Huenited Collective is a foundation in Cincinnati, with the mission of “creating meaningful change by collaborating across agencies and marketing organizations to uncover and harness the power and potential found within Black talent.” Founded by four members of the local marketing community: Procter & Gamble’s Tysonn Betts, Grey Midwest’s Jamie Grady, Katalyst Group’s Sean Rugless and Hyperquake’s Molly Baker, Huenited aspires to build career pipelines that work for both Black and other underrepresented minorities, and companies in the marketing ecosystem in Cincinnati. It also hopes to share its learnings with other communities. Three of the four founders recently spoke with Cathy Taylor, US Commissioning Editor of WARC.

This article is part of the December 2021 Spotlight US series, "DEI in marketing: How it's progressing – and how it isn't.” Read more

Cathy: How did Huenited Collective start?

Sean: What we're talking about is an industry issue, in which we see the face of the consumer starting to shift demographically, at a much faster rate than our industry is prepared, and if the best ideas come from individuals who share the same lived experiences with these consumers, how do we increase the pipeline of better ideas? At a regional branding conference three years ago, Tysonn and I started to talk about some of these issues, and in the audience was Jamie Grady from Grey. We all aligned that this was an industry-wide problem, not just a Cincinnati problem, but that a solution could be developed in Cincinnati that can have industry-wide impact. From there, we have created a foundation and a platform called Huenited, which brings together our marketers, our advertising industry, our diverse creatives, collectively working on, “How do we increase the diverse pipeline of agencies, as well as marketers, such that we can better position brands to resonate with a broader set of diverse consumers?”

Tysonn: The problem really was a multifaceted one, but one everyone who's on the founding team could empathize with. There was a challenge in terms of recruiting a team that represented our consumers and those we wanted to serve. The pool of talent wasn't at the schools, and talking with agencies, they didn't really have enough representation within their firms as well. When you really started to peel back the onion, you could see how pervasive this was.

The last formalized numbers we have seen said that the African American population within the design industry was about 3%, while both the Hispanic and the Asian populations, were about 5% each, so you can really start to see how this is a problem, particularly given the shift in demographics in the US. We're really not equipping ourselves to even be able to produce the best product.

Molly: The challenge is definitely being solved by like-minded leaders coming together within the industry. I'm in a marketing branding firm, and I was having a lot of these challenges as well, so I reached out to leaders I knew have been thinking about these things, and have already been putting efforts towards solving the lack of diverse representation that our industry faces. I asked how I could help.

Cathy: How did what happened in 2020 change the receptivity to your mission?

Sean: It accelerated what was already in the pipeline, and created a fierce sense of urgency for getting it done. The conversation on multiculturalism, diversity, equity, has spanned decades. What 2020 did was usher in a different context for why that was going to be important.

The first piece was, it was going to be important, because consumer standards shifted in terms of what they expected from brands that they were going to support. There was a higher level of demand around authenticity.

The second piece was how the face of our consumer was shifting faster than our industry. It also showed a lack of readiness in terms of what was happening in our industry. In 2020, every company was making a statement, but when you start to look at their infrastructure, their design, their people and budgets, they don’t authentically connect with the consumer.

Tysonn: I’m incredibly appreciative that the Huenited partners and brain trust had the wherewithal to start this conversation when we did. Otherwise, we would not have been ready, when all of the unfortunate things that have happened over the course of the last two years happened. That has made the ground much more fertile, and challenged organizational leaders to question their own motives, and to really question whether or not they are working hard enough to really build change within the industry.

Sean: There used to be the mindset that what happened outside the company had no impact over what was happening inside the company. What the summer of 2020 taught us was that the fault perimeter wall between what's happening externally, and what's happening internally, is very thin. That ended up with a consumer expectation that companies live what they were stating, and those within companies had a higher expectation that internally things would be rectified. How do we say that we embrace diversity, equity and inclusiveness, when our senior leadership doesn't even reflect the general population, which we're selling products to?

There are many brands and many companies that have not started a conversation with the African American community just yet. And so I look at their design, and what I end up coming away with is that some are not built to do it yet. It wasn't just the external-facing piece in terms of people making statements. There became an increased expectation from those diverse individuals within companies, that the company would then walk out their values. But then there’s the voice of the person that says, “When I look around, and I look up, I don't see anyone that looks like me.”

Molly: From an organizational standpoint, it sparked uncomfortable conversations. It caused everyone to look in the mirror and think about the uncomfortable situations that are happening around us in the workplace, outside of the workplace, and then put forth action into what we can do to change that.

Cathy: So, you are all trying to solve for the fact that those structures and connections that can really help bring people from all sorts of backgrounds into the marketing industry aren't in place.

Tysonn: It is a multi-faceted problem and a multifaceted solution. From an industry standpoint, much of the work we do happens behind a curtain, right? These are not very visible careers. Most of us don't live next door to a designer or a marketer so you don't get that exposure. It wasn't so long ago that I was in high school, I had a fine arts education -- my infrastructure around me couldn't necessarily point to what sustainable careers look like in the arts. We have a responsibility as all components of the industry to expose and advocate for more diversity in these fields, and to help both students and parents and schools and educators see where marketing careers can go. If I have a high school senior who tells me they want to go be a designer, and I don't know what designers do, it's pretty hard for me to write the tuition check for them to go do that.

It is also incumbent upon the industry to help create the pipeline that sustains them. The only way we can make this work is together. It's one thing if I hire one more black designer, if Molly hires one more designer of color, and they're the only ones within those individual organizations. It's through these conversations that we realize we have an obligation to each other to make sure that our organizations are connected, so folks don't feel as though they're on an island. If we can do that, I think we can incent those same people to stand with us and give back and show up. As we grow that population, then hopefully, it becomes a bit more of a self-solving solution.

Cathy: So you're providing scale across organizations in terms of support and networks. and that kind of thing.

Tysonn: The idea is that there is a web of connectedness across everyone who is a part of the Collective and that that web will invite and inspire other people to be a part of it.

Cathy: Can you walk through all the different things Huenited does?

Sean: The reason we chose the branding around “Collective” is that no one entity can do this alone. In order to take a look at advancing a diverse pipeline, as Tysonn said, “How can someone apply for a job or career that they don’t know exists?” That really creates the scope of work for us.

As a Collective, first we have to drive awareness of career possibilities through strategic partnerships. We're looking to generate some level of real industry exposure and meaningful learning opportunities. That can happen in terms of relationships with school systems and districts as well as relationships with post-secondary institutions, but we also then are looking at, “How do we do that in terms of active mentorship, and exposure happening within agencies and within marketing companies?”

A second area is recruiting diverse talent with a focus on continued growth and equitable leadership opportunities. What that simply means is we want to bolster a strong pipeline in terms of helping with the recruiting process. But we're not just trying to diversify your staff, we're trying to diversify your pipeline so that individuals are placed to have a chance at leadership. Getting people to join is one thing, getting people to stay and contribute is another -- versus an alternative of going back to freelancing.

Our third, last area is to build partnerships and facilitate membership that fosters this diverse talent to showcase their skillsets, as well as provide that development we're talking about. How do we align academic and educational institutions? How do we align agency practitioners, consumer packaged goods companies, individuals like myself?

Cathy: What do you all feel is working and what are the bigger challenges?

Molly: One thing that's working is the expansion of networking opportunities for people, just even the people that are already affiliated with the Collective -- the opportunities for knowledge, sharing, and coming up with better ideas and brainstorming ways that we can work together to solve challenges.

One of the challenges is that we have so many wonderful, great ideas and so many things that we want to action, and it is really getting the right board members in place and the right leaders to help drive the initiative.

Sean: Molly, can you talk a little bit about the discovery process your company did making sure we got this right for diverse creatives?

Molly: Hyperquake is not a large organization in the city. Our diversity is not as strong as it should be, so when we were brought on to help support Huenited’s branding work, we knew it was very important for us to make sure that the right people's points of views were being represented in the brand that we were helping to create. We did stakeholder interviews, we did all the strategic positioning work that we do for any other client or brand and made sure that we were bringing together the right representation, which included partnerships with diverse creatives.

Tysonn: The reality is if you go and speak to anyone in the industry, they would all agree that this is super difficult work. Because it is so difficult, lots of folks have started and stopped trying -- to figure out how to solve it for their own individual firms. So, while folks may have ventured into these waters, they’ve found they individually could not solve it for themselves. We have a strategy that is slightly different, but can have significantly better outcome.

Cathy: How do you think this concept can be brought to other cities?

Tysonn: The Huenited team has been super intentional about starting where we are, and trying to be sure that we are setting ourselves up for success, so we have been intentional about starting in Cincinnati, and leveraging the network and resources that we all are strongly connected to. We welcome anyone outside of Cincinnati to partner with us to help figure it out.

Sean: You're perfectly designed for the outcome you get, so I think we are focusing on the design and the infrastructure associated with inviting and growing great mindsets to put against great work. We do not want this to be confused with an ED&I strategy, as much as it is a business strategy. Every brand is seeking growth, and that means we have to seek growth from a broader range of consumer segments.

Tysonn: We are in the beginning chapters of this journey, it will take a long-standing commitment to really be able to get all of the pipeline and all the gears that we envision working and working well together.