way, regardless of experience level. Matthew tries to pass decision making power down through the ranks, give support by dealing with the “hard stuff,” and of course, taking the time to get to know her team as people. 

Queen asked the panelists to expand on Matthew’s thoughts on allowing their team to build relationships with the clients and how that contributes to creatives moving up to ACD and CD levels.  

Both Matthew and Washington agree that creative directors must first establish a good relationship with the client(s) and be transparent about the opportunities they’re trying to provide for their creative teams. In addition, an emphasis was put on allowing team members to be involved in ways that were best for their level, as well as letting them be privy certain ups and downs with the clients. Roberson spoke to how her own successes came once she stopped trying to be like others. She recalled trying to emulate others during presentations, only to find that she excelled once she presented as only she could. 


Before opening the floor to questions from the audience, Queen asked the panelists to share one piece of advice for the next generation of creative leaders. 

Matthew implored young creatives to shy away from being, well, shy. “Don’t be invisible early in your career. The industry and these brands need you. Find people you can be your best self with. We’re starving for your point of view.”

Roberson listed off simple, yet important advice: “Do, be, create, live - be all you can be. Don’t try to emulate or be what you’re seeing. Create what you want to create. Find joy in or outside of your work.” 

Washington took a moment to get very specific with her advice. “On the young end, have a life. Exercise. Go out. That’s a part of your creative,” she said knowingly. She encouraged mid-level creatives to lean on peer-to-peer mentorship and get in good with the admins. “They will save your life.” For the seniors, Washington made it clear that they need to learn the business through and through, and be just as good as their counterparts in other departments. For people of color, she couldn’t emphasize enough that it’s not their responsibility to right the wrongdoings they didn’t create. “Those are the things that’ll stop you from being creative,” she explained. 

An audience member asked the panelists to share their approaches to team building. Matthew gave two words that seemed obvious, but are often overlooked in this industry: talent first. She elaborated on points she’d previously made about getting to know her team members are outside of the office, which helps her see what they bring to the table and how they can address the different needs of the clients. Building a diverse team was also encouraged. 

Lastly, the panelists were asked this supportive and encouraging question: “Where can we find you and invest in building more of you?”

“Notice the talent when you see it and help people in the best way you can. Don’t let people hold themselves back,” said Roberson. 

Washington added, “Don’t believe the hype on how things get done. You can rewrite the rules. An art director can become a producer. When you take the rules out, you allow people to flex and be whatever they want. That creates more of us.”