While the event’s physical get-together had to be canceled this year due to the pandemic, PROMAX’s annual conference was able to live on virtually this week (7/7-9).
The Promax Virtual Experience featured varied speakers, providing much-needed content, connection and community during this time of isolation for many.
Prominent, unifying themes springing from the PROMAX Virtual sessions centered on diversity, inclusion and how to effectively combat racism and sexism. Among the speakers were Vernā Myers, VP of inclusion strategy at Netflix; Lori J. Hall and Jessica D. Lane Alexander, founders of multicultural ad agency Pop’N Creative; and Pamela Adlon, executive producer, writer, director, creator and star of the award-winning FX comedy series Better Things.
Myers has served in her current Netflix role for the past 18 months. Prior to that she practiced law in Boston for six years. She has some 25 years of experience as a diversity and inclusion professional. A seasoned vet, Myers observed that she has never seen a time like this before as the brutal death of George Floyd while in police custody has sparked a massive movement in which people from all walks of life have come to fully realize that institutionalized bias and systemic racism are serious problems that need to be addressed. There’s also heightened awareness among Americans of the historical significance of Juneteenth as well as the Tulsa massacre. Major corporations are re-evaluating and/or renaming racially insensitive brand names such as Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s, as well as sports teams like the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Indiana. Even NASCAR has decided to eliminate Confederate flags from its racing events.
Myers affirmed that in the quest for social justice, being a good person and condemning racism aren’t enough--rather, you have to be anti-racist in your beliefs, actions and policies. This mindset needs to be brought to bear on your personal beliefs and feelings, interpersonal behavior and relationships, on organizational and institutional levels, and our culture. Myers said it is incumbent upon us to “interrupt bias when you see it,” that this “is not the time to be a bystander,” that we must all move “from being neutral to being active.”
She called upon influential entertainment execs, marketers and promotions experts in the PROMAX community to expand their social and professional circles so that more people of different backgrounds and races are included. More people currently in your “out-group” should become part of your “in-group.” She suggested writing down the names of people you’ve hired or promoted over the past few years--how many are Black, are women, Black women, from underrepresented groups? If there are no or relatively few people of color, if the hires are white male-dominated, you are missing out on talent, different storytelling perspectives and opportunities.
Companies additionally need to explore their hiring biases. Many firms for example might first or exclusively seek out graduates from certain elite schools. Similarly hiring decision-makers might look to the schools they came from for whom they consider to be the most desirable job candidates. The major drawback in these approaches is that the system is inherently unfair when it comes to deciding who gets into these favored schools. Invariably people of color and the socioeconomically disadvantaged generally aren’t able to attend elite, preferred schools so you have to be open to other educational institutions and experiences.
Myers also recommended that entertainment companies hire a professional in diversity and inclusion--either on staff or as a consultant. Additionally, researching racism and the different forms it can take is important. “‘I didn’t know’ is not enough of an excuse,” she stressed.
Tangible action and commitment, the proverbial putting your money where your mouth is, are essential to advancing positive change. In this vein, Myers pointed with pride to Netflix’s recently announced $100 million investment in Black community banks and organizations, which at a grass-roots level can offer direct support to Black households and businesses.
Hall and Lane Alexander--who serve, respectively, as Pop’N Creative’s head of creative and head of digital content & marketing, respectively--started their agency after being exposed too often to tone deaf pitches, and brands failing miserably with diverse consumers over the years. Hall and Lane Alexander set out to help brands authentically connect with highly coveted multicultural audiences.
In light of recent protests demanding an end to police brutality and racial injustice, sparked by the murders of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Rayshard Brooks, Pop’N Creative created free directional guides--a Response Guide to Discussing Racial Injustice and an Action Guide to Dismantling Racism--to help brands craft a response that is authentic and supportive of coping with the most recent traumatic events that have unfolded in the U.S.
Hall and Lane Alexander want brands to show Black consumers they value their lives and not just the dollars they spend. And even though racism in America is a difficult and sensitive topic, they don’t want brands to be scared into silence. Brand voices must unite behind the consumers they serve and value, which is why Pop’N Creative created their free Response Guide to Discussing Racial Injustice on how to discuss and address racial injustice in America. Some brands are getting it right, but too many are getting it wrong.
For brands committed to challenging and calling out racism, the agency followed up with its free Action Guide to Dismantling Racism to encourage action, such as elevating and promoting Black employees to boardroom and upper management, committing and hiring diverse vendors and suppliers, creating and implementing real and lasting change in workplace equity, and donating money to racial justice organizations.
Hall and Lane Alexander urged PROMAX Virtual Experience participants and their companies to ask such questions of themselves as: Do your statements and actions match? Do you champion Black talent in sr. leadership, in front of the camera, behind the camera? Do you champion Black talent overall? Do you traffic stereotypes? The latter question is significant because “images matter,” said Hall.
For the Promax Virtual Experience, Adlon was interviewed by entertainment journalist Whitney Friedlander. Adlon shared that prior to Better Things, she had a smattering of directorial experience, including a documentary she shot on 16mm film and some shorter form fare. She described those projects as “film school, guerrilla kind of stuff,” noting that she had been “terrified” of moving more significantly into directing. She took the leap, however, with Better Things, directing the lion’s share of its episodes. The FX series was this week renewed for a fifth season. It was also announced that Adlon had signed an overall deal with FX Productions covering scripted and unscripted programming.
Adlon said that her experience as an actor, her people management skills and ability to run a crew, along with support from her collaborators, have helped her settle into the director’s chair. “I’m learning by doing every single season,” she said, adding that in some respects she’s discovered that her “abilities come from my disabilities.” Adlon cited as an example her having a touch of OCD, which in the directorial arena translates into an “attention to detail” that has served her well on set.
She advised aspiring women directors to “go for it,” noting that they can apply a “proof of concept” approach to their pursuits by making a short film, shooting it on your phone but make it look good, tell a good story, pull good performances from actors. On the latter score Adlon shared that a director knows when it’s not about being in control. “If someone is a great actor, don’t fight them. Let them bring it to you.”
This week Better Things received two TCA Award nominations--for Outstanding Achievement in Comedy, and for Adlon in the acting performance Individual Achievement In Comedy category.