Beyond the Blackout: Three Ways Marketers Can Be Proactive for DE&I

Almost a year since the widespread social awareness campaign, change still must come in the form of action, not just lip service.


What was meant to be a day of solidarity quickly turned into a global moment of reckoning and reflection on race relations in America. The June 2, 2020 Blackout Tuesday campaign, a social awareness campaign created by two Black women executives in the music industry in protest of racial inequality and police brutality, came on the heels of the tragic murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The nation was on the brink of the uprising, and it was yet another reminder that Black lives still matter. Millions of black squares that were posted across various social media platforms were meant to represent raised awareness, but the campaign quickly turned into an example of performative allyship.

Now, eight months after Blackout Tuesday, what actually has changed? How have brands and corporations that stepped up and publicly took a stance shown that they are committed to incorporating more diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) into their business practices? In the world of marketing communications, it seems to have been a combination of checkers and chess — quick, immediate jumps and pivots in developing content that includes more faces and voices of color, but a slow and steady pace is required in order to create change from the inside.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

According to Fast Company, one of the major ways that diversity and inclusion is going to change in 2021 is that it will become more actionable and quantitative. The quantifying of diverse hires, leadership promotions, and board members will show up on more company reports, as well as donations and contributions to demonstrate corporate social responsibility.

Brittany Applegate, a senior manager of brand engagement in Chicago, shares that her company took time to digest, reflect and then implement a plan that would serve beyond lip service and have a lasting impact.

“In leadership with my CEO, we completed a company-wide D&I (diversity and inclusion) training, which served as another catalyst for us to create a short- and long-term D&I strategy and pillars for inclusion and achievement,” she says. “My company looked to me as the lead for these matters, and I appreciated being empowered in that way because I wanted change to happen not only for my company but the industry that I work in.”

As a result, Applegate’s company launched its inaugural minority-focused internship program in the fall of 2020 (which she spearheaded), and last month, it selected three Black organizations and businesses from Chicago’s West Side and South Side communities to receive pro bono creative advertising services from the company.

“Our impact continues to grow as we create programming to connect with more diverse talent, suppliers, students, and individuals in the industry,” Applegate says.

Creating Lasting Impact

While it may take time to truly effect change, there are small ways that marketing and advertising agencies can show their continued commitment to diversity — not only in hiring practices but in building partnerships with local organizations to support and uplift communities of color.

“Firms can solidify their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion by hiring the talent that will diversify the company. But if the budget or opportunities aren’t there right now, they need to build relationships with diverse partners who they can also impact,” Applegate says. “DE&I doesn’t always look like hiring Black or Latino talent — it looks like impacting the communities that may exist only a few short miles from your office in the inner city.”

Marketing practitioners have the opportunity to encourage clients to implement changes in more ways than one. From strategy to content development, diversity and inclusion ultimately impact the bottom line.

“Clients are intentionally requesting a diverse mix of talent in casting decisions,” Applegate says. “They’re broadening messaging strategies to ensure that their target audiences are inclusive and a reflection of America we live in today.”

Change doesn’t happen overnight, and it takes having important conversations that will make some people uncomfortable. Companies and corporations have to be willing to set aside old ways of thinking to truly embrace the new world that we’re living in today.

“We learned in 2020 that change often comes from extreme, uncomfortable circumstances. Though unfortunate, it took Black lives lost at the hands of racism to make almost every company in this nation take a look at their internal makeup and decide that change was necessary,” Applegate says. “It if has to be extreme, if it makes people uncomfortable, that’s a step in the positive direction. Tip-toed approaches will prove to be ineffective in the long-run.”