Outside The Lines: Justin Adu

The past year has been made up of consistent wins for Black creatives. Issa Rae launched Golden Globe nominated, Insecure on HBO. Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino (yes, people still don’t know they’re one and the same) blessed us with Atlanta on FX, and graced the cover of ADWEEK’s Young Influentials issue. It’s refreshing to see so many Black creatives coloring outside the lines and crossing multiple mediums and channels successfully. However, the encouragement for creatives working in more corporate settings to do the same thing, is still not the norm.

Enter Justin Adu, Associate Creative Director of Digital and Social Media at Carol H. Williams Advertising. Adu’s spent the bulk of his creative years crushing the expectation that a creative must focus on a singular area. From creating a dynamic art exhibit, to challenging the lack of diversity within the Oscars, Adu’s remained consistent with coloring outside the lines. Most recently, he published a book Don’t Insert Title Here: The Guide Toward Creative Freedom and Success and is releasing his own spin on the traditional audio book today.

You’ve received a lot of support and praise for your book in its current format. What inspired you to go on the route you’re taking with the new audio book mixtape?

I knew I wanted to do an audio book, everything with this book from the inception to the promotion of it, has used a non-traditional approach, and I actually wouldn’t have it any other way. When you do it from a non-traditional approach you’re able to authentically connect with the people. And I’ve always been about people, but specifically my people. Even when it goes back to the days of teaching, nobody’s told me better than my own students, hey, uh you’re kind of long-winded, you talk too much. So I knew I didn’t want to do a traditional audio book. So I went into a studio, and collaborated with one of my favorite DJ’s M*Knight who mixed it and K_Flow who mastered it in Dallas to create an audio book mixtape. I’m reading the book, so you’ll hear excerpts from the book, infused with music, so it has a really nice smooth tone to it.

What are you hoping this will inspire?

It’s a piece that black creatives can vibe to while working. Me personally as a designer, it’s so hard for me to design without music, I wanted it to be a piece that creatives could listen to and be inspired. I like to take creative projects and see how I can extend them in different directions. To me, that’s how you know you have a really great creative project going. If you can only go in one direction, you might need to back-track. This whole process has taken on legs of its own and I’m just going with it, and it’s been an exciting ride.

What’s something you wish you would have known before you entered the industry?

I wish I had known about the different environments that were available in the field. Me being here at Carol H. Williams Advertising, they caught me at my most seasoned, at my best, because I’ve been to so many places and honestly, this is the place that I should have been first. I wish that I would have known more about the tone of different creative shops and the ethics of those shops (finding a place that’ll be true to you) and about the people that work for those particular agencies is really important. I should have known more about the different types of advertising agencies.

You’ve had a taste of the general market agency life, how does it compare to being at a multicultural agency in terms of the work you do and the approach you take?

There’s a quote in our office, “when you view the world, who’s eyes are you viewing the world through?” In a main-stream agency I’m viewing things through a black person’s eyes and when dealing with the African-American market, they’re not really scratching the surface. Working in a multicultural agency, we’re digging deeper into African-American persona’s, they’re not just one bucket, there are so many different sub-categories within the Black community that general market ad agencies don’t address. Plus, we also have the advantage of being closer to that community in terms of awareness and comprehension. So even though I might not identify with someone in a sub-demographic, 9 times out of 10 I know someone who fits in that demo.

What’s a challenge that you think hits Blacks in the industry working in general market agencies more so than those working in multicultural agencies?

It’s a different landscape in the mainstream market, we have to support each other and we have to be very unapologetic in how aggressive we are in pursuing our goals in the way we want to accomplish them.

I don’t think general market agencies are setting us up for success and progression, they’re not positioning us in that way. They’re positioning other white people in that way, so we don’t have a choice but to position ourselves in that way, because nobody else is going to do it.

I think this holds even truer for African-American women in the industry, being intentional is critical as you elevate into a managerial position. Someone that I think has really done an amazing job at holding her own ground and maintaining her stake is Carol H. Williams, and that’s ultimately my goal, not be the baddest, most talented and creative Black in advertising, but it’s really to be a non-stoppable force in advertising, and in addition to that, I’m Black.

Given that it’s hard to get the support how would you suggest a growing professional seek a mentor and become a good mentee?

Read, read, and read. Do the research and make sure that you’re making the appropriate connections with people that are going to genuinely support you and help you. I began working at Carol H. Williams Advertising in 2016 and I remember reading about Ms. Williams back in the early 2000’s in a Black Enterprise article. I wasn’t working in advertising, I was still a creative, working as a graphic designer but still very confused about what I wanted to do in terms of my career and my major.

Now when I think back on that, it’s a full circle moment, because now I’m an ACD at an agency I’d only read about and in an industry I didn’t know anything about and on top of that I just completed a social media activation with Black Enterprise in which I was giving creatives tips on being creative (Heavy sigh, “God is good”). On top of the research, I’d also say you have to have an idea of what your end goal is. Plus, you need to know how to stay focused and be able to identify when you’re wasting time. I didn’t waste time, and that’s played a key role in how fast I’ve moved personally and professionally.

I always think about who the old me was, “It’s funny how quick we forget about what we have right now.” and it pushes me to want even more for myself and serves as a motivator to constantly strive for the best out of myself.  You have to remember how bad you wanted what you have right now.

What is your greatest accomplishment to date?

Being consistent and being focused. Which is very hard when you’re in advertising because there will be times when you’ll want to quit, sometimes you’ll have long hours, there will people you work with that you simply don’t understand or vibe with, you can get laid off when you don’t expect it.

And I’ve been through all of those different things. So being consistent and focused has been a big accomplishment for me, because there are times when you get pushed to the edge and you want to drop it all. I still, God-willing, have a lot of years in this industry and I love advertising and what I’m doing, but there are times when I sit back and I’m in awe that I’m still making moves in this industry despite the setbacks.

Click here to listen to Adu’s Audiobook Mixtape

Outside The Lines is a column that features dynamic Black professionals in advertising and media that are disrupting their industries for the better. Know of someone amazing that we should feature? Drop us a line: info@blacksinadvertising.com.