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5 Black-Owned Agency Leaders Talk Impact of 2020 on Business and Marketing

Little more than two months after the pandemic shut down the world, the outcry for social justice and an end to systemic racism reverberated across the U.S.

Brands, once hesitant to get involved in social justice or conversations perceived as political, began to speak out about police brutality, systematic racism, diversity, and inclusion. They issued statements, turned their social media profiles into black squares, donated to minority-connected causes, and pledged to work more with minority-owned businesses.

Eleven months after the COVID-19 closures began and eight months after the increased calls for ending racism, we checked in with five Black-owned marketing agencies. Their businesses are now in an upswing. Most say the effects of the pandemic has had the biggest impact on that. Some say corporate commitment to work with Black-owned businesses has played a role too. And they all see opportunities for marketers to do more about underrepresented communities.

Minority-owned opportunities drive some business

Godson Michel, president of Blue Surge Marketing Agency, says his business is experiencing an upward trend since last spring. He sees more interest from larger companies, though much of the growth has come from first-time entrepreneurs.

During the pandemic, people who lost their jobs or were laid off began recognizing the value in not being reliant on a single employer and diversifying their income streams. They’re increasingly launching brands, which need digital marketing support, to turn their passions into monetizable avenues.

Blue Surge also has seen a business boost from brands wanting to work with a Black-owned digital agency. “We recognize this is an effect of summer 2020’s historic civil rights movement,” Godson says.

Some of that work has included the development of minority-owned business directories. “With consumers being more conscious of racial inequity and the lack of centralized ways to support Black and African-American-owned enterprises, we’ve gotten more requests for starting directories in the past six months than in our agency’s entire history,” Godson says.

In the past year, @TheBlueSurge agency has seen more requests to develop minority-owned business directories, says Godson Michel via @AnnGynn via @CMIContent. Share on X

Christine Michel Carter, bestselling author of Mom AF, senior contributor at Forbes, and multicultural marketing consultant, has seen year-over-year growth for her business. The COVID-19 shutdown exposed and exacerbated hardships for working moms, and that prompted more employers to seek her counsel.

She also has seen more companies saying they want to work with minority-owned businesses. While her clients aren’t having more conversations about diversity and inclusion, she has noticed an effect – the time to close deals has dramatically reduced. “I attribute this to organizations always hearing internal feedback about the importance of diversity and inclusion, but 2020 was the catalyst that justified investing in the topic,” Christine says.

2020 was the catalyst that justified in investing in #diversity and# inclusion, says @CMichelCarter via @AnnGynn @CMIContent. Share on X

Digital drives most business

Juntae DeLane, founder and chief strategist of Digital Delane, has seen his business double since last spring. He says clients are investing in digital marketing because it’s often the only way they can engage their target audience during the pandemic.

“As a full-service digital marketing agency, we were able to help them increase awareness and conversions in the digital space,” he says, noting that also included a rise in producing virtual events.

Business doubled for @DigitalDelane in 2020 because digital #marketing was the only way most businesses could engage audiences, says @JuntaeDeLane via @AnnGynn @CMIContent. Share on X

For the coming year, he sees focusing the “new normal” – building brands, campaigns, and launches that consider the shifts in consumer behavior, technology, and diversity and inclusion.

Digital marketing as the only option in 2020 also led to an increase in business for Content Monsta, the B2B digital content marketing agency co-founded by A. Lee Judge. He says Content Monsta’s focus on creating multimedia pillar content meant much of his pre-pandemic business started with in-person video shoots or on-site podcast recording.

Fortunately, they already had been expanding their digital services. “Remote live video and podcast production was on our services roadmap back in 2019, but we did not expect that those services would be thrust to the forefront of our offerings in 2020. Being able to replace our in-person content creation with remote services was the key that allowed us to not just survive but to strive during the pandemic.” Lee says.

Being able to replace our in-person content creation with remote services was key to not just survive but strive during the pandemic, says @ALeeJudge via @AnnGynn @CMIContent. Share on X

Budgets get new lift

Sydni Craig-Hart is co-founder and CEO of Smart Simple Marketing (and a fourth-generation entrepreneur). The content marketing consultancy works with big B2B firms like Google, Facebook, Oracle, and other technology brands, advising on how they can connect better with their audiences of women- and minority-owned firms as well as small businesses.

When the pandemic hit, six months of revenue evaporated as three big contracts were put on hold just before they were signed. Smart Simple Marketing survived by using their savings and by securing a loan from the Paycheck Protection Program. The company’s good record-keeping and solid banking relationships helped it access the loan funds in just eight days. But Sydni knows her experience was rare among small Black-owned businesses. Traditionally, Black-owned businesses don’t have the access, networks, or money needed to navigate pandemic challenges.

To help, in less than two weeks, Smart Simple Marketing produced a virtual summit to give small business owners tangible advice and have conversations that addressed their specific needs and circumstances. They continued their visibility campaigns via speaking, direct outreach, and digital marketing.

By July, their existing clients began coming back, and by the end of the year, they had onboarded three new clients. Today, their revenue is right on track, and Sydni sees a bright 2021 for the business. The difference? The corporate teams working with Smart Simple Marketing now have leadership support for the multi-phase, high-dollar minority- and women-owned business projects they wanted to do long ago.

Corporate leadership now supports the multi-phase, high-dollar projects involving minority- and women-owned businesses that their teams wanted to do long ago, says @SydniCraigHart via @AnnGynn @CMIContent. Share on X

Brands can make better commitments to diversity and inclusion

Looking beyond their own businesses, these marketing experts also have some thoughts on brands’ commitment to diversity and inclusion. All replied with some version of this: Big statements are OK. Actions are better. Relevant and helpful actions are best.

Juntae DeLane sees some progress as more brands connect with and amplify Black businesses and share more Black voices and perspectives. “The narrative surrounding Black businesses is starting to shift as diversity and inclusion is fostered across all business functions,” he notes.

But the picture isn’t perfect.

The biggest misconception in marketing about diversity and inclusion, Christine Michel Carter says, is that “a myriad races on content + ‘we’ statements = diversity and inclusion.”

As Lee Judge notes, “Unfortunately, for many, it’s just a hot topic that is fashionable to be a part of – not a commitment.”

Unfortunately, for many, #diversity and #inclusion are a hot topic, not a commitment, says @ALeeJudge via @AnnGynn @CMIContent. Share on X

Companies don’t benefit just by “showing” their commitment to the public, he says. “Diversity in your content is no more than a façade if the company does not have diversity in its upper ranks.”

Management should represent the same demographics the company is marketing to. “No company should assume that they understand a culture,” Lee says, or even how to market to a culture of people if no one from the culture is part of the decision-making process.”

A company committed to diversity cultivates it, Godson says. That means listening to underrepresented voices, hiring them, putting them in leadership roles, and promoting them to equity positions.

“What some companies may have gotten away with in 2011 will not work in 2021,” he says. “Avoiding and deflecting social and racial injustices, especially when they are the main headlining topics of the day, is a weak position. Even in the face of adversity, taking a stand lets consumers know you’re holding firm to your company’s core values,” he says.

And if you’re not living those values? Beware. “Consumers can sniff out inauthenticity a mile away,” Godson says.

Brands whose values drive them to take a stand against systemic racism must do more than making a donation, says Sydni Craig-Hart. “Writing a check does not absolve you of your responsibility to do the work. It’s not going to fix anything with your audience – no long-term impact,” she says. “It needs to create meaningful impact, to make a real investment, and to have a sustained commitment.”

For example, she says, instead of writing a $5 million check to a Black-focused nonprofit, a company would do better to spend:

  • $1 million for a supplier diversity program
  • $1 million for multicultural marketing
  • $1 million to empower employees to be empathetic
  • $1 million for financial literacy for minority-owned businesses

Marketers need fresh thinking, too

Authenticity requires rethinking all those internal marketing conversations.

Sydni says marketing teams would do well to rethink how they understand their audiences. “In marketing, we make this mistake of creating personas in conference rooms with other people who look like us … We get cocky and arrogant about how well we know our customer,” she says.

In #marketing, we make this mistake of creating personas in conference rooms with other people who look like us … We get cocky about how well we know our customer, says @SydniCraigHart via @AnnGynn @CMIContent. Share on X

A fresh perspective is essential. And that doesn’t just mean making an internal team member who is a member of a minority the “expert” for all things multicultural. “It’s completely unfair,” Sydni says. “They’re not trained (on multicultural marketing). They don’t represent all minorities or even all the minorities in their own community.”

Outside experts in multicultural marketing know what’s happening across industries and geographies and how to use that insight to advise and improve what’s being done at the company, Sydni says.

And it takes the pressure off the employee: Voicing a different opinion or challenging the status quo is risky.

In the end, demonstrating your company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion requires taking an action – and that can seem scary to even the most well-intentioned, Sydni says.

But don’t let fear and anxiety get in the way or dictate your action or inaction. “It’s going to be uncomfortable. An action may be right, and it may not be. But you can’t not do – that’s making it about you,” she says.

Do you know a great marketing presenter from a traditionally underrepresented community? Let us know and/or encourage them to apply to be a speaker at Content Marketing World 2021 by March 12.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute