My name is Keni Thacker and I’ve been a diversity advocate and advertising for eight years. Next January will be nine years that I’ve been doing this. And it’s been great. It hasn’t been easy. To be totally honest with you is not been easy, but it’s filled my soul.
Darren Martin Jr – Bold Culture (BC): How Long Have You Been In The Advertising Industry?
Keni Thacker (KT): Well, I’ve actually been in the industry for 15 years, like going on 15 years and I don’t really have this like story of like being like getting into this industry like traditionally. So like I didn’t do MAIP, I didn’t do MGP, I didn’t do AAF, any of those great organizations that I just mentioned, I did not have the opportunity to be a part of those orga nizations cause I didn’t know about those organizations. So literally I fell into this organization due to the fact that post-college, I did a lot of event technology work and so that’s how I actually got in. So I started at Ogilvy as a freelancer in eyepatch productions but doing more of the event technology work. And I was only at Ogilvy for a short amount of time until at the time, the company formerly known as J Walter Thompson got to hit me up and I don’t even think they’re going by J Walter Thompson at the time.
They were going as JWT at the time. Hit me up and asked me if I was interested in a role there and I didn’t really even know what JWT was because I didn’t really know much about advertising other than Ogilvy because that was where I went for like, you know, I don’t know, four or five days a week. And I asked one of the admins there, I was like, Hey, like this place called JWT, like hit me up. They see their advertising agency–what are they? They’re like, Oh, they’re just like here, but older and bigger. I was like, Oh, okay. So I went over there. I had an interview with my old, old, old, old, old boss. We kinda hit it off and the rest is history. I was there maybe a couple of weeks later and then for the first five years there I was just like strictly concentrating on event technology.
So working with new business team, working with the ex-co committee, working with definitely the global CEO and his team. Just making sure all their tech was running right and everything like that. Subconsciously though the, in the recesses of my mind, it was always like, there’s not a lot of people of color here, but I was like, but just due to the fact that coming from event technology background post-college and like working in those spaces, there was just never a lot of people of color around. So I just kind of accepted that and I was never like, this is wrong or whatever. I was just saying, ahhh , this is how it is. You know, I’m supposed to get on the bad guy here. I guess that’s what it is. But during the end of, I guess my first four or five years, I started like just volunteering, helping out with D&I initiatives from the former head of HR at the time.
And I was like, this is kinda cool what she’s doing. Like trying to, you know, celebrate people from different ethnic backgrounds, things of that nature, sexual preferences, all that stuff. I was like, this is kind of interesting. I could do this. Because just dating back to like, I guess me being a kid or whatever, I always knew I was creative, right? And I always knew that I cared about people. But I didn’t know how to marry the two. So even thinking back to when I was a kid, and I didn’t even realize this until I was actually at JWT at the time, that my mother was a copywriter for a brief time. But you know, back then they call it writing jingles, you know what I mean? And, and she used to write jingles for, for one of her many careers in her very, very long life.
Yeah. So yeah, it was in my blood, but I’d never knew how to marry the two. So until like I kind of saw this woman putting together these D&I initiatives and then she up and left one day she had resigned. I was like, okay, who’s going to do this? And me and a friend of mine who’s now leading diversity at another agency that I won’t mention. We were like, well, why don’t we just take over the D&I stuff? Why ask, let’s just take it over, but do it in a way that’s educational, aspirational, encouraging, inclusive, and then wrap would a big ball of retention and recruitment at the same time. So we just kinda went rogue. We, we spoke to the general manager of JWT at the time and she was like, yeah, it do whatever you want to do.
But yeah, cause there’s no one here to kind of, because when this woman left, she didn’t really like pass the Baton to anyone. And no fault of her own, it just kinda didn’t happen. So we kind of kicked it off after the first project unfortunately. My partner found a new job. And then it was kind of up to me like, am I going to continue on this path or am I just going to let it go and something told me to continue. I don’t know what it was because I knew it was a lot of work and you know, I still had my day job to do, but I was like, you know what, let’s keep it going. And that turned into like nine different programs, events, content everything. Definitely had content since I was still like, you know, a techie a little bit, but then creative and then turned into a producer, then a writer, then a director.
All in a matter of like I would say four years that all that kind of transformed and we’re doing great stuff. Not only internally but externally. We’re worked with colleges, we’re working with high schools and things of that nature. Just, just kind of bringing like this own like non traditional approach.
BC: What Was The Young Commodores?
Man, Young Commodores is like my second child. It, it, it was a full advertising business experience for a young multicultural students in college and high school that basically they’d be with us for about eight weeks and they’d work on a nonprofit client that, that addresses issues that affect multicultural young people. So that’s what it was. It, it was like I said, it’s like my second child. I mean Issy first, YC second. But like dude, even even talking about it, it’s almost like talking about my daughter cause it just puts a smile on my face.
Over the last three years, we put a good 46 young people in and out of the program. And right now we have about 10 of them killing it in the industry right now at different agencies across the city. And my whole reasoning behind the Young Commodores was also, you know, past conversations that I had with like recruiter friends of mine and things of that nature. And they’re like, Oh, it’s just so hard to find talent of color out there. And this is before I created Young Commodores. And I’m like, what are you talking about? Like there and now I have to mention organizations, but you know, there’s the MATs, there’s the MAIPS, there’s the MGPs, there’s AAF most talented multicultural students. There’s organizations out there. So I’m just like, what the hell are you talking about? There’s organizations that have been doin it — MAIP has been doing it longer than I’ve been alive, like 46 years.
So it was just like, what are you talking about? So through those conversations and them saying, ‘well, you know, candidates of color, sometimes they don’t have the right tools.’ And I was like, Hmm, they don’t have the right tools. So in a year that I was taking a break from my D&I–believe it or not, Kenny took a break from D&I– I had this idea like kind of jingling in my head and I was like, ah, I don’t know. I’m on my break right now. I had launched, Kreate, you know, and everything like that. Me and my partners launched, Kreate and we were doing stuff, putting out two shows at that time on YouTube. And on streaming TV. So we were busy but this idea just like jiggling my head and I couldn’t get it out. And then I went to the Cannes festival in France and I came back from the Cannes Festival and I was just like, what did I just experience?
And just the whole experience there was, it was a multisensory experience. The Cannes festival, if you ever have chance to go, you’ll, you’ll, you’ll feel it. It’s a multisensory kind of experience. And when I got back I was a little ticked because I was like, cause I just didn’t see us. But I came back and I was so ticked off. The only, the only brother that I knew there I bumped into at the airport in France. We were checking our bags coming home. And that was my response to that because I was like, well, you know what? These recruiters are saying that these young people don’t have the right tools. So I was like, well, I’m going to invent a program that gives them the right tools to be successful in advertising, but not just successful in advertising, but successful in life as well. That, that, that, that’s always a very big thing to me.
Like I said, like my daughter first, Young Commodores second. Like I want them both to be great human beings. And I think that’s a key part of the program is that I want them to be great human beings. So that’s why every year for the past three years, the Young Commodores worked on a nonprofit client that addressed issues that affect young kids of color in particular. So not only are they learning the business side of it and the creativity side of it, but they’re also learning that we have to fix our, we have to fix our communities ourselves. No one’s really, really gonna help us and be genuine about it. One thing that I was big on, especially during my beginning days in, in the diversity inclusion space was always have a aspect where we either brought somebody up from the community and like gave them a chance to tell their story.
Like that was always big to me. The communities that, cause we sell products to all these communities, right? So why are we like in those communities and like, I mean I know we’re not Jordans, you know, we’re not the sexy, you know, Brand, we’re not Apple, we’re not, you know, Doritos or whatever. But we are making that work. So it’s important for people in these communities kind of know who we are. So there was always something definitely in the communities that we were doing during, during those first couple of years. And I was doing the D&I work. Yeah, we were. And the thing is, we were bringing those people into the office to kind of see what the office looks like, but also have opportunity to tell their stories regardless if they’re black, white, Asian, whatever. Like we were bringing them into the agency to kind of share their experiences. So one, we can think better when we make work.
BC: How did you handle your 9-5 while still giving room and space for D&I work?
Well handling it. I don’t think like I really had a choice. I just knew it was something I had to do. You know, it’s, I mean, you know, not to get religious on here, but like sometimes you just hear God talking and he was like, you need to do this. And because I mean, I grew up, you know, I grew up in the 90s, I went to college in the 90s went to high school in the 90s. So, you know, I was kinda grew up, you know, on the, on the, you know, Sean Puffy Combs, Dame Dash school of just get that money. But after a while, like it’s not about that, there’s so much more to life than just money. So with, with doing this work, it kind of gave me a chance to give back.
I mean, so back in the rest of my mind was wanting to give back, but I wanted to figure out a way to make sure that it was almost like building like a legacy per se. And I just wanted to do something that was going to affect more people than just me. So not concentrating on money because money only like kind of helps me pay my bills, you know, but more give something that teaches people things and like let’s understand each other better. I think that’s always been a really big thing for me. So on top of like the day job, this just became just as important as a day job. Sometimes I felt like it was more important than the day job, at least to me it was. And that’s why like I gave like 110% to everything that I did. And, you know, I mean, I was the financier, I was the writer, I was a director, I was the janitor.
You know, I was the booking agent, you know, I was, I was everything, but I didn’t mind, you know, that heavy load on my shoulders because like I knew it was what it was for a greater good. It was bigger than me. It was way bigger than me. And I think once I realized it was bigger than me, like doing like two roles one that, you know, I wasn’t really, I didn’t really make any money off of and I wasn’t even looking for it at the time. It was just, it was just bigger than me.
BC: Why did you take a break from D&I initiatives?
KT : (13:09)
I took a break cause I was getting tired, I was getting tired. Cause it’s just like all those hats for one little head, it wears you out, it wears you out. And there was a little bit of friction between the agency and myself on maybe where they thought D&I should go in, in respect to what I was doing. So I was kinda like, okay, well I’m already tired and nobody was helping me out during these first couple of years anyway. I’m going to take a break and see what y’all do. There wasn’t much done. So that’s when, you know, like I said, launched Kreate, went to Cannes and everything like that. The idea of YC was in my head, but due to the fact that nothing on the scale that I was doing was really happening, made me squirmy and I couldn’t sit still.
So, so I had to get off the bench. I always say, I always tell people I got off the bench and then I pinned, you know YC and I had some doubts. I was kinda of myself a little bit. I was like, I don’t know if I’ve been on the bench for like a year. I mean, yeah, I’ve been like, you know, producing content, stuff like that. But I was like, yeah, I’ve been on the bench. I haven’t done anything in this building in like a calendar year. But I was like, this idea though, it can’t lose, it can’t lose. So I reached out to a couple school administrators locally here in the city that know they knew my work and everything like that. I was like, you think I can pull this off? I was like, you know, you’re Kenny Thacher of course you can pull it off.
I was like, you’re got damn right. I am. And that was like the birth of it. So pitched the idea to the chief creative officer at the time. Asian brother. So he understood the message and everything like that. I did not pitch the idea to human resources. I pitched it to the chief creative officer cause it’s a diversity initiative, but it’s a creative diversity initiative. So I pitched it to him. He totally got it. He was like, get me a PDF of this tonight. I did. He took it to a managers meeting. I had funding with about two weeks.
During the break. I said, if I ever come back to this in this organization, I want it to be bigger than anything I’ve done in the last couple of years. Last four years, I was like, I want it to be huge. So I was thinking big. I was like, I want, cause I want it to be so big, I don’t have to do all that other stuff. I don’t have to do black history month and I have to do Latinx month, I don’t have to do LGBTQ month, I have to do women’s month. I don’t have to do anything because the focus is solely on this. So that was my aspirations and those were my goals. And I met them. You know, I’ve pushed myself to meet those goals because that’s how important I wanted that experience to be for these young people. And I pushed myself and I mean I, I ha I didn’t like my little one small, small little band of misfits that kind of helped me out. But everything from, you know, the money to the ideas to, to writing, the writing, the questions on the application. That all came from me, you know to reading the application still all came from me. So like, you know, from soup to nuts, I was like kinda like the principal and the janitor. I was everything
Because that’s how important it was to me.
BC: What is your 100 Roses from Concrete Initiative?
Well, a hundred roses came actually at the very end of — actually came to me in the middle of this summer while young commodores was going on. And this summer I was very proud that Commodores was about 98% women of color. So that I was kind of like, eh, I was telling everybody like, yeah, females of color doing it, you know, and they were working on a female brand that was black. So like I was like, I was, I was on my high shit, but but in a conversation I had with someone, they were like, but what about the brothers? And that’s all that person had to say. And I was like, watch what I’m about to do. And then literally like within days I pinned like what I wanted 100 roses from concrete to be, I was like, I want it to be a network of men of color in advertising, marketing, media and PR to kind of do this peer to peer mentorship kind of thing because we don’t always know where the rest of us are because in most offices we’re one of one, you know, over one of three or four.
But you think you’re the only, because you know you’re the only in your department. So it was a matter of us kind of finding each other and like just caring for each other and maybe giving each other advice and things of that nature. So that’s why I made it because I mean, Lord knows I was the only black dude in my, in my department for a while. And then I had another brother, but then he left after a while. So the thing, the great thing about the roses is that they’re from all different levels of expertise. We’ve got brothers that had zero years of experience up to brothers that have over 20 years experience. So we’ve got, you know, we’ve got the Neophites and then we got the, OGs. You know what I mean? They’re old heads that can kind of break us down on game.
That’s why I created it because one, I just know a lot of great brothers like yourself and you know, and, and you know–I know, I know a lot of great brothers, but we all don’t work together man. Like imagine if we all worked together. Oh my God! I don’t know. Maybe it’s my obligation, maybe is a calling. I don’t know. But I, I just needed to do it. And obviously it’s based off the Tupac poem. You know, the Rose that grew from concrete, because I can only speak as being a man of color. It’s literally trying to grow from concrete to succeed in this business. Like, I mean, roses, flowers, gardening, you know, it needs to be watered, but we don’t get that water. Like some of our counterparts or that light, like anything to help you grow. We don’t get a lot of those. And when we do, like it’s, it’s one-offs. It’s here and there or you know, or it’s not at all. So screw that. If they’re not gonna recognize our talent and recognize our greatness and recognize our dopeness, we don’t do it for ourselves.
BC: What is your diversity centered production company Kreate about?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Kreate, Kreate as great. Kreate is a diversity centric production company. I started during my break and basically it was this kind of amplifying voices from all different types of backgrounds, you know, white included. So cause one, once I got feedback cause I’m like, Oh, you don’t have white people in Kreate. I was like, yes I do. You just haven’t seen the episodes. But it’s basically been people from a variety of different industries just doing really, really cool stuff. But also tying it in with some diversity centric type of commentary on why it’s so important. So that’s what create as been, I mean, when, when we started, we had two, we had two shows. We had Kreate TV in which we got interview all these really cool people around around the city. And then we had love stories, which was stories about nontraditional type of couples.
So couples that may be may be interracial, but then we had same, same race couples as well. Kind of talking about how they make their relationships work over time. Space difference, time-space and ethnic differences. Also create TV, you know birth Heni with Keni, which is, you know, our podcast and you know, this, this first season like we did about 30 episodes 30 episodes, Bold Culture is definitely on there. I think it’s a two part. Yeah, it’s a two. It’s a two, it’s a two. But it’s all about like lifting these voices to kind of speak their truth about the diversity deficiencies in different industries. So just with like Kreate TV, Henny with Keni, it’s not strictly marketing media and PR people. I mean, I’m an actor is, I’ve had musicians, I’ve had fashion people are the guy that makes my glasses.
I’ve had, you know, hip hop advocates for the Smithsonian. So like it’s been a variety of voices, but all voices that are end of the day are about the mission that are dope as fuck. And that’s all that really matters to me. But they care about people and they care about where our people are going, you know, in the next scene of 5,000 years. So that’s what Kreate has, was, was about and will always be about, it’s about elevating the voices of people of all different types of backgrounds and walks of life to kind of give them that platform to say what the hell they want because I’m heading with Kenny, you know, you slip in there. So, so stuff comes out and you know, we give toasts but then we don’t give toast, right? So we shout out people that are trash because people that are trash need to know that they are trash.
So you know, we give toast to, to those that are kind of doing great things. But we don’t give toasts, we hold Henny back for people that are trashbecause that’s the show. I mean, it’s fun. We have a lot of fun and you know, maybe season two we’ll start January. Yes. That’s important. Yeah. Yeah, yeah. I mean training is definitely a big part of it because I think one thing I always tell people wherever I speak or whatever the case may be, that this diversity thing is a constant reflective process and we have to evolve so it’s never going to be perfect. And it’s not about us wanting it to be perfect, but just a matter of us continuing to grow. So don’t think, Oh, well finally my agency is 40 45% people of color and you know, whatever else, 65% white folks.
Oh, we finally cracked it. We got it right. We’re the best of this. No, that’s not the answer. Because if you say that, then brothers like us, we’re going to come after you and be like, so where in that 45% are their leaders, are they in the middle or is that, of that 45% is 85% of that people of those people junior– because if that’s it, your full shit. So, nah. So it’s about, you know, calling people out. But continuing to tell him that, you know, this is a constant reflective and evolving thing and like, yeah, it’s, it’s gonna take a while, but you know, it’s gonna get there eventually because these young kids, they don’t want to work at places that are kind of so homogeneous and everything like that. Even though the reins of power. They’re not trying to let that go, but we’re not trying to tell you to let go your power. We’re just telling you to make room. That’s it.
BC: What does inclusion mean to you?
And I’m going to have to quote my, one of my Twitter friends Lexi Alexander, she said inclusion is creating an environment for people to succeed. And I believe that — you can’t talk about it if you’re not giving them an environment where they can succeed. Just giving them an environment and giving them a job doesn’t mean you want them to succeed. It’s giving them an environment to succeed. So it’s just like we spoke about just like a couple of minutes ago. It’s watering. You need sun, you know, add that fertilizer, you know, to help them grow. It’s not just like putting them on that concrete and then expecting them to grow without anything. That’s bullshit. It’s giving them that environment to succeed. That’s what inclusion is to me. And that’s what it will always be to me.