"When I started A—B, I wanted to empower a new team of creators to design a different set of paths — new ways to get from A to B.”
Andre Banks is the Founder and CEO of A—B as well as Co-Founder of All Out. Previously, Andre was a Founding Partner and Director of Strategy at Purpose, and Executive Vice President for Social Impact & Philanthropy at the national public affairs firm BerlinRosen. He currently serves as the Chair of the Board at Color Of Change and as a board member at AIGA-NY.
MK: Hey Andre, it would be great to start off by hearing a bit about your creative background.
AB: Many people I’ve worked with over the years would probably think of me first as an activist or even an entrepreneur (I’ve founded or been on the start-up team of eight social impact ventures, all of which are still running) ... but my personal experience traveling this path has been one of self-discovery as a creative thinker, maker, and leader. I’ve had so many job titles — I’ve cooked chickens in a fast food restaurant, led an organizing campaign to win fair benefits for thousands of workers, designed a new kind of agency to make breakthrough narrative change in the context of rampant misinformation … I think the only title I’ve actually never had is Creative Director, and yet I approached each of these roles with an eye for rigor and style, and building diverse teams of creators, working to be at the top of their games, who could elevate each other.
AB: I’m also grateful to have come from a very musical family; creating and performing was something I was always surrounded by in the least obvious ways — my grandmother and her sisters had a singing group, my great aunt is a professional pianist, my grandfather delivered the mail and integrated the local school board by day and played the marimbaphone at night. I picked up that bug and it dominated the early part of my life, so while I put down my clarinet and don’t play my piano as much as I should, other kinds of creating, and particularly design, picked up right where the musical legacy left off.
MK: What was the catalyst for starting your own agency, A—B?
AB: A—B is both call and response.
The call was for a new kind of leadership, with new values and a new center of gravity to move us from the world we inherited (unequal, unsustainable) to the one we need: Where the rules and the culture promote our collective survival while prioritizing equity.
The response was to an agency sector and consultant class that play a disproportionate role in manufacturing the stories that shape our cultural values and, in doing so, the rules that limit or expand resources and respect in our countries and communities. I think a lot about the 100 years the beauty industry spent working with agencies to elevate certain forms of beauty and erase others. I think about consulting firms like McKinsey, with enormous analytical muscle and the ability to shape the most elite decision makers — who have used those resources to help pharmaceutical companies who manufactured opioids for profit figure out how to trick regulators and doctors, driving an epidemic of addiction that has killed hundreds of thousands and hurt millions more.
When I started A—B, I wanted something that seemed simple: To empower a new team of creators to design a different set of paths — new ways to get from A to B. And I knew that doing this, in this moment in history, required a commitment to diversity at every level of the business and a practice of creativity that could stand up to the world’s biggest crises and turn them into opportunities to build a culture actually worth living in.
MK: I'm interested in the agency's ethos of Identity-Powered Design, can you explain a little bit more about it and why you feel it's powerful?
AB: It starts from a very common phrase I’ve heard Black people use across my life: “Make a way where there’s no way.” It’s how I think about the triumphs and creativity that have driven and propelled my own family, and as I got older, I started to see that common thread weaving together people I knew from backgrounds that were wildly diverse, but unified in having to transcend systems that were not built to support, much less guarantee, our success.
So Identity-Powered Design starts with this kind of problem-solving, born out of communities who faced inequity and marginalization and produced innovation: In fashion, food, organizations and entire industries. So, starting from those moments of inspiration and then elevating them to a formal practice in strategy and design that can be developed, applied, and improved. To me this way of thinking is powerful because it means understanding how power works and who it works for — and armed with that knowledge, becoming the most powerful problem-solving agents in the world. That’s the grand aspiration, but the roots are the deep humility it takes to look toward, rather than away from, the people and communities who stand to benefit most from more just, inclusive, democratic societies.
MK: The agency's method also employs data scientists, which I found really interesting. How are these professionals used to shape projects?
We could not live without our research and data insights team! One thing I wanted to bring to this business was a much more rigorous understanding of diverse audiences. In advertising and marketing, white people have a million types and categories; people of color are often reduced to a demographic profile that flattens our desires, aspirations, and how we see the world. “Black women love reading the bible…” It’s not untrue, but it’s far from the whole truth, and in that sense silently distorts rather than clarifies what we know about this audience.
My initial thinking, which has now become embedded in how we work, is that one of the benefits of a more data-rich society is that we can go beyond traditional reductionist understandings of communities of color, for example, and look beyond demography to understand the behaviors, beliefs and desires that shape the micro-communities that come together to form a racial group like “Asian American” or “Latinx”. So our data scientists use the results of our extensive surveys and other research methods to find trends and correlations that help us build what I think are the sharpest audience profiles you can find, particularly when it relates to people of color. We just did a great project for the film studio A24 (Moonlight, Euphoria, Everything, Everywhere, All at Once) where we built 12 AAPI audiences based on focus groups, digital ethnographies, and surveys. The data scientists bring the analytical pieces together so our strategy team can make demographics more useful to a development or marketing team.
MK: You were recently added to the AIGA-NY Board of Directors, what do you think of the current state of design in the US at the moment and where would you like to see it go in the future?
AB: I’ve really benefited from working closely these past couple of years with our Head of Creative, Clarence Kwan, as he’s built a design studio within A—B from one junior designer and a few talented contractors to a professionally diverse, multiracial, multi-gendered, dozen-person-and-growing studio that is a powerful driver of ideas and inspiration across the company. I like to hope I’ve helped make the space for him to lead in this direction, but it’s also inspired me to see not just what’s lacking in design, but what is possible.
At AIGA-NY, we are a local group focused on networking with design pros and leveraging our skills to improve one of the most creative — and famously unequal — places in the world. I’m hoping to meet more people like Clarence who understand and admire the conventions of European design that drive so much of the industry, but are also looking to build a team of people serious about decolonizing design and questioning what the discipline should be focused on and who should have access to its power. I’m very excited to support the leaders of those studios and the work they are attempting.
MK: 80% of the A—B team is people of color, far above the industry average. What do agencies need to be doing to cultivate similarly diverse talent?
AB: I recently gave a keynote at an AIGA-NY conference focused on people starting new studios. The title was “We Need To Talk: 5 Therapy Sessions” and it was sort of modeled on Esther Perel’s “Where Should We Begin,” which if you know me at all, makes perfect sense… I took this approach because the barriers to a diverse studio (and design industry) are not primarily practical. Over and over I’ve seen the blockers be about who we can learn to trust with our visions, what version of success we’re willing to accept (for me, a business that doesn’t open barriers for Black leaders in a multiracial team isn’t aligned to my personal mission); these things are about our anxieties and psychological barriers. And we need to take them seriously, talk them out, get over them and start hiring the amazing talent that is out there waiting for opportunity.
MK: Design and advertising's impact on social and political good feels sorely leveraged at times. How do you think agencies can get more involved with causes they care about?
AB: One mistake you see agencies make all the time is underestimating what is required to communicate responsibly and effectively about power and identity without having really spent serious time working or educating themselves at that intersection. They also tend to lack diversity and fall quickly into the “with a token person of color and all of our goodwill and brains, our practice can crack this” trap. It just doesn’t work that way: People think social impact is “feel good” but if you’re doing it right it usually feels hard. It is work that challenges myths and cultural norms and pushes against the status quo — creatively it is so rich, but it’s the opposite of easy or obvious if you’re going even a beat below the surface.
We designed A—B to be a place that both demands that this work be seen as requiring its own ways of thinking, including a deep view of culture and history and an extremely nuanced and constantly evolving view of the present. That is an asset to us, but we also hope to share it and make it an asset to others; rather than faking it, you can share the wealth and have a partner who really compliments your practice with additional style and rigor. I’ve always hoped we would build a place that is a great partner to other studios so that there’s a clear alternative to either being tokenized within an agency environment or having to go it alone without challenging thought partnership.
MK: What is a project that A—B has worked on recently that we should all check out?
AB: Win Black is our HQ for content tested and proven to urgently combat the declining trust, interest, and registration of Black male voters. After moving Black voters to victories in 2020, our Win Black campaign is back to leverage original research into the issues Black men care about to drive a content campaign reaching millions of voters. In critical swing states,
infographics, gifs, memes and videos designed by our team served as a counter to racist misinformation campaigns and are reminding Black men of the collective impact of their participation, including in the upcoming Senate run-off in Georgia. Win Black was conceived and designed by A—B and now lives as an independent 501(c)4 that can leverage the time and talents of our team for these critical campaign moments.
MK: On Twitter, you are a self proclaimed Cinephile, favorite film you’ve seen recently?
AB: This isn’t a movie, but I’m watching the new Interview with the Vampire limited series that re-sets the original film in early 20th century New Orleans and recasts the roles from the 90s film to make it an interracial, gay, trans historical vampire drama. It’s absolutely wild, but I appreciate its ambition in taking on identity so audaciously — and of course vampires are the anti-heroes who most benefit from film as a medium. They are philosophical (it’s the immortality) AND have super powers — how could it not be good TV!?