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Diversity

Q&A With ADCOLOR Legend Nadja Bellan-White

David Ogilvy always knew that casting a wide net to bring the best talent together to produce the most creative work for our clients was central to everything he did. Throughout the years, diversity and inclusion has remained a core part of Ogilvy. He was right then and he is right now.

This week, Ogilvy will be attending the ADCOLOR Annual Conference, a leading organization established to promote inclusion by recognizing professionals of color. As part of the conference, the ADCOLOR Awards will honor the achievements of African-American, American Indian/Native American, Asian Pacific-American, Hispanic/Latino and LGBTQ professionals, as well as spotlight diversity and inclusion champions in the creative industries. Ogilvy is thrilled to celebrate Nadja Bellan-White who will be honored for ADCOLOR’s “Legend Award” this year. I recently sat down with her to get her perspective on where the industry is and learn more about her personal experience as a woman of color in the industry.

Here are a few highlights from our conversation:

How has Ogilvy supported you as a woman of color?

As a person of color in the creative industry, many of us have to manage the delicate balance of lending your unique perspective and skillset to the business by being who the agency wants you to be, while simultaneously trying to remain true to who you really are. Ogilvy gave me a chance to succeed while allowing me to be me [unapologetically] and still move into positions of leadership. That’s a rare gift.

What makes Ogilvy’s approach to diversity and inclusion unique?

In a word: leadership. True diversity and inclusion starts at the very top. If there isn’t a commitment from an organization’s leader championing diversity and being a sponsor to cultivate talent within the company ranks, then “diversity” and “inclusion” simply become empty buzzwords that mean nothing in terms of changing people’s attitudes and behavior, which ultimately shape the corporate culture and have an impact on the creative work. We are lucky to have leaders like John Seifert and Paul O’Donnell who really live diversity – they breathe it every single day. I have never felt as though my color or even my gender has limited my career. That isn’t to say I haven’t had challenges. Those simply come with the territory when you’re in a client service industry, but those challenges have never limited my opportunities at Ogilvy.

What are the most notable changes in the industry with respect to diversity that you have seen over the last 10 years since the first ADCOLOR awards were held?

I’ve been in the creative industry for more than 25 years and it has been pretty lonely – even more so back then – with respect to finding other people of color on both the agency and the client side. Like me, I’m certain Tiffany Warren felt the same way when she established ADCOLOR in 2009. The simple truth is, there are far too few resources available, and frankly as an industry, we’re way behind where we should be. But the effort to expand and bring more diversity to the industry is there, so there is light on the horizon.

What changes do you hope to see for professionals of color in the future? 

I’d love to see more people of color in leadership positions. I firmly believe that we [Ogilvy] are a “teaching hospital” because we can all learn from one another. One of my successes, when I led our operation in Africa, was actively searching for the most talented people to put into positions of leadership. It turns out that six of our top leaders are all women, all of which I recruited within the last three years. And make no mistake, these women aren’t just good leaders, they’re extraordinary. They are the absolute best talent out there, hands down.

What was the biggest challenge or obstacle you faced as a person of color and how did you overcome it?

Ha! How much time do you have? I’d be hard-pressed to count the number of obstacles I’ve faced as a woman of color in the creative industry over the last 25 years. I’ve been beaten up quite a bit over my career, so I knew exactly how to react when the chips are down. I have always remained calm and have figured out a path forward – often an unconventional path forward. I think Michelle Obama said it best, “When they go low, we go high.” That’s the approach I took in difficult situations, and one I continue to use, because there will inevitably be more challenges to face.

What advice would you give to young professionals of color looking to break into the creative agency space?

Creative agencies are one of the most thrilling training grounds you’ll ever encounter. My advice to anyone who wants to break into the industry is to be excellent! Be 10 times greater than anyone thinks you’re capable of being – and you get there by being prepared. ASK for training that will help propel you to where you want to be. Actively seek out internships, even unpaid ones, and find volunteer opportunities that will allow you to learn and gain exposure. Make yourself available to learn.

This piece originally appeared on The Huffington Post

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