‘The truth is the best weapon we have’

Kai Deveraux Lawson on stepping away to find peace, speaking truth to power and the radical act of rest.

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director Creativebrief


‘I just don’t think you have a story’

After asking for PR support to help build her profile as a thought leader in the creative industry, this was a response that Kai Deveraux Lawson received. In October 2018 Deveraux Lawson wrote movingly about why she quit her job. She cites this example as just one of the moments, some more traumatic than others, which contributed to her quitting her job. 

Fast forward five years later and Kai Deveraux Lawson is Senior Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion at Dentsu Creative. She is the producer and co-host of Mixed Company Podcast, an honest, impactful programme which focuses on inclusion and social equity in the creative industries through the lens of mid-level professionals of colour. As well as continuing not just to share thought leadership, but to create meaningful change through her own platform

Such has been the impact of the stories she tells, that she was awarded Storyteller of the Year at the Global Women in Marketing Awards in 2022. A fitting accolade for a trailblazer who not only has a story to tell, but has the courage and creativity to build new platforms and spaces for these stories to be amplified.

Speaking to Creativebrief as part of our ongoing interview series in partnership with Women in Marketing, Deveraux Lawson is energised by the power of truth-telling. She explains: “For black women, the truth is the best weapon we have to protect ourselves. A lot of people don’t live in spaces of truth.”

For black women, the truth is the best weapon we have to protect ourselves.

Kai Deveraux Lawson, Senior Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion at Dentsu Creative

The challenge of speaking truth to power

“When I quit my job in 2018 it was clear to me that once you are able to defy your monster you can compete and push forward,” she explains. 

Yet it is clear in her role at Dentsu, Deveraux Lawson is relishing the energy which comes hand in hand with being both heard and respected in the workplace. “In April I will have been working for nearly two years with a team of people who are yet to say: You are too much, your idea is too much, maybe this isn’t the right time. I am working with a team of people who believe in the future.”

Sharing what keeps her up at night is the question she asks herself: Can I do it? As she explains: “It’s not a fight for the yes, I didn’t have to fight for that. It is a question of now what? Not many people have had that opportunity to actually do the work once you get the yes.”

Better boundaries for better work

Yet making change isn’t easy and honesty and truth-telling are the red thread which runs through Deveraux Lawson’s storytelling. Yet there is all too often a price for speaking truth to power. As a growing number of data points underline a workforce in a state of overwhelm, how does she protect and maintain her energy?

Joking that as she went to sleep last night she was searching for videos of ‘manifesting abundance’ she shares a powerful insight into what real leadership looks like.

In the summer of 2020, her then-boss Judy Jackson, the president of JLC Ventures, the Former Global Head of Culture and Engagement at WPP and the Co-founder of We All Rise Together told her to take two weeks off. Underlining that better boundaries begin with better leaders.

Deveraux Lawson notes that this decision in which you might come off as ‘soft’ ultimately underlines the importance of creating boundaries to enable your staff to do the best work of their lives. Work that requires emotional energy and rest rather than a meaningless platitude about building resilience. 

If you are hired by an agency to give 100% then you need to give that person what they need to achieve that. Time to read, to workout, to play.

Kai Deveraux Lawson, Senior Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion at Dentsu Creative

Realism over resilience 

Deveraux Lawson is honest about the challenge of asking yourself how much you are supposed to care and how much is genuinely in your remit to fix. She explains: “My remit is to tell the truth. I don’t need to fix everyone and change their hearts and minds. I am going to do that thing I can do well and do that to my own ability to what I consider greatness.”

It is a greatness she believes is only possible if you ‘really set those boundaries’. As she explains: “I can only do my part well and that’s making sure people are informed.”

Sharing her background in project management Deveraux Lawson believes that giving people space to breathe is key to creating the best work. “In order for people to give you 100% you need to give them 100%,” she explains.

In practical terms, this meant blocking time out in people’s calendars to go to the gym and not interrupting people during breaks. “If you are hired by an agency to give 100% then you need to give that person what they need to achieve that. Time to read, to workout, to play.”

Far from being a soft skill, it is an approach which truly gets the most out of a team. She explains: “Judy recognised I couldn’t do anything for her because I wasn’t right. I needed space to breathe. I’ve done that for people in the past and it is important to create a place of culture and inclusion.”

Inclusivity breeds productivity

Deveraux Lawson believes that DEI is rooted in the operations of business. She explains:

“A lot of people cannibalise DEI into being the ‘waffle party’ or the nice thing to do. For me, inclusion has always manifested as being the resources and mechanisms which get people to work really well.”

From masking in the workplace to burnout, they are huge hidden costs to a lack of real inclusion in business. “More inclusive teams create more innovative work because these teams are getting what they need to be as productive as possible,” says Deveraux Lawson.

Pointing to the impact of remote working during the pandemic she believes there are important gains to hold onto. Employees who are able to be really present in their home lives are more energised, happy and able to connect and therefore perform better in the workplace. In short, it is in the best interests of businesses to create, support and maintain working structures which enable people to have a life.

The gaslighting in the industry will make you feel like you are the problem. To have your community see you and value you is so important. You internalise it if you are on your own and you are not always the problem.

Kai Deveraux Lawson, Senior Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion at Dentsu Creative

Reframing inclusion

Pragmatism is at the heart of how Deveraux Lawson approaches the DEI conversation. “I think it is important to reframe how we look at inclusion, it’s emotional work.”  She continues: “Not too many folks talk about what it feels like because it requires you to be vulnerable, it requires us to be honest about when we were hurt.”

It is also a process which requires you, as Deveraux Lawson explains, to ‘name your monster’, which is the person, the thing or the policy that made you feel ‘less than’. Sharing that her own ‘monster’ was losing a job (which she did twice) the universal challenge is creating an environment in which people genuinely feel heard. 

It’s testament to Deveraux Lawson’s honest storytelling that she has contributed to a broader industry ecosystem in which employees are increasingly comfortable with speaking truth to power.

She explains: I get calls from people all the time asking  ‘what should I do about this young professional they have so many opinions’. A decade into my thought leadership I can say I don't have to agree with what you say but I am so happy to see you hold that view publicly.”

“We roll our eyes at Gen Z but I would have loved in 2015 and 2016 an uprising of vocal young marketers speaking truth to power,” Deveraux Lawson adds, sharing: “We helped to normalise speaking truth to power. We have helped to craft this space.”

Yet it is important not to ignore there was a price to pay for creating that space and for speaking up. It’s all too easy when the systems and structures of workplaces support you to lean on empty platitudes about ‘bringing your whole self to work’ and change nothing. 

“For Black Women in the US, the self-editing comes from the fear of being reduced to a stereotype: That you are angry, a diva, difficult to work with. Those things can limit our access to wealth building and sustaining a family,” says Deveraux Lawson.

“I think back to earlier episodes of the podcast and we have been quite critical of our elders because of things they didn’t say. I can’t fault anyone for not wanting to harm their ability to pay their bills. Yet more of us are standing in defiance of that fear.”

She continues: “I look forward to hearing more women say their truth out loud without fear.”  For Deveraux Lawson, that truth hasn’t always come without a price. Yet by sharing the sharp edges of her truth, in turn she has created the space for others to do the same.   

Celebrating Women in Marketing

What can we learn from the most inspirational and impactful women in marketing and their allies? 

The story of the Women in Marketing Awards is one of building a movement and a network that is the antithesis of the ‘old boys network’, which has historically excluded women from key networking and profile building opportunities, so vital to building a career in the creative industries. To celebrate the Women in Marketing Awards, Creativebrief will be asking winners and supporters of the Awards to open up about their experiences in the industry and give their advice to the marketing talent poised to enter and pick up the much-coveted awards in the future.

Q: Tell us what the most challenging moment of your career has been and how you got through it?

The most challenging moment of my career happened a few times, I have had to come to terms with the fact it was not a case of ‘this one time this thing happened’. It is a series of experiences.  

When I take a look back and consider how I was able to navigate situations where I was being silenced, my integrity was being challenged in the workplace. Or where it feels like people are crafting a reputation for you that you don’t deserve based on stereotypes, I have some clear advice.

The first way I dealt with these situations was by developing community. When I first started in my career there were very few women who looked like me, or that I identified with. So a huge shout out to my group chats, as I began to be able to bring my groups to work with me through those.

I would advise you to find your community wherever you can. The gaslighting in the industry will make you feel like you are the problem. To have your community see you and value you is so important. You internalise it if you are on your own and you are not always the problem.

The second thing I did was get sponsorship. People will call you and email you and say ‘Hi can I be your mentor?’ That is like you are asking to marry me before you even meet me.

So my advice is to seek out people just to hear their stories on a short-term basis will help you talk through their experiences. Be specific in your ask. That approach really helped me get sponsorship in my life, when I asked specific people for coffee and advice. People started to speak my name in rooms. Having other people in the room who know you and can advocate for you is vital.

The third thing is knowing when to step away. If you see yourself as a super competitive person you must be doing everything you can to make people like and respect you. But you can get that promotion elsewhere, you can get that raise elsewhere. The most important thing is that you can get that peace elsewhere.

Sometimes people don’t really want you on their team. You can work so hard to fit in but the reality is you can just leave and be great elsewhere. So understand when you need to walk away. 

Q: Tell us about the biggest high point of your career?

It was the highest point and also the lowest point. When I felt for the first time in my career that I walked away with dignity, on my terms. I got to say this is the end of the road and then I got to tell my truth. I wrote about it. Then I had to prove to myself I didn’t need a job to define me. I didn’t need that role to be successful. I had to learn to hustle outside my company. You're just making ends meet, I didn’t have a savings account, I didn’t have a rich family. I had to figure out who I am outside a job? Do people care if I’m not tied to a job? I met people who the post inspired. I wasn’t afraid to do Taskrabbit, or write for people’s websites. You have to be honest that it is not easy to make those decisions. 

Q: Tell us about the impact of winning a Women in Marketing award?

It meant so much and hearing the news came at a beautifully raw moment for me because I’m at the other side of the story I just told you. I never considered myself as a storyteller but I am definitely someone who tells the truth. I’ve always told the truth, I just didn’t think of it as a talent. I didn’t think it was important. I didn't think it was impactful. To be recognised by a global platform of your peers was a really big moment for me.

I was with my mother and for her to see the impact that I am having - to share that with her was huge. To see her have so much pride in this moment. We are immigrants to this country and this win made her emotional. It meant a lot, especially coming from a place where I felt no one wanted me to be in the industry - that’s a dream come true for me.

Q: What would be your advice to women starting out their career in marketing today?

It’s the same advice I give everyone: No one knows more than you do. You come into the industry and you see the same names in the trade press, these are the people that leave for the fancy dinners and it is easy to feel you are not enough

So I always tell people, particularly women: ‘You were hired for all the things you know, anything you don’t know you will learn.’ There is no shame in learning. There are kids coming in now who are masters of social media. Yet when I was graduating I was told don’t spend too much time on social media. Your whole life is built on experiences that make you who you are; so stand in the thing that you know.  

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