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Whitney Dunlap-Fowler on Changing the System from the Inside Out

Whitney Dunlap-Fowler has nearly 10 years of experience working in marketing research and strategy. With her knowledge of cultural analysis, semiotics, and brand strategy, she aims to find new and meaningful ways for her clients to leverage the constantly shifting nature of culture. 

In 2019, Whitney founded her own consultancy, A Touch of Whit. As an independent brand, cultural, and multicultural strategist, Whitney shares her research and insights with clients looking to sharpen their own business strategies in the midst of a frequently changing cultural and consumer landscape. We sat down with Whitney to learn more about her journey into the world of cultural insights, starting her own business, and how she’s working to ensure that diversity plays a larger role both within the industry and beyond.

SQUARESPACE: How did you first become interested in this career path?

WHITNEY DUNLAP-FOWLER: Like many other researchers in my field, I kind of just fell into this role. I had no idea it existed. 

I grew up being a bit of an artist and had a very long relationship with writing, poetry, playing instruments and more than anything art. I loved drawing, painting and just creating. My mom, like most Black mothers, wanted to make sure that I’d excel in a stable career path after high school and gave me a reality check when she told me one day that being a starving artist was not an ideal career trajectory.

After she said that, I spent the 11th grade trying to figure out what I loved and I landed on commercials. I really loved advertising and the creative thinking behind the jingles and slogans I’d hear every day and to be honest, I still do today. So, I went to college assuming I’d somehow figure out how to get into advertising. Being a military brat and coming from Virginia, I had no clue about what I needed to get there, but I did know that I was determined to end up in the role I’d seen and visualized for myself.

What I didn’t account for was the one thing I’d never known about or seen in action—the “it’s about who you know” side of the corporate world. So I struggled (didn’t help that I was pursuing my dreams in the midst of the great recession) and ultimately never even got close to being the advertising executive I thought I would be.

I did, however, have a strong administrative background which carried me through all the places I lived (Chicago, New York, New Jersey) and got me my first role on the operations side of the research industry. Because I wasn’t initially client facing, it took awhile for me to realize that I was exactly where I needed to be. After graduating from NYU, and taking some time to figure out what I liked, and what I loved, I moved to the client side of the business and immediately found my stride.

By this time, I’d already accumulated a passion for investigating people, patterns and behavior in my day to day life with my friends. The research field enabled me to execute my new acquired hobby in a more scientific, methodological way and get paid for doing it! Additionally, telling really good, compelling insights stories often requires researchers to have a way with images and words, and I found that I was able to take my original love of writing and art and put that energy into my work. What I do today is an ideal fusion of my passions and hobbies, both of which I sometimes love a bit too much. 

SQSP: You founded A Touch of Whit in 2019 after years of working as a brand and cultural strategist for other firms. What inspired you to start your own business? 

WD-F: Friends, family members and sometimes even strangers have been pushing me to work for myself for years. Most people have no clue what I do for a living, but often if they meet me and see my passion for what I do and the energy I have about it, they’ll just kind of say “so when are you going to start your own business.”

The problem was being an entrepreneur was never a goal of mine. The idea of a steady check and health benefits was more appealing than trying to ensure a steady income month after month.

Ultimately though the decision wasn’t up to me. The universe began to point me in the direction of entrepreneurship starting in 2018 when I found myself burned out. At the top of 2019 I went through an entire identity crisis because I thought I had fallen out of love with my career field. I woke up numb and unexcited about the work that I was doing. It felt like nothingness and I was miserable (but still delivering great work).

I remember one morning crying in the mirror while getting ready for work and then stopping to tell myself to get a grip. It just felt like such a “first world problem” to have and to be upset about especially when I had shelter over my head, a great salary and a steady role. I remember saying to myself “Whitney, it’s not the end of the world. You’re just unhappy for a temporary moment. Happiness will come, you’ll find the answer to whatever it is you’re missing.” 

That’s also when I told myself I needed to “choose happy” because I’d been so miserable that I was going to work literally brooding. If someone even looked like they were about to say good morning to me I’d be ready to reply with some miserable retort like “is it?” It really wasn’t fair of me to do that, so after I changed my mindset, I was able to navigate the “grey period” of indecision.

What happened over the course of 2019 and after 2019 is ultimately what propelled me to start Touch of Whit Creative. There were a series of people, touch points and signs from God put on my radar that each either explicitly or implicitly screamed “start your own company” to me and after a while I just couldn’t ignore the signs anymore. 

I even registered my LLC before I was ready to accept the idea as I remember saying to myself “well, we’ll just file the paperwork, but it doesn’t mean we’re going to do it.” Finally, one day in June or July I was talking to God and kind of said, I know you’re just waiting for me to make a decision, to make the call but I’m just having a hard time accepting this. I think that night I wrote down in my journal the words I couldn’t bring myself to say out loud, that I was going to quit my job and become an independent strategist. A couple of days later, I called my father and said “I’m going to tell you something I’ve been afraid to say for weeks. I’m quitting my job.”

Once I said it, said it out loud- that was it. All the doors opened, one after the other with ease. The universe was just waiting for me to get my sh*t together.

SQSP: A Touch of Whit partners with brands, marketers, and agencies to provide key insights and strategic touch points to help inform culturally relevant decisions and future-proof solutions.  When it comes to creating a plan of action for a client, where do you begin?

WD-F: In addition to the initial conversation with the main client who reaches out to me, the key is always understanding how the output of the work will impact and inform every single part and touchpoint of the organization. Stakeholder interviews, or interviews with department heads are almost always a necessary requirement, especially if the work is meant to re-shape the way the company does business moving forward. 

Many times, the work that I do forces companies to make decisions about their current practices because I’m able to demonstrate how the moving pace of culture is impacting their bottom line and their consumers’ worlds in ways they hadn’t considered before. Often it means that a fundamental rethinking of their ways of working needs to happen in order to remain relevant today and into the future.

As a consultant, I can only advise and show proof of why things need to happen a certain way. It’s ultimately up to the client to take heed to that advice and use it in ways that really suit their organization’s needs.  It’s these “aha” moments that get me the most excited. 

SQSP: Remaining culturally relevant in a world that is always changing, especially during the pandemic, feels like a lofty goal. How do you help brands prepare for what comes next?

WD-F: Staying in touch with the pace of the cultural conversation has, admittedly, become a much faster paced job today than it has been in the past. The way in which technology has impacted how information is shared and spread to other groups and countries is becoming increasingly unprecedented.

When it comes to helping clients prepare for what’s next, the key is to start by being “on” all the time. I’m always consuming news and information. I never skip commercials. I try to always be aware of what brands are doing and I try to keep a team of cultural strategists around me who are also “always on” so that they can tell me things they’ve seen as well. This serves as a great starting point for any work that comes my way so that I’m not always inevitably starting from scratch.

The other key is to understand that consumers who have been considered minorities/ marginalized groups in the past are increasingly leading or influencing the way in which trends and cultural shifts take shape in the US and across the world. Today, while those groups are leading the direction for how things will look in the future, I tend to find that clients & brands are less accepting of this notion and often try to “play it safe” out of a fear of alienating their core audience(s) (ie white people). This is not only an incorrect approach, but the assumption that “mainstream audiences” can’t relate to or see themselves in ethnic-lead insights is outdated and misguided.

As a result, I’m often in situations where I have to talk about the future in terms that clients are more willing to accept while also making sure to give credit to the groups they often overlook, or sometimes appropriate from. 

There is a bit of a special dance that happens with all of this when I work with clients. Being in touch with culture and the reality that it’s no longer being shaped by mainstream consumers is easy for me- not always so easy to digest for my clients.

SQSP: On a recent podcast, you spoke about the importance of race in the research sector. What steps can the industry take to ensure that diversity plays a key role in the development of research talent? 

WD-F: The research industry is predominantly white. This is a well-known fact. No one has done anything to change this in the decades in which the industry has evolved and so because of that, much of what we do today, how we build our research methods, approaches, tools, surveys and how we construct our outputs are often inherently biased.

This bias goes beyond the researcher or groups of researchers that do the work- the system is inherently flawed because it was built around the world of white men: white men as researchers, and white men as the targeted subjects of advertising and messaging. The industry has failed to keep up with the way in which the demographics have shifted in America and how the consumer landscape has shifted as well as how the workplace environment has evolved.

Changing a decades-old industry to be more intentionally inclusive will take work and time, but it must start with brands, companies, organizations and individual researchers checking their own biases at all times and having the hard, uncomfortable conversations about their ways of working. Until that happens, forward movement can’t be recognized.

SQSP: In addition to providing key opportunities for the next generation of talent, how do diversity and inclusion efforts affect the insights that these brands are looking for when developing their own marketing strategies?

WD-F: If our system is inherently biased, that means the stories we are responsible for telling about consumers' lives, their truths, hopes, wishes and product needs are also inherently biased. The result is one that ignores or overlooks the experiences of consumer groups that don’t fit into the traditional “mainstream” set of experiences.

Because of this, it is fundamentally important that research teams are composed of professionals from all backgrounds and socioeconomic levels. The diversity of our experiences enables us to interpret consumer insights in ways that are not always understood by other groups. When we do this, not only are we able to tell greater stories, but we are also able to connect with consumers in more authentic ways. This, when done correctly and consistently over time, can ultimately mean a higher, more sustained degree of brand affinity that sticks and grows over time.

SQSP: Many early stage entrepreneurs look to find a mentor to help guide them in their professional journey. What advice would you give to someone who is looking for a mentor?

WD-F: Ha. I’m looking for one, too! The great thing about entrepreneurship so far is that you get to meet a lot of different people. Many times when we work at companies we get so busy that we find ourselves locked in the same routines and networks, often unable to meet with new and interesting people outside of those frameworks. So my advice would be to put yourself and your product out there- you never know who you’ll meet.

I don’t consider anyone I meet who does what I do as competition. Instead, I consider them a potential new connection/resource and I try to learn as much about them as I can so that I know what to reach out to them for in the future. If they are someone more senior than I am, and they are someone I admire doing things that I want to see myself doing in the near future, I usually just try to establish a friendship relationship with them first to understand their rhythms and passions. Then, if it needs to evolve into something more, assuming that some kind of connection and relationship has already been established, I’ll propose the idea. 

SQSP: Do you have a few techniques you can share as to how to best manage a mentor/mentee relationship?

WD-F: I’m really big on never cancelling meetings. It’s very rare that I move meetings around or cancel them because it is a huge pet peeve of mine. I really value time and when meetings are continuously cancelled or rescheduled it lets me know that the person doing that doesn’t value my time as much as I value theirs.

As a mentee, this can feel just as equally devastating. It communicates that their needs, questions, curiosities are not as important as the hundreds of other things that have to happen in your world. We are all busy, but actually making time for your mentee is important. Making them feel prioritized is important.

I’ve found that those of us in mentorship positions are often eager to be seen as leaders and change makers and oftentimes we over promise our time. It’s important to be realistic about the time you’re able to give a mentee who is looking up to you so that you don’t disappoint them over and over again, and more importantly so that you don’t set a precedent for how they treat their mentees once they’ve accumulated some time in the industry.

SQSP: What has it been like running your own business during the pandemic?

WD-F:  It’s been interesting. I was less than a year into running my own company when the pandemic hit. There was some uncertainty but I felt pretty relaxed about it all when it first began. I think it’s because I knew that I was exactly where I needed to be and that it would all work out in the end.

Turns out I was more than right about it working out.  I somehow, inadvertently,  started a second company and things have been up and running since June. The thing about our industry is, clients are always going to need insights, especially in unstable or uncertain circumstances. Being an independent strategist right now, especially Black and brown researchers in this cultural moment where race and diversity and inclusion are top of mind, means that you’re almost always already booked. 

SQSP: What’s one thing you wish you knew before you launched A Touch of Whit?

WD-F: Nothing. I think God and the universe have given me everything I’ve needed and more.

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