Why Making Brave Work Matters Beyond Winning Awards

January 17, 2020

Sai He

Sai is a self-taught creative who loves to dream up brave & intimate ideas that make you feel things. When he's not doing just that at work, he's making music, memes, and mischief. Does he keep his hands full because he like having heaps to do, or because he's staving off existential dread? Yes.

In recent years, “brave work” has become a buzzword for people who loudly proclaim their disdain for buzzwords. As client marketing budgets have shrunk and a major emphasis is being placed on optimization and programmatic pish posh, the recitable refrain — that creativity is no longer the holy grail of trump cards and our industry is suffering because of it — has led to the full-on fetishization of brave work.

It’s the stuff of trade publication op-eds. SXSW panel proposals. Awards show speaker sessions. Podcast roundtables. Those Linkedin posts with more line breaks than sentences.

Don’t get me wrong — all this talk is a good thing. It keeps us from being complacent and succumbing to the way things are in the industry today. But if we examine the voices speaking out — the ones championing the way things should be — we can quickly make out two patterns. It’s typically someone agency-side, and it’s typically a creative director.

At this year’s 3% Conference, the “Making Brave Work” panel offered a reprieve from our homogenous echo chamber. Enter Lizette Williams, Head of Cultural Engagement & Experiences at McDonald’s, and moderator Fyonna Salazar, Senior Retail Strategist for McDonald’s at The Marketing Store. The pair work together to create culturally-relevant campaigns that not only drive business results but evolves how women and people of color are represented in media.

“It's something that's deeply connected to a personal passion of mine, and what I believe is my life's mission,” Williams explains. “If you think about us as advertising and marketing executives and the billions of dollars that we put out every year in media, we have a tremendous responsibility with the work that we put out.” For the longest time, this wasn’t the case. Decades of the same people making the same ads using the same tropes perpetuated harmful stereotypes and false narratives.

However, a rising breed of marketers — Williams and Salazar among them — are shaking up the status quo and diligently working towards some heady ideals. Williams elaborates, “I like to think that if we did the right thing, that if we did put out work that is respectful and authentic and meaningful, that we also have the ability to eliminate divisiveness in this country.”

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It’s one thing to pull off aspirational ambitions for a Silicon Valley startup fueled by Blue Bottle and a cultish obsession for reinventing something that doesn’t need reinventing. But to do so on a legacy, iconic brand? Remarkable. Salazar asked Williams what she is up against when fighting for brave work. “I think the bottom line is, it’s not an emotional discussion, it’s moving into an objective place.”

"We romanticize the struggle while glorifying the process."

Williams continued, “We are here to drive growth, we're here to drive businesses. At the core of that is really understanding the business case and bringing forward objective data that demonstrates that there is growth to be had with engaging consumers — diverse consumers — in a way that is authentic and meaningful and relevant.”

This presents an interesting dichotomy. When we think of brave work, objectivity and data don’t come to mind. Instead, we envision emotions and gut calls and pushing back on clients. We romanticize the struggle while glorifying the process. We paint ourselves as saviors and clients as villains.

While the “us versus them” mentality makes for a riveting lede, it does a disservice to the other, equally important voices in the room. We all have personal reasons for why we want to make brave work. Yet we all do a poor job of attempting to understand each other’s motivations. Williams advises, “I remind myself every person in this room has a voice, and there's a reason why you're in the space that you're in, and you're there to make a difference. Share your perspective.”

For Williams, who is Afro Latino and Puerto Rican, McDonald’s holds special meaning. Growing up in a predominantly African American and Latino part of the Bronx, the local Macca’s “was the only place you could go to get food that didn’t have a glass window. It was the first place I was allowed to walk to as a child by myself. The first place my mom let me go and come home without having an adult present.”

Today, with two children of her own, Williams is building a legacy that will further future generations. “I have two kids so that gets me really excited when I think about the change that we're going to leave for them. I hope that this work continues to drive that narrative,” she says. Her motivations are intrinsic and true.

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When asked about her day-to-day challenges in pushing for brave work, Williams described the biggest as being no one wants to have The Talk. Williams elaborated by sharing her prior experiences at paper goods behemoth Kimberly-Clark. “I was the first multicultural marketer ever hired in the history of the company and they brought me in to build the capability internally at an organization where I was still trying to develop the business case for it.”

That meant initiating difficult conversations with seasoned marketers without any experience having those conversations. And if there’s one thing we know to be true about people who are set in their ways, it’s that they love change.

In return, Williams had to pick up a thing or two herself. “One of the things that I had to learn was to get very comfortable with being uncomfortable and making other people uncomfortable. I know we don't want to talk about gender and race but if we don't, then we're not putting out the right type of work.”

Williams’ willingness to bring these uncomfortable conversations into the boardroom has led to breakthrough creative work for McDonald’s. The pair took a moment to share “Black and Positively Golden,” the fast-food chain’s latest and largest African American campaign in 16 years. The anthem spot mixes found footage with proud portraits of real people, representing and celebrating the very communities where McDonald’s makes sizable impact.

How did the campaign come about? True to her word, Williams described first identifying the business case for the creative. “We lost our relevancy with African American consumers and our business results were declining.” From there, the team conducted research and poured over the data to understand what would move the needle. “The one thing that we heard loud and clear is that African Americans really care about brands that support the empowerment and upliftment of the culture.”

The result is a “campaign movement” rooted in authenticity and positivity. “We wanted to put out positive affirmations and focus on the stories of true power and pride.” With a recent reversal of a multiple-year decline in the category, “Black and Positively Golden” is a campaign demonstrating business results while also moving the needle on how people of color are depicted.

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"We can do better than just talking to ourselves."

Near the end, Williams and Salazar revisited the idea of our role as marketers in society. “I started off saying we as marketers can shift perceptions in this country. I really believe that. I really believe that if all of us banded together and put out amazing work that was meaningful and authentic and portrayed us differently, we could shift perceptions.” The conviction with which Williams delivered these lines makes me believe.

It makes me appreciate the value of hearing from more diverse perspectives. It makes me reflect on our responsibility as marketers to advance positive agendas, not just our own careers. It makes me think we can do better than just talking to ourselves.

Who’s with me?