ADCOLOR Founder, Tiffany R. Warren, Speaks On the State of Diversity in Advertising
Credit: Tiffany R. Warren

Anyone who works in advertising knows it’s not a very diverse industry. 

2020 survey data from industry trade group 4A’s found that Black and African-American employees make up just 5.8 percent of the industry. Of the less than 6 percent who are Black or African-American, 68 percent are admin or entry-level, 43.5 percent are non-management professionals, 27.6 percent are managers or directors and just 4 percent are vice presidents or higher, excluding C-suite roles. 

Tiffany R. Warren didn’t need to see these numbers to know there was an issue with diversity in the industry. The Sony Music Group EVP worked her way up the ranks for more than 25 years, so she’s seen a lot. Some of it wasn’t great in terms of DEI so she decided to do something about it. 

In 2005, while still young in her own career, Warren founded ADCOLOR, an organization and premiere award ceremony that champions diversity and inclusion in creative industries. ADCOLOR’s motto, “Rise Up, Reach Back,” continues to guide those that ADCOLOR celebrates each day—since its start, ADCOLOR has taken a whole industry of “the only ones” (Latinx, Black, Asian, LGBTQIA+ and more) and brought them to the forefront of an industry that often excludes minorities from the conversation. They just held their 15th annual ADCOLOR Everywhere conference and awards show, which featured influential names across the industry including Pharrell Williams, Daniel Dae Kim, REVOLT Media CEO Barry Jenkins, Viola Davis and many more.

She recently sat down with Essence to speak about her incredible career, the double pressure of being Black and a woman in advertising, and how ADCOLOR is aiming to make everyone feel seen. 

ESSENCE: You’ve had a storied career in comms/advertising. Was this always a passion point of yours or did you “fall into it” as a younger professional? 

Tiffany R. Warren Oh, yes! The most poignant moment where I connected with the creative industries is through music. While attending private school, I went to a performance at the  Boston Ballet for a field trip and I noticed there were no ballerinas of color.  I was really upset about it and the next day I created a diversity, equity and inclusion recruitment ad for the ballet company. I was 12. That began my love affair with DEI and the advertising industry. 

You’ve said that for women of color, invisibility is sort of a throughline for most of us as we strive to move up within our careers. What are some of the ways that Black women in creative industries within these corporate settings can reach that next rung in the ladder professionally without alienating themselves along the way? 

For a long time, invisibility was a constant companion of mine and now it’s my superpower. In the invisibility, I became an observer and have used what I saw to my advantage. I came up in an era where you were told to fit in to stand out but now it’s the opposite. Now, I’m seeing young Black women raise their voices to change things they want to see done better. I commend them for that. I would tell them to keep speaking up because we’re living in a time where we’re finally being rewarded for speaking up. 

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What was the catalytic moment that drove you to found ADCOLOR in 2005? 

I don’t think it was one particular thing, but a collection of moments where we weren’t being honored properly. I got to a point in my career where I couldn’t not do it. We all get to a place in our lives where we have to step in and enact change just to keep existing where we are. 

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the social justice uprising on DEI efforts in the advertising and marketing industry was clear last year, but some experts call corporate promises a form of “slacktivism” (lazy activism). What are your thoughts on the progress of true impact work from big corporations in diversity nearly two years later? 

There has been real progress made but here’s the thing, we’re still working from home. The true impact of all the social justice groundwork that has been laid will be felt once we return to offices. I think we’ll truly feel the enormity of it once we really get back out there. 

What are some ways that someone has “Risen Up, Reached Back” to you in your career? 

Oh my gosh, where do I start? I think the biggest way that has occurred for me is through the mentors I’ve had who I didn’t seek out, but they generously offered their insight on things they’ve experienced. 

As a mentor myself, I like to teach my mentors by way of a motto I use which is “I’ll push you off the cliff and teach you how to build your wings on the way down.” That’s how I was mentored and I’m truly appreciative of it. 

Although some progress has been, creative industries are still lacking in diversity. What are some pieces of advice you can offer a young Black professional looking to make an entry into advertising? 

There was a recent advertising workplace study that was released and the most interesting insight is that people are now really seeking transparency in companies. My advice to young people is to take a look at the company’s mission because there will be a transferral of values when you work with them. Make sure they fit your worldview and value set before joining their team because they need you as much as you need them.