In this episode, Kenny Gravillis joins David Jensen and Cecily Chambers to talk about how he has navigated the waters of being a black-owned agency in the mostly white-dominated entertainment marketing field. Kenny is the co-founder and chief creative officer of Gravillis, Inc.—a boutique graphic design firm that specializes in television and film marketing campaigns. He takes us across his journey to finding success in his field along with the challenges he has encountered, especially when it comes to seeking representation, diversity, and inclusion, and later on, moving forward those needs in the industry. He then discusses how it is not his job as a marketer to make the audience feel comfortable and why it is important to be authentic and use power for good. Join this conversation as Kenny shares more about his experiences working with Spike Lee and Melina Matsoukas and designing iconic movie posters like Straight Outta Compton, Black Klansman, Bohemian Rhapsody, and Star Wars (to name a few). Plus, Kenny ponders, “Where is the black Seth Rogen?” today on the podcast.
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Navigating Field Of Entertainment Marketing As A Black-Owned Agency With Kenny Gravillis
We have Kenny Gravillis. He is the Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer of Gravillis Inc., a design agency behind iconic movie posters such as Straight Outta Compton, BlacKkKlansman, Bohemian Rhapsody, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and If Beale Street Could Talk. He is born and raised in East London. His graphic design career started in New York at Def Jam Recordings where he worked on album projects like Public Enemy and LL Cool J. In 2000, he and his wife, DeAnna, launched Gravillis Inc. in Los Angeles. On the show, he speaks to navigating the waters of being a black owned agency in the mostly white-dominated field of entertainment marketing. We discussed how it is not his job as a marketer to make the audience feel comfortable. He tells us stories about his experiences, working with Spike Lee and Melina Matsoukas. He speaks to being authentic, using power for good and we ponder, “Where is the black Seth Rogen?” I hope you enjoy our chat.
Do you have any questions about Structured Mischief?
No. It seems interesting. It was like you guys want to mess with the status quo, for people to look at things differently. That’s great. I can support that for sure.
Our tagline, which is included is, “Rebels with a cause.”
I was on a 200-person Zoom and it was our industry talking about everything that’s been happening. They’ve hired consultants to talk about representation in our industry because it’s incredibly bad. They did a little survey and the people that were on that call were the agency and studio representation and was 95% white and it was bare to see all in there were black and white. It was interesting because most people that were on there were part of the industry. There were two black-owned companies that didn’t know about it. Some of them who are right there didn’t know about that Zoom. We forwarded them the information and they were like, “We’ve never heard that.
”Hopefully, it’s not intentional. The network’s not there.
With this 96% white people in the room and the two agencies that are owned by women of our color had no clue that this was even going on. In a way, it summed it up for me in the sense. While I appreciate all the work and everybody’s efforts, we still missed it.
I come from the agency world early on in my career and have sat on D&I committees as a gay man for the past years. I’m also known as a white middle-aged gay man, I can help start a conversation, but there are too many other people that I need to make sure at the table are part of the conversation. I find that example disturbing that nobody from that agency thought, “Who’s going to show up to this?” Being representative of all of the great diversity and creativity that’s in this community. They go to who they know.
I wanted to hold off on sharing that with the organizers because I’m like, “You guys did a great job. It was a great discussion. Heads up, did you know what I’m saying to the agencies that are in the community didn’t get to any black? You’ve got to look at that.
”Structured Mischief, we’re working on a number of initiatives. They’re about leadership alignment. I don’t know if you know Brickson Diamond. He’s LA-based and got a company called Big Answers. If you don’t know him, and I’d love to introduce you, he was the COO of The Executive Leadership Council. I don’t know if you know that organization, but it’s for executives of color and it’s been going for many years. It has a membership now well into the thousands. Brickson is now out on his own.He was at Coke and P&G. He’s doing D&I consulting and I pulled him into a program that I’m doing for a client. It was amazing talking to the CEO the other day with Brickson. I love Brickson because he calls him in a polite, dignified way. He calls him on his lack of understanding. This is a PE-backed startup in the nutritional space. The whole executive team is white, male and straight. They’ve got 1 woman and 1 Latino man, but 1 rung down. Brickson was like, “If you’re looking to create a D&I initiative you’re going to start with your leadership team.
”There is a shift because the Amazons, the Apples, the Netflixes of the world don’t all come from that old studio system. It’s like responding to, “We need to look at things differently.” When you think of the old arts, Warner Bros., Paramount, Disney, the reality of those guys is it’s a not willingness to understand that you might not get it and that’s the biggest challenge. You’ll look on the movie about the Black Panthers and no offense, but a 50-year-old white woman is the person who’s making the decision of what ideas need to go to those directors. It’s like, “You had that decision. Fair enough, but you need to open up the floor and say, ‘Who else though? I need another opinion.’” A line that could potentially open this up a place that I don’t understand. I feel like that’s the biggest thing. It’s like coming to that saying, “I might not completely get this,” and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s like you’re not part of that culture. You’re not living now. You’re not dealing with the same thing so it would make sense that you wouldn’t get it. I remember me and DeAnna, we would be used to get pulled into Sony. They add diversity inclusion to people, these reps that would always pull us in to have these chats with us. I would get frustrated. They’d be like, “How’s it going?” I was like, “What does that mean? When did you hire us?” They’re like, “There are challenges with leadership with that.” I’m like, “I’m going to explain something to you. Please don’t take any offense, but when you have five marking directors that are white, men or women, their whole job is to “open a film, please their boss.” They are not thinking, ‘Let’s try to get some different voices into this picture.’” I can’t even blame them for that. It’s not going to be top of mind for them unless they’re forced into it. People don’t like it but it’s true. I can’t expect them to be like, “We need to get some diverse voices into this project.” They’re thinking, “I can see this dumb. I’m going to go to my guy. I’m going to go to my friend.” They’re not thinking like, “We need some different voices here.” That’s never going to be a place that they go. I was telling that to the diversity inclusion and I was like, “They’re never going to know that unless they’re being forced to go there.It's not about us trying to make people comfortable. It's about us being who we all authentically are. Click To Tweet
”Forced to go there or understand through their own evolution that this is something that they’re committed to because they understand the value in it versus something that they have to comply with.
I’ll be honest to you. As a black man, I don’t have a faith in that concept.
The reason I put that out there is I hear what you’re saying and I agree with you. At the same time as a gay, white guy, if you ever look at a snapshot of my teams going back even many years ago, they’ve always been women, people of color, straight people, gay people, trans people. I came from a place of otherness. However, what I’ve also done in serving on diversity committees a lot by white straight people is to say you need to make a commitment to stop and ask, “How are we showing up?” versus somebody who’s trying to impose and have to be compliant. I was talking to one of the diversity officers at a big four consulting, a black straight man and he was writing a piece about how people have to come and find their authentic voice. We were talking about White Fragility. I’m sure you know Robin DiAngelo’s book.He was on one level of part on another level saying there’s a challenge to it because you can’t force it on people. They one, first, resist in the worst condition in the most supportive that it turns their thinking around and they have to start to then ask where they and how they make a commitment. He gave the example of a white male leader in his firm who had retired and who had spent 30 years serving on a big organization for social and racial justice. This was a white man who had made it a commitment for his entire career that he saw the problem with the system versus somebody who was saying, “You should go sit.” He’s had people that called him up and say, “What board should I go and serve on?” He’s like, “It doesn’t work that way. I can’t give you some boards. You have to find it within yourself about how you’re going to make a commitment.”
Going back to my original point, the reason why it’s hard for us to have faith in that is the industry that we’re in.
I was talking broadly in your industry, because I worked in media entertainment. I hear you.
The industry that we are in, the entertainment industry, it’s hard. I was on a 200-person Zoom and people definitely are talking, saying the right thing, saying some of the goals that are needed that people see me aligned on. Someone asked me about what do I think about this moment? I said, “Honestly, as a black person, I think about when does the clock run out? When does the time runout?” I think about when there’s a vaccine and people are back to normal. When does the clock end? Feeling the sense of, “Do we need to start having some accountability for ourselves?” We all know it shouldn’t but without being negative, you can’t help but feel like there is a timer on it.
I hear exactly what you’re saying because interestingly, the guy I was referring to said exactly the same thing. He goes, “We’re about the same age. I as a black man have been living and preaching D&I for many years. I feel like it’s Groundhog Day.” I’ve had this conversation many times at certain moments and he basically was saying the same thing, “I’m hopeful on some level that the clock is going to take longer to run out.
”I could agree with that and say, “The clock I think will run longer.” What that means to someone like myself and my partner is, “We have to be strategic in this time,” and take advantage of this time to move initiatives forward because we haven’t had so much outpouring of people wanting to come to us before to take them and have a conversation. I’ll give you an example. DeAnna and I had about 1,200 students come into our studio. Amazon had been working with Howard for bringing a bunch of students in to expose them to our industry. One of the things that you find out quickly once you get into our industry is that for whatever reason, our community isn’t exposed to it. It’s a niche cottage-style industry. It’s essential. Everyone knows each other and has worked at this and that place. We came in a different route. We came from music originally. We weren’t part of the film, TV world. We were in music, which is a separate thing in entertainment and then we came into the TV film world. As soon as we came in, we realized something right away that culturally, it was void in a sense that it’s not only that it was white, it was you could tell there was no real attempt to understand anything. We had a lot of album covers in our portfolio and we would show it. They would look at our stuff and they’d be like, “You guys are urban.”What was interesting about that is when you’re a white agency, like all competitors, now it’s changing but historically you’ll never question about working on a black program ever. It’s never like, “You guys are working on Wu Tang. You’re working on this.” I don’t know if you guys are going to get that, but you’re going to make that. I’m not sure you’re going to understand that. Never a question. On our side, it’s like, “They’re urban. I don’t know if they’re going to get this mainstream broad comedy.” It’s funny. We had to be strategic in the beginning of our career to stay away from black projects because we realized if we did, it would be pigeonholed. There was no way. For us, we went into independent film because artistically, it made sense for us.
Going from music into film is similar.
The aesthetic was similar. We stayed in that world and grew in that world as independent film group. All of a sudden, bigger actors and bigger directors are doing independent films, “Who did that? Post it.” That was all around. It was one of those things where in the end we ended up, DeAnna would say originally, “We’re going to have you stay on the phone. We don’t even want you to go to meetings. Let’s have you on the frontend.” I would make jokes about that like, “Are you serious?” She’s like, “Absolutely.” True enough, I remember when we got to a place and we started doing more work and it was way more diverse work, she’s like, “I think we’re good.” I had one executive, she couldn’t even control it and was like, “I knew your English. I didn’t know you were black.” I’ve always dealt with that because I moved to New York in 1987. In 1987, people didn’t know that there were even black people in England. We literally strategically did that. Imagine those are the types of moves you had to make to be in a position that we are now where, “We work on anything and everything.” That’s because we intentionally guided our careers that way. The white person has to think about that.
I hear you where you had to break the rule, you had to create your own set of rules in your framing in order to penetrate a system that was going to reject you if you showed up as you are.
The way that the system is set up and the way the minds of the people in charge are similar in the sense of, “I see it a certain way.” It’s depending on the music you listen to. It’s one of those spins where the average white marketing person in my mind is like, “You listen to Jay-Z. You like Ice Cube films.” If I say, “You listen to Jay-Z and you like Wes Anderson films,” there’s confusion. “I don’t understand that.” We get into a place where people are more accepting and more understanding of diverse. When you’re talking about black people, a lot of times it’s hard for them to say, “I get the Jay-Z part, but I don’t get the Wes Anderson part.” There are a lot of us that listen to Jay-Z and love Wes Anderson films. That is hard for the world of entertainment.
It’s hard for the studios because they don’t get that from the research.
They’re not getting that from the data and what that means. It’s a difficult thing. On the flip side of that, it’s understanding that, “There’s a good chance that we understand as black people, the broad culture, because we’ve lived with it.” We grew up with Spielberg. How much did you watch black exploitation or The Jeffersons? It’s our culture that you’re not getting. You don’t have to prove that you get it. That’s what you’re constantly dealing with. In this particular moment in time, there are more questions about that. People are now starting to ask like, “Do we get it?” I’m grateful for that because it’s starting to have an awareness and starting to open up more conversations.
What I would say on that front is what I had said to Fred, the guy I was talking about earlier. I feel like I completely agree that the clock is going to run out at some point, but this is the first time I’ve seen in my adult life and in my first D&I committee I served on was in 1992. The conversations are still similar that are continuing to unfold. This is the first time where I have friends and it’s a generational thing that are going, “That doesn’t make sense.” They’re stopping and questioning.That’s why I think there is an awakening in general. I know the clock will run out, but I also feel like there’s now more people that will stop and say, “Why are we doing a film that has got black characters, but we don’t have anybody that’s black on this creative team?” I have a good friend who’s a Latinx writer. At one level, he’s like, “I’m riding the wave. Latinx is hot in Hollywood now. You all have to have a Latinx writer or member of your team. That has allowed people to stop and ask different set of questions.” He’s been in the business for many years and has seen where they were only hiring first white men and then white women and then it was women. It isn’t evolution, but it’s a long way to go.I also see that the younger generation are going to push things forward and in a different way. They’re more inclusive.
Growing up with Def Jam, one of the things that I loved about working in that company was it wasn’t about we’re trying to pander to anyone. It was like, “We’re going to be authentic and we are putting that out,” and then a generation responded to hip hop and all that kind of stuff. That was part of what that response was. There was this authentic voice. There was this authenticity about who they were and being honest about putting that out. I grew up in that environment creatively. I’m incredibly thankful for it because it was the guiding North Star for me in terms of us staying true to who we were instead of that work that we did in terms of how we approach some projects because it’s important.When we were working on Queen & Slim, it was interesting. Melina Matsoukas, as the director, was coping with this back and forth about what Universal wanted and the narrative they needed to see in the poster. She looked to me and said, “Aren’t we the ones who are supposed to be showing what’s cool though?” They had it. That mentality is how I grew up with Def Jam. It’s not about us trying to make him comfortable. It’s about us being who we are authentically. I had this conversation with a marketing person. I was like, “Anytime we’re talking about a project culturally where black people are being victimized or they’re having a hard time or there’s racism involved, your initial go-to is, ‘You need to make this thing not feel like medicine. We need to be more inviting to a broad audience so we can invite a broader audience in. There needs to be some hope.’” Those are all great things. Don’t get me wrong. Hope is great. Invitation is great. The problem is that sometimes you have to be uncomfortable and that’s where you need to market.” That happens so much where it’s like, “We need to try to be hopeful.” I’ll be honest. It’s hard to hear especially a white executive tell me, “The black community is tired of showing themselves being victimized.” It’s like, “Are you even allowed to say that?”
How do you respond when a white executive says that to you?
It’s a normal thing. You have to chill in your mind and be like, “What other direction would you like to go?” I don’t want to get into the conversation of, “How dare you? What do you know about it? What have you dealt with to even say that?” I don’t want to get into it.
People think that you’re the angry black man.
It’s like, “What direction do you think we should go?” It is such an incredible normal place of conversation when it comes to projects that are more complex and have themes. The other thing too is, and this is what’s tough, there are few black executives in Hollywood especially on that studio side.
That’s why I want to introduce you to Brickson as a follow-up out of here.
There are few amounts. This is hard to say, I feel like the ones that are there have a massive struggle with supporting black, bringing black people into the fold. I feel like part of that struggle is that struggle of, “I’ve reached this place. What am I going to look like trying to bring in?” Imagine you are one black person sitting in a room and we’re talking about who we’re going to hire and then you’re going to be like, “I think we should hire this person.” I feel like they’re in such a predicament of not being able to be true or to self-preserve.
There’s a whole onion there we could unravel.
When we spoke to the kids at Howard, we’re like, “We need you to be the next generation executives that honestly do not give a fuck about self-persuasion.” It’s like saying, “Maybe you don’t care.” It’s like you care about change, that’s what you care about. That’s the dry. You don’t care about, “How am I going to look to this box? How am I going to look to that person?” We’ve had situations where we’ve been told to lighten someone and I’m like, “They don’t look like that.”You have to speak up to step up. Click To Tweet
If you’re telling my competitor who owns the agency who’s white and you’ll tell him to lighten this black person, does it make sense for them to come back at you and say, “She’s darker than that. Why would you do that?” Not really. Why would that be something? For me, the question becomes, “If you say that, I’m now creating problems with this client.” Thankfully, I don’t care about that because we’re at a place where we are confident in who we are and our work, and getting work that we can speak up and say, “I get what you’re saying here, but be careful of what the skin complexion is like.”
It’s inauthentic. Do I need to give the mini one-on-one class on complexion and colors of skin in the African-American community or in the black community?
Everyone has a reason though. It’s like this needed to feel warmer or these are real things that people literally have to say and this real feedback they get from their higher ups or whatever it is. For us, we are in this constant place at Gravillis of needing to stand correct and make sure that we’re being felt.
Do you feel like that’s been something that you’ve grown into? Do you feel at first you had to walk on eggshells a bit more?
We had to walk on eggshells at first. Going back to what I was telling you even to the point of me showing up at meetings. Beyond that and acting like an account executive, as an owner, we strategically had to get to a place. I was talking to someone about the challenges of bringing in a black town. I made a joke. I was like, “Where is all black separate?” What I mean by that is someone who’s in the middle, doing well, making their own little path, making their own little way, there’s this middle place. Not a superstar but no one.
That’s the thing is that black people have had to be excellent.
I have Denzel Washington, Will Smith, Jamie Foxx. You’re either that or you’re in a BT, no offense, like bad furlough. There’s no middle ground. This is like, “Why do we have to work on Star Wars, Spielberg films, Tarantino film?” I’m not claiming mediocrity, but I’m saying for us to be where we are, look what we have to be at, look at what we have to be. When you look at another Gravillis, where is it? Is there a middle ground somewhere?
Going back to your music roots. What were the differences you experienced talking to a white music executive versus a white television executive? Did you feel that you had more people that you were competing with that were more like you in the music industry versus the film industry?
Music industry is night and day. The executives that we dealt with in the music industry were much closer to the creative. Their level of being closely graded were one step away. They were in the studio with those artists. They were talking to those artists. It’s a whole different thing where a lot of TV executives are not even comfortable dealing with creatives. It’s not that they necessarily go toward initial comfort zone. We’re dealing with music executives, still doing marketing people, dealing with a lot of A&R people.
Especially when you’re dealing with A&R, these people that live in the music with those artists. The other big difference is the artists themselves. When we’re in the music industry, we were dealing directly with artists. I would go to Emory Douglas in Texas and sit with him and listen to a musical or would pick me up and would go driving and listen to music. It’s a whole different ball game here where we have certain relationships like that with groups. Like Spike Lee, we have a tight relationship with him, but a lot of times the TV film people keep trading away from marketing.
It’s a separate situation. What’s changing with that when you speak to the Amazons, Apples and Netflixes of the world, they’re starting to realize, “Some of these creatives, these content makers need to connect with the practices of the world because they are going to hear something that we might not.” That’s what has been holding back for so long for the industry, especially when you think of those top old school studios. It’s where we’re keeping this over here.
I love that example of working with Spike Lee and Emory Douglas.
I’ll tell you this about Spike. I haven’t met someone with his level of power that is supportive of black people being a part of industry. I remember on BlacKkKlansman, we had to do a photo shoot and I noticed Spike, this was our third project with him. I gave him all these black photographers, all men, but I knew them, they had relationships. He sends me this woman’s portfolio. I’m being honest with you, I looked and I was like, “Okay.” She hadn’t shot a poster before. The work didn’t necessarily feel like she was shooting documentary style, miners in Berlin. It was out there. It came back and there was time again to represent and he’s like, “Make sure she’s in the portfolio in the mix.” We showed it to Focus Features, and they picked someone and whoever they pick I was fine with, but it definitely wasn’t this woman. It went back to Spike. He’s like, “I want LaToya Ruby.” I was like, “She’s never done anything.” “This guy, let me have it.” He was like, “How is she going to do anything? How is she going to get any opportunity unless we give it to her?”
It changed my world because I was like, “You are 100% right.” Even though I was still pushing black photographers. It was still hard for me to be like, “I want to push this person that hasn’t shot this before.” That’s why he was like, “Now, it’s on you. I’m going to look at you as being responsible for her succeeding.” You are going to get your people around her. You’re going to make sure she does this shoot and she feels it. I’m looking at you. Let me have it.” True enough, we did it. She did an amazing job. That poster is hers.
It’s a turning point in her career. It wasn’t unless you had somebody like Spike Lee who had that insight and intention.
Intuition that also got power to make it happen. That’s my call out to a lot of these filmmakers and producers. You have to speak up, step up. You have to say, “We want to give this person an opportunity because they’re not going to get it.” To be honest, my competitors have to stop doing the same thing with hires and with bringing more people into the fold. The reality is when I think about us trying to get more black designers, more black photographers, I do have this, “Who’s going to do it other than us?” It shouldn’t be that way. This is going back to what we talked about earlier about people having that, “I need to start relooking at how I’m seeing things.” That’s a big global conversation, but as you know what to do, Spike’s example was potent because it showed me, “You made that happen.”
How does that translate to you inspiring next generation artists?
I’ll get an email often by a black designer from somewhere that would be like, “I saw your portfolio.” I always try to make sure I’m speaking to them. I’ll have my sisters at that time and I’ve been Zooming a lot. People asking me about, “How do we get in? How do we get into the industry?” It’s exciting for me to see, to hear and be able to have those kinds of conversations and to have real conversations. Education is massive. When you look at say art schools and Black-African American representation in there, it’s not a percentage.
When you look at the pie charts of most of the art schools, it’s not even a percentage. There’s an actual disconnect. The fact that art or visual communication arts is something that we can even have as a career. I remember this one kid, I was at a Rite Aid Parking Lot and this black kid rolled up to me and he went to my car and he was like, “What do you do?” I told him and he’s like, “I’m a designer.” I was like, “What are the chances?” He gives me his card and when I get home, I look him up and I see he does an album cover, a jack of all trades. He’s doing clothing stuff. He’s a DJ. I said, “I’m interested in what you want to do. Would you like to meet me up at our studio?” He was like, “I’m going to for sure. You email me be back sure.”
Finally, he came over to the studio. When he got to the studio, his mind was blown and he was like, “What is this? Where am I?” We had a discussion and I was like, “Did you go to art school?” He’s like, “No. My mom is a single mom. I went to business school.” That right there, you know that’s a familiar story. It’s like the idea of someone responsible, trying to do the right thing and single mom’s like, “Art school is no. You can’t get anything with that.” There’s a lack of education, lack of knowledge that there’s this whole world. That could be a part of. Me and the honor with that, we got together with this black professor art center. We were telling like, “We’ve been in business for many years.”
We can count on two hands. How many black kids have rolled in here from internship, from school, into our studio? How about you? You’ve been in academic in fifteen.” It was the same thing. We have to start there as one of the avenues. We have to start education and exposing what it is that we do to that group, to that community and them see that, “I’m documenting now, showing them the sketch. I can’t rap. I’m not a producer. Show them this because we’re going to go on this photo shoot.” Those kinds of things that these kids need to know are possible. I’m hoping that not only Gravillis will push that agenda, but also our industry in general will push that agenda. That’s probably one of the things that being in Zoom was about.
Did you all have an internship program?
The other part of that is even in talent, that exists. For Queen & Slim, for instance, that photo was taken by a black photographer that never shot a poster before. That company happened because of the director was like, “No. We’re using this person to shoot this because if we have to use the studio, we couldn’t go there.” It’s the idea of taking those risks, taking those chances, they’re not set up to do that. That’s after the diversity inclusion meetings where I’m like, “They’re not set up to think this way.”
You’ve experienced that with your clients and the artists that you work with?
In what way?To have real conversations, education is massive. Click To Tweet
The idea that a client will come and have a preconceived notion of what they want or a particular photographer they want and not open necessarily for having somebody look at it differently or a person of color literally be assigned to the project to come and bring their aesthetic and bring their background to it.
I do feel like there’s an opening for things to shift, but it’s been closed down before that. There was an opening years ago where all of a sudden being a female photographer, there was some power behind that and people were pushing female photographers. I see that there’s a lot more diversity in terms of race that people are asking for specifically and they want to see what black photographers or female photographers of color are out there. I’m feeling positive about things. If you look at Instagram too and you see how there’s much beauty in all the artwork that is coming out. That’s about black culture and I’ve been looking at it feeling for a long time, historically probably, we’ve been missing out on the beauty that is in this culture. It’s an interesting and powerful time. I’m hoping it’s not a window that closes.
Going back to that Jay-Z and Wes Anderson analogy. It’s the idea of people being more open. It’s not a matter of black culture, but the diversity within that culture. One of the things that I’m concerned about, and not so much for us as Gravillis and people that come behind us, is that in Hollywood also in that resurgence of, “We need to have black talent,” it’s also going to be like, “Here are the little black projects,” because now there’s a ton of them. It’s all black projects, black people.
It’s only about the few people that have made it through that are approved.
It’s about, “We can’t do anything.”
You can’t do anything else unless you are checking the box versus having it fundamentally understand that this is an economic opportunity. Our client who’s in the nutritional space, one of the conversations we were having around why would they even have a D&I initiative? This is a whole another market you can tap into. This is also part of a moral imperative about you being able to give back if you are believing in wellness and believing in helping to improve people’s immune system and the majority of your customer base now is 95% white because they can afford it. Culturally, they look at immunity health as a priority, help to grow that audience, help to expand that view to other communities.
Businesses would be smart to look at that. I also think it’s a lot about using power. A friend of mine did this event called Families for Black Lives. I went to this event and we did this little meditation. Everyone was social distanced. We were on the grass and we did this little meditation where everyone closed their eyes. She said, “For all of the white people that were in the audience, you have a form of power. How can you identify where in your life you have the most power and then how can you use that power for good?” I started to look at my agency and people see me as a person in power within photography. Even more so than I see myself.
Over the past few years, I’ve spent a lot of time looking at black artists and trying to figure out who could be the right person to sign. However, something that always held me back was this lack of experience because you put an artist on a project. If it doesn’t go well and they don’t have the experience, it comes back on you. Now, I’m starting to look at that and be like, “I need to break that shit down. I need to put them in a position where they succeed. I need to put them with the right crew. I need to have them talk to Kenny and Kenny can give them advice. I need to put the right people in these positions, the people that want to succeed and are hungry for it, but might not have the experience.” We all need to do that. the CEOs of companies, they need to do that too. They need to take chances, but put the resources behind the people.
DeAnna has this thing where she’s like, “In this company, you have to understand we do not want them to fail. What we are saying is you’re a part of us, we are looking at success with you. We’re looking at giving you what you need for that.” That’s the other thing too. With the outpouring of like, “I want to talk to you about black talent and this or that. We want to try to hire.” It’s like, “You want to try to hire, but what’s going to happen when they get there?” It’s feeling correct culturally to say, “We need to hire more black people. We need to hire more people of color. We need to bring more people that followed by.” We get that and we get where that’s coming from, but once that’s happened, now what? How do you help that person to succeed, to grow in that company, to rise?
Also let them have their own voice. There’s a balance that needs to happen where they can still come to the table with their vision. However, we need to give them the support to see their vision through.
Definitely, not about fear. Going back to what I said about the crop of black executives out there. I’m not looking to name any names, but literally me and the owner was told by the black executive. At that time, we’ve done every film from Alvin and the Chipmunks to Glorious Boss to Avatar. We were told literally, “I’m not going to put a gun to anybody’s head to hide.” We’re like, “Check, please.” What do you say when someone tells you that?
When we hear that from someone who’s in a position of power and who is black, who understands that there’s hardly anyone that company-wise that looks like us, that owns a company and you look at the level of our work and that’s what you tell us. That’s hard to take that. That’s one of those things that make you look at yourself, at your people, at structure and you start getting back to slavery and to all these things when someone hits you over like that. You start thinking about, “How have we been programmed?”
That executive has become part of the problem. It’s been assumed in a culture and not knowing their motivations if it’s, “I got mine. I keep everybody else out,” but not understanding the bigger opportunity. This is not your first time at the radio. You’re an established firm with a huge success and award-winning projects.
It goes back to it. Imagine any other company that came to him, he would not say that.
He felt two things. He felt he had the ability, but also the responsibility to tell you, “From black man to black man, I’m not putting a gun to anybody’s head. Don’t count on me.”
Those types of things are tough.
Your response is, “I wasn’t counting on you. I want a fair shake at it, but now that you say this, I questioned why I’m even in the room.”
“Why am I even here though?” We also have an executive in January 2020 told us, “The thing might be for this project, but it needs to be a pitch because I know that you would like to get in here.” We’re like, “We have Star Wars on our website. Why are you treating us this way?” It goes back to this, “If I put you forward, what does that say about me?” It’s incredibly sad. When we talk about it, we’re like, “We’re raising children. We have to teach them that no matter what the situation is, you have to be strong and your voice has to be your voice.” I understand the politicking of Corporate America, but if you’re in a position, you’re the only one there, surely there’s a level of responsibility. We have it in Gravillis. There’s not another agency of color that works on the projects that we work on. There’s a responsibility that we can’t help but have to try to bring other people of color into this situation.
Put out projects that are touching people in the right way and are relating to a broader group.
We feel we have no choice. It’s amazing to us when we see other people in certain positions that are ready to assimilate. It’s an amazing thing. We’re hoping this next generation will change that because the next generation will be being those disruptors of the norm and people will be more open to that.
If there was one thing you would want to share with the next generation, but I’d like to think it’s every generation. In terms of rule bending or rule breaking, this is part of what Structured Mischief’s mission is about is understanding how you bend and break rules to create good in the world. What would be that one rule that you and your business partners have lived by that you would share?
It sounds cliché, but always be your authentic self. Always stay true to that. I remember, we had this one situation happen. They were like, “Everyone except you guys give us 70 options. You guys only give us twenty options. Everyone else gets to send me options for the same money.” I was like, “Those 70 options, did they solve it? Are they solving what you need?” For us, we are caring about everything that we’re doing and that we’re giving you.
I’ve seen those 70 options and there’s so much fluff in there and we don’t work that way. We try to work quality. We’d want to stay in that.” They were like, “We understand that, but it doesn’t work for us.” It happened again, they call us back and like, “We want you to look at this project.” I said, “Are you guys still on the 70-option thing?” They were like, “Yeah.” I was like, “We’re still that.” Finally, got a call and they’re like, “Why don’t you to look at this project?” Before I can even email back, they were like, “We don’t care about the options. We want you guys if you are thinking on it.”
I did that with the staff and I was like, “Do you see this right here? You should all feel incredibly proud.” We’re not one of where they’re coming to us specifically because of a place where they’re at to saying, “It’s okay that they’re not like anybody else, we’ll live with that, we’ll take them.” I feel like that would be my biggest advice. Staying true to how you do things, who you are and believing in that and not letting people shake that because it’s easy for you to get shaken. It’s easy when you see this company, they’re getting work and they’re the ones that are doing 70 versions. Maybe you’re not getting the same opportunities but stay true because I’m a big believer and eventually people will see.Find the passion because it will make all the difference in the world. Click To Tweet
When they look at your integrity, they understand your integrity and then they come to respect that. That’s what counts. That’s what’s important.
Even if they don’t, then they’re not the right client that you want to be working with.
Even if they don’t, still stay who you are. That’s one of the big things as well in that whole situation is understanding that if they don’t come, they’re not for you and own it. DeAnna would always say this thing like, “We are not for everyone.”
Walk it with that confidence and to be able to say confidently, “Maybe we’re not the right fit for you guys. I’m ready to turn around,” and walk out as you have your Star Wars and you walk with all of those successful and working with Spike Lee, etc.
If you could look back and give your younger self a piece of advice, what would it be?
When I moved to New York, I got fired four times in a two-year span before I started working at Def Jam. I was working on Mott’s Apple Juice and Carefree Panty Shield. I had no passion for it. In the first job, I lasted a year and then I got a second job, I lied about my age to try to get a job. I got a great job and it only lasted two months. On my full job, my final place that I got let go, I’d gotten through to it with a head hunter that got me the job. I was there about a month. AI overheard the creative saying, “We don’t want to keep him.” English friend of mine who lived in New York at the time as well. I was like, “I heard this guy. I overheard him say, ‘He doesn’t want to keep him.’ Do you think he’s talking about me?” He’s like, “He’s talking about you.”
I remember being fired at that job and my dad saying, “Are you sure you want to do this design thing?” I was like, “Yeah, kind of.” I was questioning myself and then I realized, “What excites you? What are you into? What are you passionate about?” It was music. I started looking at album covers and I started looking at all those things. I remember that click and push the story further. To answer that question 100%, find the passion because it will make not only make all the difference in the world, you won’t need things to do.
Don’t settle for panty shields and apple juice, unless it turns you on.
Have passion to do something. I remember I went to an interview and you might even know this person. This was many years ago. I went to interview at Sony and there’s this a guy named Christopher Austopchuk. He’s the Head of Department of Creative. I went to him with my Mott’s Apple juice portfolio. Somehow, I got a meeting with him. I don’t even know how it happened. It’s a miracle. This is 1988. I’m getting in his office and this guy is prestige. He’s all black turtle neck and black socks, no shoes on. He’s like one of those uppity creative guys. I remember going in his office and it’s super cool.
I sat down, he sat down and he looked at my work. Back in the day, there are no computers yet. He gets a piece of artwork that comes in. He gets the artwork and it’s a real piece of art and he sees it here and he’s looking at my work and all of a sudden, stops looking in the art work and he starts turning over the pages and I’m like, “This isn’t a good sign.” He looks at me and says, “You know we design album covers here.” I was like, “That’s why I’m here.” He’s like, “You haven’t shown me you wanted to design album covers. I’ll tell you what, why don’t you go design some album covers and then I’ll see you again?” That changed my life. For the next few weeks, I had the most fun I’ve ever had designing.
I was by myself when I was working on stuff. I’m from London so I was coming to the covers with Elton John, Fine Young Cannibal and Simply Red. I came up with this little portfolio and life happened. I try to call him. He’s in China and I cannot get back to meet with him. I ended up looking at a Def Jam and I saw Sony was on there as well because at that time Sony was distributing Def Jam. I called up Def Jam and I’m bullshitted, I said something like, “I had a meeting with Sony and they said I should come and see you guys.” The guy at that time was like, “Okay.” I went over there and I still had my Mott’s Apple Juice portfolio because that was the real thing. That was the actual produced thing.
At first, when he saw me and the apple juice portfolio, I was like, “You said you were going to see me.” That is the most accurate thing and he’s going for it and he was like, “Thank you.” I’ve pulled out album covers. That is what got me the job. The beautiful thing about that story was that because Sony distributed Def Jam at one point and I’m a junior, I had to take his boards to Sony. I go in Sony and I see Chris’ office. I literally go and I peek in there. He looked to me and he’s like, “Gravillis.” I was like, “You got me the job at Def Jam. I was trying to get back with you. I couldn’t.” He was like, “No way. That’s great.” The beautiful story on top of that, about five years later, I turned down the job with Chris.
That’s the thing like having the power and he said yes, to taking the meeting and looking through your work and gave you advice and then that propelled you from there. You can do that for other people.
Thank you for taking extra time with those amazing stories. I want to follow up and introduce you to the Executive Committee and to Brickson, and there will be a great networking opportunity.
About Kenny Gravillis
Kenny Gravillis is the Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer of Gravillis Inc., a design agency behind iconic movie posters such as Straight Outta Compton, BlacKkKlansman, Bohemian Rhapsody, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and If Beale Street Could Talk. He is born and raised in East London. His graphic design career started in New York at Def Jam Recordings where he worked on album projects like Public Enemy and LL Cool J. In 2000, he and his wife, DeAnna, launched Gravillis Inc. in Los Angeles.