WHEN KAREN Blackett’s father migrated to London from Barbados, he was forced to endure “horrendous” racist abuse.
But his resolve and determination to succeed despite the barriers was an inspiration to his daughter who, on Tuesday, was named the most powerful black person in Britain.
The media specialist, who in 2011 became the chief excutive of advertising firm MediaCom after turning the company into one of the largest network media agencies in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, told The Voice:
“My father has been a huge influence on me. He would always say to me and my sister, ‘you’re black and you are female, you have to try twice as hard as anybody’ and that really stuck with me.”
She added: “To this day, he’s right, and I’ve never been afraid to celebrate my differences. When I walk into a meeting, I’m normally the only person of colour and sometimes the only woman, so it’s about being remembered for the right reasons.”
Blackett, who manages 900 people and runs accounts worth over £1.2 billion for high-profile clients including BSkyB, Audi and GSK, recalled how a friendly rival once revealed to her that she had lost a pitch to an all-male senior client team, who had later said: ‘there was no way we’d appoint a female account director, let alone a black one’.
She added: “As hurtful as that was at the time, I had to remember that it was about my race and gender, not my ability and it was only one individual’s opinion. I can’t and don’t want to change either of those things, so that was that.”
Despite these challenges, Blackett worked her way through the ranks and in 2003 and 2005 she was voted by Management Today as one of the 35 most powerful women under 35 in the UK.
She has previously featured in the Powerlist in 2008, 2010 and 2013, and has been profiled by the national press including The Times, The Guardian, the Evening Standard, The Independent and The Telegraph.
In June this year, she received an OBE in recognition of her services to media and communications. And now that Blackett has climbed to the top of her profession, she is keen to lend a helping hand to others from black communities who are trying to manoeuvre the barriers to achieve success in media and advertising.
A recent report by the Advertising Association revealed an alarming lack of diversity within the ranks of the sector, showing that nearly 90 per cent of the industry is white. It also raised concerns that black people are being under-utilised, stereotyped and misrepresented in UK adverts, after only 45 per cent of black and other ethnic minorities said they believe that advertising reflects the diverse society they live in.
Blackett declared that it is her “personal lifelong passion” to discover and mentor talent from diverse backgrounds and classes in order for them to get a foot in the door of the advertising industry.
In furthering this goal in 2012, she launched an apprenticeship scheme for 18 to 24-year olds at MediaCom working in collaboration with Tim Campbell MBE and The National Apprenticeship Service. The initiative is the first scheme for any media agency in the UK, working with Outsource Training and leading to an NVQ in Marketing.
“Helping to reach young people who may not have the best backgrounds or grades and encouraging them to further their own careers and personal development, is one of the ways I wanted to use any influence I could have to open doors,” Blackett explained.
The mum-of-one said she was “humbled” to be crowned most powerful woman, but her son, she added, was her greatest prize.
“Being a mother to my now not-so-little five-year-old boy Isaac is my greatest achievement, although this year has given me a few more occasions to add to the list, including topping the Powerlist,” she said with pride. She added that she “loves the advertising industry” and hopes “that being at the top of the Powerlist will encourage “more people who look the same as me to join it.”
Blackett added: “I feel very humbled to be recognised alongside such prestigious names such as Steve McQueen, Chuka Umunna and Idris Elba. It is an honour and a privilege that makes me pinch myself at times.
“To be in the company of scientists, film directors, fashion designers, politicians and technologists as the most influential black people in the UK is the reason why publications like The Powerlist are so important.”
Powerlist publisher Michael Eboda said he was “delighted that the panel voted Karen top of the list”.
He added: “She’s a wonderful role model, who has been working quietly behind the scenes to reach the top of her profession. She’s yet another example of the talent and professional expertise in Britain’s black communities that so often goes unheralded.”