PeopleExclusive: Adrianne Smith exits WPP after a year, returns focus to Cannes Can: Diversity Collective

Former global director of inclusion and diversity leaves WPP after expanding DEI to individual agencies, continues legacy-defining work.
Rae OnwumeluMarch 15, 202111 min

“Don’t talk about it, be about it,” has been Adrianne Smith’s motto since childhood. Growing up in a mixed-religion household she learned many things – to put action behind her words, to be open-minded, disciplined, cultured, but most importantly, inclusive.

“I didn’t have traditional Christmas holidays at my house. My father was Muslim, and my mother was Christian.  We didn’t have a Christmas tree, we had a Christmas couch,” she tells Marcom Weekly. We never got my dad Christmas presents but we made sure he had new socks and underwear on December 25th.  So, we learned early to live an inclusive lifestyle.”

For years Smith enjoyed an upbringing steeped in celebrating Black people and history. From attending Nation of Islam events to reading Na’im Akbar. Proud of her heritage, Smith began to “fight for ways to be included, so the voices of my people were included.”

Her first fight for inclusion took place in high school where she participated in Girls State, a leadership program focusing on exploring the mechanics of American government and politics, and proposed a bill that included incorporating Black history into American history books. 

Sure no one would argue against her statement, Smith was surprised when a classmate shared another student was actively working against the bill’s passing. When Smith asked the girl why she was against the bill the student’s answer only proved to Smith she would always need to “fight to bring our voice [Black people] to the table.” 

Smith who identifies more as an activist and advocate than an advertising guru says that epiphany repeatedly emerged when she started working in advertising. For 20+ years, Smith continues to advocate for people of color in advertising and provide solutions to the advertising industry’s lack of diversity and inclusion of all peoples.  

“My work is all about finding a way to provide access and opportunity for people of color to be in spaces they haven’t been in,” Smith said. 

She recalls her work with students at Howard University’s Center for Excellence and Advertising directly informing her founding of the Can Diversity Collective (CDC), a nonprofit organization creating access and exposure to young adults of color and under-represented communities to global thought leadership conferences on advertising, marketing, creativity, economics, innovation and technology.

Smith found herself in the French Riviera at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, the largest creative advertising festival in the world, after connecting with Love Malone, founder of the Gradient Group and a former Howard student who had no interest in advertising before meeting Smith at Howard’s advertising center.  

Malone told Smith she was going to the festival to talk about her work and invited Smith to attend. 

“It was one of the most inspiring experiences I ever had,” she said. 

Still, the advertising activist couldn’t help but notice the lack of people of color in leadership roles. 

“Only 200 people looked like me and they were from Africa, the UK and America. Most of them worked booths or were in entertainment,” she said.

Smith wasn’t the only attendee who noticed and how to diversify became the topic of conversation throughout the festival. After connecting with another former student and hearing an inspiring speech by Halle Berry, Smith knew she had to do something about the lack of diversity at the festival. 

The advertising advocate says when everyone around her continued to ask how the festival could diversify, she thought it was a trick question. 

She said, “I thought if they don’t know, it’s something I have to do–just invite people of color and let them know what’s going on, create access and opportunity.”

In 2017, after establishing the Cannes Can Diversity Collective, a program a part of CDC that allows rising stars to attend Cannes Lions, she brought five young people of color to the festival and 25 more the following year. Despite the pandemic the program is still thriving through virtual programming. 

Smith’s work with the Cannes Can Diversity Collective led to several opportunities including her position as the first global director of inclusion and diversity at WPP, the largest multinational communications, media, and commerce holding company; a position she recently transitioned from. 

The former director of inclusion and diversity shifted gears after positioning WPP’s focus on diversity and inclusion from the center into the company’s individual brands, an accomplishment of which Smith is proud. 

“Ideally you don’t have heads of inclusion and diversity because it’s embedded into your organization and now they have a scope of what should be,” she said, “If you’re doing it right, diversity, equity and inclusion should be in every part of your organization and once it’s there you have to trust the people there to do it.” 

Smith is currently focused on Cannes Can: Diversity Collective and finding innovative ways to help people be stewards of their own brand. 

“You are your brand, and you want to make sure no matter what you’re doing people think of you first. You want people to know you for what you do, and not by the company you work for,” she affirms. 

Although the advertising activist and advocate is proud of her work at the Cannes Can: Diversity Collective and WPP, this is not what she wants to be known for. 

“Because I am an advocate and activist first, the best compliment someone can give me is I don’t know what Adrianne does but she’s always in the mix, making something happen and changing lives,” Smith said.

Rae Onwumelu

Rae Onwumelu is a correspondent for Marcom Weekly. Onwumelu's writing and reporting have appeared in The Huffington Post, Blavity and CityBeat. She previously served as a feature writer for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and content specialist for The Educational Theatre Association.

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