Alumni Interview: Chris Witherspoon Interview with WWU student Arnav SenGupta

Chris Witherspoon interviews Arnav SenGupta at a table.

Chris Witherspoon Interview

As the president and CEO of DNA, an independent creative agency in Seattle, Chris Witherspoon, ’94, B.A., Marketing, has long been considered a creative leader in advertising in the Pacific Northwest. Chris is a proud WWU Alumnus and former Viking football player. He served as president of the WWU Alumni Association and is on the Western Foundation board. In this podcast, WWU Marketing and Public Relations major, Arnav SenGupta interviews Chris to find out more about his life post-WWU. 

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Audio Part 1

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Audio Part 2

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Interview Transcript

Audio Part 1 Transcript

Arnav SenGupta - Thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to do this. We really appreciate it.

Chris Witherspoon - Yeah. Thank you. Thank you.

Arnav - So when did you graduate from Western?

Chris - So a little background on me. I guess I'll start where I am today, and then I'll go a little backwards. So I'm currently president and CEO at DNA, which is an advertising and marketing agency down in Seattle. I graduated from Western in 1994. I was a College of Business and Economics major with a focus on marketing. And, like I said, loved my experience there. I played football from '89 to '93. Had a lot of great teams back then, and I had a lot of fun. I met my wife as a freshman, who I'm now married today. My closest friends, who I keep in touch with, I met at Western.

Arnav - So I came to Western with a pretty general understanding. I knew I wanted to go into business, and I think I sort of discovered that I was very interested in marketing as a concentration. So when you came here, were you set in what you wanted to do? Or is that something you discovered down the line?

Chris - Yeah. It's funny because I am one of those folks who pretty much knew what they wanted to do. Now, I mean, a little background on me is I was a kid of the early 80s. I was a latchkey kid and watched a lot of television. And there was a couple influences where I would watch a show, and these people were coming up with ideas and thinking of things, and I'm like, oh, that seems cool. That be a cool job. And as I dug into it, it was like marketing and advertising. And so when I got to Western, I kind of knew that was what I wanted to go into. And so, ultimately, marketing was my emphasis. And there was a couple of times where I was like, oh, do I want to do something different? And I explored a couple of other things. But ultimately, stuck with marketing, and I loved it.

Arnav - Great. Did you have any specific mentors who helped you launch your career?

Chris - The person who got me most interested was a professor here at Western, Dr. TJ Olney, who's no longer with us, but he was a big influence in kind of sparking interest in that field. And so that was probably the starting point.

Arnav - Were there any specific experiences at Western that you've sort of taken with you and have helped you in your career? Maybe to do with the mentors you described?

Chris - Yeah. I mean, I think, honestly, one of the biggest things that has impacted my career, candidly, I think, is athletics. And specifically, for me at Western, I played football here. And the reason why I think it had such an impact is it kind of taught me a couple of things. One, was around teamwork and being a good teammate, being a good partner, being committed to others. And the second part is around leadership. And I'm a big believer in servant leadership. Trying to help people be their best and get the best out of them. Try to play to people's strengths. And ultimately, that dynamic is kind of what I learned through athletic-- I was a business major and learned a lot of things in that area, but I would say athletics kind of shaped who I am as an individual and now today as a leader of an organization.

Arnav - Tell us about 600 & Rising and how that sort of came to fruition for you.

Chris - 600 & Rising is a advocacy group for Black talent in the advertising and PR industry. In the wake of George Floyd and all the social unrest of last year and last summer, in June of last year, two gentlemen, one named Nathan Young, the other Bennett D. Bennett, wanted to do something to, frankly, wake up our industry. And they'd asked, initially, what started as a small group, to write an open letter to the industry. Kind of ballooned. And what had happened was this open letter was penned by 600 individuals, talking about the changes that needed to happen in our industry, and frankly, demanding changes in our industry and 12 action steps they'd like to see the industry take. And the reaction and the response was amazing. It was absolutely incredible in terms of people wanting to make change. And so we moved away from what was just a letter and had some of the first folks that signed it become founding board members with a sole focus on trying to advocate around policy, trying to advocate around transparency so that hopefully we would get more Black, BIPOC talent in the industry. And not only just getting them in the industry, we wanted them to have a lot of success within the industry.

Arnav - One of the GUR courses I took was like a sociology class, Race and Ethnic Relations, and a segment of that class was dedicated to looking at advertisements that displayed people of color in not great situations. And just like the impact that can have and the power-- and the hold that media sort of has on us as a people who consume it. So I think that's really important what you're doing and thank you so much for that.

Chris - Yeah. I mean, actually, just to build on that a little bit, and I think you bring up a really good point. A lot of times being in this industry, a lot of folks say-- they'll look at a piece of advertising or content and say, oh my gosh, I can't believe that made its way either online or on TV, and how did that happen? And the simple answer is there's not enough people at the table. And so, that is really what this is about is getting more representation at the table, so things like that don't happen, number one. And that the work that we are doing is inclusive.

Arnav - So how is this program going roughly a year later?

Chris - It has been very successful. In the first year, we had over 100 agencies release their diversity data. And the reason why that point is important is because before you can actually make change, you first need to commit to it. And it's really hard to acknowledge the fact that you may not be doing a good job. And so, a big area and a big push for us has been really getting organizations to say, this is what we look like today, and this is our commitment, and this is our promise of what we're going to look like in the future. And so, as one of my colleagues says, it's like, we're all going to get naked together. It's not going to be pretty, and it's going to be a little embarrassing in terms of showing what data and what our numbers look like. But it's something that we need to do. And, like I said, there's been over 100 agencies that have done that. And the best part about it is we've, a year later, looked at what their diversity data looks like, and in some cases, the changes have been dramatic. We have seen people really double down and commit to it. And frankly, my own humblebrag would be a lot in my own agency. It forced us to make a lot of changes and do some work in diversity, equity, inclusion that we hadn't been doing as well. Within our industry, we have a lot of independents. And those are folks where that the [INAUDIBLE] agency owners and principals are still very much involved. So an example would be my agency, where there's a couple of owners, and we still stay very much involved in the business. But there's also larger conglomerate-held agencies. And frankly, the way I describe it is one is like driving a speedboat. The other one is like trying to move a barge just because of the size. And so getting the changes made on some of those barges are a lot harder for, I mean, a variety of reasons. So the thing that I'm most proud of is we've seen a lot of changes with the smaller agencies and the speed boats, but we're also starting to see some movement with the larger agencies. And that is something in a year's time that I'm impressed that that's happening. We've had a lot of those larger companies release their diversity data. They've felt the pressure by seeing all the changes that are happening in the industry. And what we thought was going to be some slow movement is actually starting to accelerate a little bit. I think the other thing I'm excited about, and I said this probably about a year ago, is that I hope this isn't a moment, but it's a movement. I think that's true. I think that's actually happening.

Arnav - I think part of why that's true is because people like you are still relentlessly pursuing greater accountability among agencies like that. So you've mentioned that I believe you said about 100 agencies--

Chris - Yeah. A little over 100. I mean, at this point, we're probably closer to 150 agencies nationwide have released their diversity data.

Arnav - So what's your goal, I guess, going forward? [INAUDIBLE]

Chris - Yeah. It's less about a number. And kind of going back to my point of this movement. We need to continue to press. And we need to go wide in terms of getting more and more agencies, but we also got to go deep. We've got to like-- there are some systemic issues just like racism that need to be tackled within the industry. And so, again, the areas of focus for us are really going to be around transparency, advocacy, and policy, and continuing to kind of work in those three areas to meet the needs of people of color.

Arnav - Yeah. Actually, that segues really neatly into our next question is, what role do you think PR and advertising-- what role does that industry play in dismantling systemic racism?

Chris - Well, I mean, you kind of touched on it in terms of some of the things that you see in the media. I mean, we're at the center of it. We are putting out a lot of things that people consume in terms of content and information. And so, from an advertising and PR perspective, I think it is our duty to make sure that we're putting out the right type of representation. The right type of messages. I usually approach things, and the way I think about it is, positive intent. And I think there has been, in many cases, when you see something that gets out there, I usually start from a place of like well, I don't know if there was necessarily ill intent in it. More so, there was a lack of knowledge, or there was ignorance in terms of the information that gets out there. And so, in many cases, it is really about trying to just change the people, change the work, educate people. Do all of those things to help kind of improve the work that we do. But ultimately, we're kind of at the center of media and at the center of a lot of the information that goes out.

Audio Part 2 Transcript

Arnav SenGupta - You mentioned in your letter, "Why I signed a letter to rewrite the future of advertising," that you were starting this work because you wanted young people like your daughter who are entering the industry to have mentors and influences who aren't all white men. So other than DNA, of course, who are some other people who are involved in this work?

Chris Witherspoon - Yeah. I mean, where this started specifically for 600 & Rising, there are a number of amazing individuals who are involved from other agencies across the country. And again, where it initially started was just a letter. And we realized the power behind it and started looking at some of the names and the places where people were from. And we recognized the fact that if we came together, we could have a lot of power. And so there are folks out of agencies in New York, and Atlanta, and Los Angeles. And and over time, actually, the 600 & Rising has developed into a larger group. Those 600 people beyond our board have been a powerful force as well. For me, I've been fortunate to have a lot of great people and work at a number of really good agencies. Where I left Western, started my career in Seattle. It took me to an amazing agency called Fallon in Minneapolis, and I was there for a number of years. Then moved down to San Francisco and got to work at Chiat Day, running the Levi's business, and that was a dream opportunity. And then went on to Goodby Silverstein and Partners. And throughout my journey, I, again, got to work at really amazing places, but to my earlier point, I never saw a lot of people at the table that looked like me. And so candidly, I would say a lot of my influences actually were white male. And so when my daughter decided to get into the industry, which, to be honest, I was a little nervous about because I knew some of the challenges, it made me think really hard about what experience I wanted her to have. And was I doing enough to make sure that her experience was different than my experience? Yes. I had tried to make sure that our agency was diverse as possible, but industry-wide, I probably wasn't having the impact that I thought I could have. And that's a major part of some of the work that I've tried to do over the last year.

Arnav - So tell us about your work with the BLAC, the Building Leaders and Creators internship program.

Chris - 2020 was-- it was amazing from the standpoint of getting people to stop and reflect on the changes that needed to happen. So very similarly to 600 & Rising, it became a question amongst a number of agencies, and I had a lot of people calling me saying, what can we do? p a small group of agencies we got together and started talking about what we can do. And in terms of Black talent, there's two issues that we have. One is an issue of getting people into the industry. The second is a retention issue. And I always love quoting this statistic, but 68% of Black people in advertising have four or less years of experience. So what that tells you is it's at a more junior level. So even if we solve the problem of getting people in, there's a churn out as well. But we also said let's be focused. We can't do everything. And so what BLAC is, and it stands for Building Leaders and Creators. It is an internship program, a national internship program. And the sole intent is to bring more Black, BIPOC people into advertising to not only survive but thrive, to truly build leaders in it. The interns get the opportunity to work on real briefs from Proctor Gamble in addition to working at their individual agencies. And so, they actually, through the work that they're doing, they have the opportunity to get some of that work produced. So they're building their book. They're getting those chances. Two of the assignments last year were bought by Procter Gamble, which was very cool. But I think the biggest thing, and the thing that I'm most proud of about the program, how it differentiates maybe a little bit from some other programs, is the community that has been built. Again, it started with the community of agencies coming together, about 12 agencies initially, and this year, it will actually be double. It'll be 24 agencies that we'll have involved and 72 interns throughout the country. And the best part of it for me was just seeing the interns from across the country coming together, meeting with each other, sharing with each other. I think it was one of the things that, of all the challenges of COVID and everything else, creating an internship virtually actually ended up being really cool.

Arnav - So what have you learned about being a mentor to younger professionals who are from marginalized groups?

Chris - Yeah. I mean, there's the old saying is when you reach the top, don't forget to send the elevator back down. And I think about that a lot. I've been fortunate in a lot of ways. I'm a first-gen college student. I would like to think I've worked very hard to get where I'm at, and I've learned a lot of lessons. Because of that, I think it's really important for me to do the same with others in terms of helping them learn helping them grow. I kind of think about that a lot, and I get really excited when I start thinking about the people in the industry that I've helped. The thing that I tell people is you kind of have to find your own way of doing things. I get a lot from a lot of people, and I steal a little bit from each one of them. Meaning, like, I'll see the way somebody talks to somebody. I'll see the way somebody presents. I'll see the way somebody is able to kind of dissect a problem. And I'll go, god, that's really interesting. That's really smart. And try and do it in a way that is right for me and not try to be something that I'm not. And I try to coach people on that. Because the world doesn't need more Chris Witherspoons. What it's going to, especially in our industry, what makes our industry great, what makes advertising great is the diversity of thought, the diversity of background. And when you come at an idea, when you come at a problem, where everybody has a very different way in, that's what leads to really cool solutions. And so I really kind of push people to try and stay within themselves and who they are. We talk a lot about at our offices I want people to feel like they can bring their full self to the office, whatever that is. Because, again, we don't need a lot of the same people in an organization. We need very different people. Because that'll make us better, and that'll make us stronger.

Arnav - We've talked a lot about goals that you have with the different organizations and movements that you're sort of creating and fostering, but what gives you hope for the future?

Chris - Well, it's funny. This is why I'm involved with Western. What gives me hope is folks like you, and I don't say that, I mean, lightly. What gives me hope is I just think there is so many, there's so much great-- I mean, when I look at what young talent is doing now, how prepared folks are coming out of school right now, that's actually what gives me hope. I think the other thing that gives me hope is also just going back to that point of a moment versus a movement. I think people's eyes have been opened up a lot over the last year, and I think people are questioning things more. People are staying open to new ways of thinking and new ideas. And a lot has changed. And as hard as this pandemic has been on a lot of folks, I think they're, and I hope, there is some good that comes out of it as well.

Arnav - That's also what gives me hope is seeing my peers and learning from them and seeing different people with vastly different experiences come together and sort of exchange with that. While most people have finally recognized the need for diversity in the workplace and diversity in media, the most common argument I hear from critics of these programs is that they prioritize an employee's identity over whether their skill set or their experience qualifies them for the position. So how would you respond to that criticism?

Chris - I think you have to look at both. I mean, I'm a big believer in, as people come in, I'm looking at both things. I want the diversity. I want the inclusion. I want people to bring their full selves and to be who they are. But you also have to look at the skill sets as well. The thing I hear most, in terms of when folks talk about diversity, equity, inclusion, is like, well, yeah, we'd like that, but it's really hard finding those people. And that's where I struggle a little bit with that answer. I think you have to be intentional. That means you kind of have to relook at everything that you do. And there's a reason why there is unconscious bias. Again, not ill intent. It's just there are things in place that people don't even see or recognize, whether that's in your hiring practices. And those are things that, frankly, even in my own company, that as we started looking and being more intentional, we're like, oh, yeah, that might be a reason why we're not getting more folks interested in our industry. Ultimately, the more people that you can have at the table, the more people you can have in the agency, you see that balance, and you get both.

Arnav - Someone I know, a good family friend, is a senior research scientist at a lab, and they manage a small team. And he makes a conscious effort to maintain a diverse workplace because he has seen the benefits of doing so. But he's also frustrated by how upper management, at times, will single out employees of color in their attempts to recognize them, perhaps shine an unnecessary spotlight on them for diversity trainings and whatnot, or even like surveys. As someone who has publicly dedicated their career to advancing opportunities for people of color in the workplace, have you encountered similar issues? And do you ever find yourself having to do away with or completely overhaul current systems of implementing more diversity?

Chris - What I would say is, well, the short answer is yes. We have had to kind of look at policies, look at certain things, and frankly, remove them. And in doing so, we have seen some changes in terms of the type of people we're able to attract to our agency and the type of work that we're able to do.

Arnav - Thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to be here with us and to answer all these questions. We really appreciate it.

Chris - Well, thank you for having me. Thank you individually. It sounds like you had a final this morning, so the mere fact that you were able to do this, I really appreciate it. It's been great. I've enjoyed my time and appreciate the conversation.