“Black people are at the forefront of music, fashion, culture, language, and food, so the underrepresentation made little sense to me,” says Stephanie Small, Creative Operations Manager of TAXI Toronto, a leading marketing and advertising agency and Program Lead of Black TAXI.
It has been historically very difficult to enter advertising without going through an internship that is usually unpaid. Unfortunately, having unpaid internships only opens up the door to those who can afford it. The week George Floyd was murdered was hard for the Black community. “We did what we could in the Black community, crying between emails, consoling each other, just continuing to move forward,” Small recalls. That week, Rob Guenette, the CEO of TAXI, sent out an email.
“We’re not going to talk about any of the usual stuff. It doesn’t matter. We’re going to talk about what’s going on in the world and our stance on racism and anti-Black racism.”
-Rob Guenette, CEO of Taxi
It was the first time that Small, a Black English-Jamaican who was born and raised in Canada, felt seen as a Black person. “I have always wanted to start some type of diversity program, so I thanked Rob and told him I would love to do something beyond a one-time donation or partnership,” says Small. “When I proposed the idea of Black TAXI, he bought into it immediately.” Aside from Guenette, Small is also grateful to her colleagues. In particular, she thanked Kimberly Chomut, Human Resources Director of TAXI for her support of the program.
The Black TAXI program is based in Toronto, with a mission to attract, hire, and retain Black people in the advertising industry. It’s supported by nine personnel from different TAXI offices in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, and New York. The program has two phases. The first launched at the end of July 2020. It offers five paid internships reserved exclusively for Black trainees.
Every intern of Black TAXI has a manager and a Black mentor. Interns can go to their mentor if they have questions that their manager cannot answer, specifically related to being Black in advertising. The interns also receive training on leadership and presentation skills in partnership with other organizations. During their internship, the interns are given a group project to organize and lead a panel titled “Black TAXI Talks.” This is an internal panel of inspiring Black people across the industry who offer career advice to the interns. The panellists discuss issues related to being Black as it pertains to their specific roles in the advertising industry. Black TAXI is also partnering with pro bono clients in the Black community, and the interns got to be part of a similar initiative last year where they received experience working with clients.
The feedback from the first cohort of interns was positive. “A lot of the interns got exactly what they were looking for, which was a way to get into the industry,” Chomut states. According to her, one thing suggested during the feedback session was all the interns should meet each other on the first day and work together throughout the internship. At the end of the internship, two of the interns ended up getting a full-time position with TAXI, and one with a sister agency.
“Our ultimate aim is to create a shift in advertising in general so when they finish their internship, that isn't the end of our relationship. The plan is to help interns get a full-time job with our WPP sister agencies or with our competitors,” Chomut explains. “WPP is one of the biggest companies in the world and we have a huge network that can facilitate their employment whether they stay in Toronto or move,” adds Chomut.
Michal Fetsum is one of the first interns of Black TAXI. She did her internship at the Strategy Department of TAXI and then got a position as Community Manager and Strategy Analyst at the company. “I was super fortunate to get the internship and now work full-time for TAXI. Black TAXI addressed an issue that most people don’t even recognize. It not only introduced Black people to advertising but retained and mentored them. It exceeded my expectations,” Fetsum attests. She is confident in Black TAXI’s mission to retain Black talent in the industry and she hopes to see something similar in all agencies.
Black TAXI is planning to hire five interns for 2021 as well. Efforts are underway to get applications from different TAXI locations. Aside from the internship, Black TAXI encourages Black people to apply through the Black TAXI webpage for any job postings at TAXI, where they will receive priority. For the company, the goal is to make sure they have diverse candidates when it comes to filling those positions.
The second phase of the program involves building employee resource groups in partnership with the parent company, VMLY&R. One of these resource groups is Black-specific. Its objective is for people to be able to find other Black employees who they can connect with and lean on for anything they need.
Recent Focus on Diversifying TAXI as an Agency
According to Chomut, TAXI has been focusing on unconscious bias training, how to handle micro-aggressions, and ensuring its leaders and Human Resources Department are trained in anti-racism. In addition, the agency has rewritten job descriptions to be more inclusive and started to share job postings in more diverse online communities. The agency is also giving standardized interview questions for hiring managers to ask so they’re not just picking people based on similarities to them.
Moving forward, all of the internships at TAXI are going to be paid. The agency is committed to building its diversity and inclusiveness while increasing the number of interns hired each year. Black TAXI is in talks with its parent company, VMLY&R, to expand the program globally. It is also encouraging sister agencies to replicate the program for other underrepresented communities, such as Indigenous people.
Small says, “This conversation has been going on for years. If you’re serious about change, just do it. It doesn’t have to be perfect, and you don’t need a fully fleshed-out program to actively recruit diverse hires. If you want to replicate Black TAXI, go ahead.” To Black students, Small adds, “There are a lot of people that are rooting for you, and we’re making changes to give you new opportunities, so please, don’t be discouraged.”
Eligible candidates are asked to apply for the internship program at www.agency.taxi/blacktaxi
Historically, there has been a huge lack of diversity in advertising. According to the recent data of the Institute of Communication Agencies:
- 73.9% of agency staff in Toronto are white, despite representing only 47.8% of the city’s population; 2.9% of staff are Black, despite representing 7.5% of the city’s population.
- In Montreal, white people make up 90.1% of agency staff (compared to 76.6% of the city’s population); 1% of staff are Black, compared to 6.8% of the population.
- In Vancouver, 1.4% of agency staff are Black, roughly in line with 1.2% of the city’s population.