Communication Is Key: Gabrielle West, Critical Mass

par Dasha Ovsyannikova

Critical Mass
Agence digitale
Calgary, Canada
See Profile
Gabrielle West
Senior Copywriter Critical Mass
 

Tell us about yourself. Who or what inspired you to get into advertising and marketing communications?

I grew up in the suburbs of Cincinnati with my mom, dad, younger brother, and chocolate lab. I always wanted to be a writer in the big city – I just didn’t quite know what kind of writer that would be. At Carnegie Mellon University, I studied both Professional and Creative Writing and moved to New York City just ten days after graduating. I started out as a technical writer for an enterprise software company, which was a great job where I learned a lot, but I realized it wasn’t quite the right fit for me. So, I started searching for more exciting opportunities that revolved around writing. I yearned to be at a company with creative and diverse employees. After a lot of searching and not quite finding exactly what I was looking for, I applied to be a copywriter at Critical Mass. In all honesty, I had no idea what a copywriter really was—I just knew I loved to write, and CM looked like a company I would love to work for. I really did get into this industry by chance and I feel so very lucky that this is my story. Now, I'm a Senior Copywriter as well as the Black Affinity Group Lead of Critical Mass' Diversity and Inclusion Board. 

 

What is your opinion on the current state of diversity in the industry? Have you seen a significant change since the start of your career?

The current state of diversity in the industry is growing. Since I started in 2018, I’ve seen our industry reflect on its diversity and ask how we can progress. This kind of growth and development is crucial. I think we all know as an industry we have room for improvement and have started to put plans into action to see a significant change going forward. At Critical Mass, we paused and really analyzed what we’re doing well, what could be improved, and what we can introduce to our company to continue to become more diverse. We wanted to make sure that we were making necessary changes that would endure, which means this kind of progress probably won’t happen overnight. With that being said, I’ve seen so much progress in just the last year, which gives me so much hope for our future. 

 

Over the years, there’s been a rise of roles focused on Diversity & Inclusion, the introduction of quotas, and other possible solutions. What have you seen to be the most effective, and where have you seen these initiatives fall short?

I think the most effective initiatives are the ones that come out of genuine interest in creating an equal, diverse, and inclusive professional environment. If a company really believes in the necessity of diversity, they will be able to make that happen in a way that is inclusive and welcoming to their employees. Personally, I feel an example of success is how Critical Mass restructured our Diversity and Inclusion Board. We realized that diversity and inclusion need to be a priority and should be treated as such. Now, we have affinity group leads who manage communication, community, training, and accountability. Members of our board are compensated for our efforts because we are very much treating our roles as another job. We’re all very dedicated to making sure we put our best feet forward and continue to be an equal, diverse, and inclusive agency. 

There are companies out there that have made poor attempts to become more diverse by simply reaching out to their few BIPOC employees and asking them to be a complete representation for all matters revolving around diversity. The answer here is not to call out your existing Black employees but to increase the number of Black employees that make up your work community. I think the crux of a lot of racial matters is that certain groups have not been welcomed into others. If we all had experiences with people of different backgrounds at work, at your child’s school, in your neighborhood, and everywhere else, we could develop a better understanding and kinship toward each other. 

 

Within your agency, what’s being done to increase/maintain the diversity of talent?

As I previously mentioned, Critical Mass has completely restructured our Diversity and Inclusion Board. As a board, we represent ten affinity groups, including Ability, Age, Asian, Black, Brown, Indigenous, LatinX, LGBTQIA+, Mental Health, and Women. We are all doing our best to make everyone feel represented and like they have a community within the CM community. All of our leads are making tremendous efforts to celebrate and educate as much as we can. As the Black Affinity Group Lead, I’m am so excited about Black History Month! We’re going to have some weekly communication about moments in Black American history that should be celebrated and remembered. We’ll be sharing a lot of black content like podcasts, movies, books, music, events, providing some guidance on Black-Owned Businesses and Organizations to support, and so much more. 

At CM, we think it’s really important to consider everyone and all of the many affinity groups we identify with. I remember one of our first initiatives as a new board was encouraging everyone to include their desired pronouns in their signatures if they felt comfortable. Whether it’s a month of celebration or a small change in a signature, we really believe that our efforts on the board can have a huge impact on people feeling represented and included. 

We’re also putting plans into action to increase our diversity of talent. We want to do as much as we can to have more people of different backgrounds, starting at the intern level. We also want to be a part of the education process for young people so they can be aware of and prepared for a career at CM. Initiatives like these will broaden our outreach and lead to more diverse talent being welcomed into our community. 

 

Looking to the client-side, are there any brands you think should be commended for their efforts? 

I’ve been really happy with the amount of brands that have made efforts to support the Black community and diversify their work environments. The first that comes to mind is Ben & Jerry’s. I remember their Black Lives Matter statement that went viral and they came out with a new flavor, Justice ReMix’d, which was dedicated to criminal justice reform. I think they were a fantastic example of active allyship.

Specifically, on the CM client-side, AT&T has done some great things! They have been a very active supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement and have spent almost $3 billion with black-owned suppliers this year. 

 

What do you think can be done at a grassroots level to open opportunities to create a more inclusive future in the advertising world?

Communication is key. Ideally, everyone should feel comfortable to have an open line of communication in these matters so honest opinions can be heard. It would be amazing to have like-minded colleagues who want actionable change come together be the ones to intiative a larger conversation with other members of their work community. 

I say communication is key because this shouldn’t weigh just on the shoulders of those at the grassroots level, but should be a commitment everyone subscribes to. At the end of the day, all of us in the advertising world should be working together to open opportunities to create a more inclusive future.

 

Following one of the largest movements in history for racial justice, what was your agency's response? Have you launched or participated in any initiatives?  

Like a lot of people, agency or otherwise, Critical Mass chose to reflect upon, acknowledge, and grieve the awful murder of George Floyd and the countless murders before his. We had to consider the systemic racism our country and the world have against Black people and what that means – poverty, imprisonment, bias, lack of opportunity, etc. After that, once we sorted out our feelings and emotions—because reactions to such events are very emotional—we changed our lens and reflected on the good. What have we done thus far? What can we change? What can we continue to do, but better? Questions like these helped us think of what action we can take to be on the better side of history going forward. Shortly after the tragedy of George Floyd, the world watched as countless people – black, white, old, young, and everything in between – marched and peacefully protested police brutality and supported the belief that yes, Black lives do matter. This was a true inspiration, which led to a lot of change within Critical Mass. We realized, “We need to improve and we need to do it now”. 

First, we had a Global Town Hall, hosted by our then CEO, now Chairperson, Dianne Wilkins. Di let the entire company know very quickly that 1) We stand behind all of our coworkers and support the Black Lives Matter Movement and 2) We have work to do. This really set the tone for our company moving forward. 

Next, the original D&I Board had a four-hour conversation on how we can improve. We all spoke openly and honestly and realized that some sort of reform needed to take place. The board that we have today is the result of those conversations.

Just a few days later, myself and another member of our original D&I Board hosted an Open Forum for our office with an open invitation to all of CM. We wanted to create a space for our work community to express their concerns, questions, and thoughts about the Black Lives Matter Movement and everything surrounding it. We had a lot of engagement from our CM community and realized just how beneficial events like these are. 

All of these efforts happened in a matter of a few weeks and the momentum kept going from there. Our new D&I Board was introduced to the company, all members have their own affinity groups, chats, events and more. For example, we are about to celebrate Black History Month in a huge way at Critical Mass. We’ll be sharing moments of Black History that is near and dear to our Black CMers. We’ll be highlighting some of our Black members in an Inspired By series that you can find on our social media channels. We’ll also be hosting events, one of which will be moderated by a speaker discussing allyship and antiracism – and much more. 

We’re really proud of how we’ve started to challenge ourselves to embrace equality, diversity, and inclusion, and continue to challenge ourselves to do more in the future. I’m hoping that one day we can all look back on the efforts and choices we made today and realize it created a new standard for equality in our futures.