min read

Cheryl Overton on Being a Cultural Storyteller

Here, at Magnet, we are focused on (and fascinated by!) the power of brand storytelling. Tell us the story of Cheryl Overton! We love the way you describe your personal mission –being a “cultural storyteller.” How has that mission shaped your experience in the agency world? What does it mean to you to be a “cultural storyteller” and why is it important?

My love of storytelling goes all the way back to my childhood when my favorite word was “why” and I’d propose trips to the library and museum when other kids would prefer the playground. I loved to write stories and created elaborate plays for my dolls. I’ve always been fascinated by history and what makes people tick -- I was a Sociology major undergrad -- and I authentically bring that curiosity into my work. I’ve been an agency-side professional for 20+ years and have considered it a privilege that clients ask us to become experts on their brands. For me that’s always involved bringing the “stuff” that makes us us to the table. For me, in addition to education and experience, that’s always included my perspective as a Black woman. It’s also included my sometimes obscure knowledge of pop culture; my love of food and fashion; my skill with jewelry design and love of black and white photography; my ability to speak “grandma” around the world; my voracious appetite for non-fiction and, until recently, the news. I believe the more you travel the world, the more people you meet and the more open and accepting you are to customs and traditions that aren’t your own breeds creativity. While it’s an industry buzz word these days, I’ve always lived with “diversity” and feel fortunate to find a career where it can be applied.

"The more you travel the world, the more people you meet and the more open and accepting you are to customs and traditions that aren’t your own breeds creativity."

Racism and diversity are gaining renewed energy and focus after recent protests and the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others. You are a veteran diversity and inclusion advisor and have consulted with brands for many years, providing strategies to help create change from within their organizations. That sounds like an incredibly challenging objective. Can you share with us some of your breakthrough moments? Are there specific techniques for overcoming objections?

The truth is, until recently, much of my DEI counsel has existed within established communications constructs – internal/employee engagement, ERG support, awards, social and earned media campaigns and executive thought leadership. Crisis and issues notwithstanding, clients have looked to me and my teams to promote how their company attracts and retains a diverse workforce and are great places to work. Breakthrough moments occur when organizations go beyond producing DEI brochures and recognize they are microcosms of the world at large and their actions carry beyond the four walls – that inclusive hiring, succession planning and pay equity is critical and that prioritizing inclusion and belonging over diversity can distinguish an organization. And while there are numerous data studies that prove diverse teams perform better, the real breakthroughs I’ve catalyzed are always more personal. Interactive, peer encounters that confront the lived experiences of others is always compelling. When you make it personal, you see true understanding dawn on faces. When you get people to sample what it’s like to walk in another’s shoes, heads nod. This work can be emotional and bring up difficult memories for many, so it should be facilitated by experts. It’s part communications and part coaching at times. But it’s through this immersive understanding that you can gain consensus for “out there” approaches where the magic can happen. The recent resurgence in racial unrest has educated and reminded leaders that workplace cultures must change and some of it will be radical — employees and the public are relying on organizations to go beyond the traditional recognition days and sponsorships; in fact, they’re demanding it.

"It’s through this immersive understanding that you can gain consensus for 'out there' approaches where the magic can happen."

You’ve flagged the danger of performative gestures, “I mean it’s nice to let a Black influencer take over your Instagram for a day, but [brands] also have to make systemic changes.” What were the most valuable insights that helped make this transformation possible for the brands you advised? What can others learn from your experience, to help create change within their organizations? How will we know if we’ve been successful?

Transformation is an ongoing process. Neither myself or my clients are “done” — how could we be? As the outside world changes, so too must our approach to DEI communications. And we must be intentional about the anti-Black racism that has been allowed to fester even with DEI programs in place. One of the first things I do is audit a client’s existing DEI assets by interviewing people from across the organization, social listening, unfocus groups, competitive comparisons and other tactics. Beyond getting up to speed, this process reveals how DEI organically fits (or doesn’t) inside an organization’s core values which informs strategy. I also work closely with the C-suite, constantly taking their temperature and making sure they are prepared for the criticism and potential fall-out this work sometimes yields. Wounds get opened. People get vocal. Social media gets activated. As we’re seeing in the news everyday, past-employee experiences will come to light, NDA or not. If we determine an organization is not ready for an aggressive DEI initiative, we might recommend they first shore up internal resources and enlist strategic partners to gain credibility and establish a track record. We’ll know we’ve been successful when there are more Black and Brown people in C-suites and corporate boards; when content recognizing the contributions of African Americans or Latinx communities aren’t reserved for one month out of the year; and when pay equity is normalized. From that perspective, we’ve got a lot of work to do.

"As the outside world changes, so too must our approach to DEI communications."

While diversity and inclusion have been important to many of us within the field for a long time, we at Magnet include ourselves among the long list of companies that have been on a listening tour in recent weeks. We’ve had our own blind spots, and are now re-committing to more specific goals and outcomes where we measure our progress, and continuous improvement.
You've shared that "this time feels different because accountability is public and swift.” What has changed in terms of how leaders are thinking about DE&I? What is your advice to them to navigate this field and make diversity programs not stand-alone marketing initiatives, but core to the business?

The difference now is a collective sense of urgency and overdue accountability. My optimism is based on this moment and this movement. We all feel “it” – the time is now and we simply can’t unsee George Floyd’s murder and those of the countless others whose names we say. People have literally taken to the streets — during a pandemic — to show their outrage. Corporate leaders can’t ignore that type of ferocious passion – it’s coming from their own loved ones and employees. Even leaders who’ve long believed in the tenets of DEI have a better understanding now of the need to reform, swiftly, comprehensively, and intentionally. Anti-racism must be threaded throughout operations, finance, marketing, and HR, where this is usually parked. You can’t tout an inclusive culture if Black and brown people aren’t hired or retained on par with others; or if there’s no supplier diversity; or if racial slurs and biased “jokes” are commonplace. Leaders need to ensure DEI and Belonging are among core corporate values and make it every employee’s responsibility to uphold — even if it influences performance and salary consideration. This is how we cultivate corporate cultures that are humane and where people feel confident their contributions will be valued. We’re going to have to get even more uncomfortable before things improve.

"We’re going to have to get even more uncomfortable before things improve."

Mission and Purpose are closely tied to brand storytelling and are white-hot topics in terms of objectives for senior leadership. How do you help brands articulate their purpose in a memorable, emotional, repeatable way? What are some of the examples of world-class brand stories, and why are they so unique and effective? We’ve written for many years about the power of purpose-driven storytelling, and –in addition to creating positive affinity, it also drives purchase. Now more than ever, with the rise of the belief-driven-buyer. Within that context, we’d love to know: whose story inspires you?

The good news is brands understand that Mission and Purpose Marketing isn’t just about cause-related efforts. They want to stand for something great in the world. They want real heart-share among belief-driven buyers. Thinking this way yields incredible creative fodder. One way I begin this work is to help brands identify their unique role/space in the moment. Being honest about what they can uniquely offer or provide is a starter, and is more important than intention (which may not be based in reality) and aligned with business goals. Articulating where and how brands can make a difference is at the heart of the communications process.

I’m a bit of a brand geek — aren’t we all in this business (smile)? — so studying how brands tell their stories is both an occupational hazard and favorite pastime. I’ve been paying close attention to brand stories around COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter. In fact, I started a “good news” feed on my LinkedIn in March highlighting consumer brands who used their mission and purpose to make a difference during the early days of the pandemic. From U-Haul to Audible, I was inspired by so many initiatives large and small to contribute to our collective recovery. These days I’m inspired by Ben & Jerry’s and the unapologetic anti-Black racism stance they’ve taken. The brand has never shied away from taking a stand on human rights and political issues so the latest is on equity. But unlike other brands that seem tentative and boilerplate in response, Ben & Jerry’s assertiveness is both commendable and actionable. Also, and I may be biased (full disclosure: former client), but I continue to admire Procter & Gamble’s anti-bias work. I had the distinction of being part of the team behind “The Talk” a few years ago. I am moved by how the message continues to evolve with “The Choice” (anti-Black bias) and “The Pause” (anti-LGBTQ+ bias); it’s important work, beautifully executed.

"Articulating where and how brands can make a difference is at the heart of the communications process."

For you, what is one key learning of 2020? You’ve held unique leadership positions in PR, in brand-building and in agency executive leadership. What do you wish other people in the industry understood from your experience? And why?

2020 has sharpened my agility and adaptability so my key learning thus far is to stay ready. New year’s “resolutions” - moot. Best laid plans - changed. Colleagues - all remote. Work, play, rest — it’s all home-based these days. Up is down; down is up. So 2020 is forcing me to stay nimble and always be creating; to flow with the challenges and be ready to pivot.

For me the diversity of my experience has been a competitive and creative advantage. To develop relationships and acquire learning and experiences from different organizations has broadened my skills and influences. From my experience, people can understand the benefits of risk-taking and embracing new challenges. I’d also like people to understand you don’t have to be a “creative” to be creative in this industry — it should be threaded throughout our work whether you sit in a studio or a boardroom. We need to apply and proudly display our creativity in the brand work of course but also in how we hire, train, build process and manage growth. We’ll need vanguards and innovative strategies to achieve true inclusion and diversity in the industry.

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