Thalia Forbes: From "Other" To Creative Force
By Brett McKenzie on Aug 31, 2022
As a new semester approaches, ONE School tutor discusses her own path to a creative career
September is synonymous with back-to-school season, and around these parts, that includes a brand new semester of ONE School — our “creatively excellent, unapologetically Black,” and completely free portfolio program that takes on the advertising industry's diversity deficit.
The Fall 2022 Semester — repping Chicago and Atlanta this time around, although accepted applicants can participate virtually from anywhere in the US — is getting ready to begin, with next Friday, September 9, being the final date to apply. But before we look towards that, let’s look back to our Spring semester, where our Los Angeles program was spearheaded by none other than Anomaly NY ACD, Thalia Forbes.
Much like ONE School students themselves, Thalia didn’t go to ad school to get into the business. We had a chance to chat with her about her creative journey, finding her voice in worlds where she more often than not found herself to be “othered.”
So much of what we are today stems from our upbringing, so let’s begin by talking about yours! You’re born and raised in Florida, a first generation Jamaican-American. What was your childhood like?
My Jamaican roots played a huge part in my upbringing. My earliest years were ensconced in a small Jamaican community in Orlando where we spent a lot of time with “aunties,” “uncles,” and “cousins” who instilled a lot of pride. My aunt and uncle, Diane and Las Adams, were the creators and editors of Dub Missive, a seminal reggae and Caribbean music magazine. I remember having long talks about taking pride in being Black and Jamaican, particularly looked at through the Afrocentric liberation lens of Rastafarianism. This was helpful later on when I was a consummate freak and geek who was a bit outcast in the majority white private schools I attended. I could always take pride in where I came from no matter who or what I faced. That has probably sustained me, consciously and unconsciously, in all types of environments where I was the other, including ones where being Black almost exclusively meant hailing from an African-American heritage which went back generations.
It’s been interesting to watch how my mother’s experience as a Black woman in this country has changed as she came to fully understand and reckon with America’s version of institutional racism and white supremacy; that, more than anything, has driven her assimilation into the culture — an assimilation which her children born here experienced more fully and faster having been raised in it.
Did you consider yourself a creative kid? Who were some of your childhood influences in that regard?
I was a voracious reader as a kid, and I started writing very awkward poetry from an early age. I used to make paintings out of things like toothpaste and nail polish, whatever I could scrounge. I would have to hide that artwork so as not to get in trouble for my choice of painting materials (laughs).
I had a lot of early creative influences. Firstly, my mother is an incredible oral storyteller. Anyone who knows her even in a passing way would attest. She can enthrall you and take you on a journey without you realizing it. Her stories of growing up in Jamaica were always my favorite, of course. Her stories would thrill me, terrify me, enchant me, and cause me to howl with laughter.
My brother, a fine artist who graduated from UCF and who has worked across many mediums, also had a huge influence on me. He’s twenty years older than me and was my absolute hero growing up. He went to photography school first and would show me how to use a camera, take portraits of us, and even enrolled me in a little summer photography program when I was 10 or 11. He would take us to museums, and I was exposed to his creativity through seeing his work and meeting his art school friends and girlfriends. It was all a huge awakening for me.
Of course the Jamaican music and culture that I mentioned earlier was a massive influence on my creativity. I’m so grateful for that!
At what point did you realize that being creative was a possible career path, more than something that you simply enjoyed?
I never considered creativity to be a career path. Although I did study film and electronic arts at school and took a lot of poetry and studio art classes, I always saw it as something I “got to do” while I was in school, but I thought I would study law and become a human rights lawyer.
Also, I went to college with a lot of people who came from extreme financial and cultural privilege, with parents who were Hollywood scions and art world icons. I really saw art making as something for those people. I would joke, “we already have one starving artist in the family!”
But I didn’t feel bitter about not pursuing a creative path. I felt obligated to try something more concrete, as a lot of first-generation youth do. I also felt motivated to work on behalf of people less fortunate. I was a serious political organizer then. I was working everywhere, fromVan Jones' Green for All to marching against unjust trade practices.
In my twenties, I sort of wandered because, I think, deep down I always knew I wanted to live a more creative life but was afraid I couldn’t survive. I was afraid of the economic insecurity that I grew up with. I had no idea about advertising. I’m sure I went to school and knew kids whose parents worked in agencies, but it was a hidden world to me. My family just wanted me to have a steady income and benefits. I think my mom would still like me to be a pharmacist!
" I had no idea about advertising... my family just wanted me to have a steady income and benefits. I think my mom would still like me to be a pharmacist!"
You mentioned your college classmates. What was your experience at Bard College like, academically, personally and culturally?
Things were really different back then, even at a place as liberal as Bard. It was very white and I was socialized to believe that assimilating was the way to succeed. It was lonely and weird and painful, looking back. That is part of why I threw myself so forcefully into student activist groups. At least there people spoke openly about issues, even if they were primarily external ones, like free trade agreements adversely affecting indigenous groups in Latin and Central America.
I remember some friends organized an anti-racist activist to come and speak. Sitting in his workshop, surrounded by mostly white peers, my whole body felt like it was on fire. I knew everything he said about the anti-Black racism and white supremacy of the institution I was at to be true, but I didn’t want to face exposing what it meant to be “other” in a workshop in the morning, and then go to class or parties with these same peers in the afternoon and evening. There was no working lexicon or facility or real willingness for the other students, faculty, or administrators to begin to investigate their own privilege. Others would have and did handle it differently. I mostly internalized it and withdrew.
With an education and experiences like those, how did you discover the world of advertising?
It’s simple — I hadn’t been to the dentist in years! And so when the sister of a friend was leaving her administrative position at Saatchi NY, I applied in order to get that dental plan!
I was working there as an EA to Peter Moore Smith, who was an ECD on General Mills at the time. As soon as I figured out what was happening inside their meetings, I asked for my shot. Luckily, Peter and I had already struck up a good rapport because of our shared music and literary tastes so he gave me an opportunity. I’m sure I was also a hopeless assistant so maybe he thought it easier to get rid of me that way!
Not everyone was eager to give me a chance, so Peter and a man named Doug Pippin, who passed away a few years back, pushed for me. Doug was great and I miss him a lot. He and I would sneak out to go watch movies at Angelika theater on Houston Street. He was old school. A real poet and hippie, but also just a legendary great ad writer. They both taught me a lot. But Doug was really a friend as well. He would talk about working with Dennis Hopper on this or Joe Pytka on that. He’d worked there for decades. An absolute titan with the word.
Do you recall what your first big break was, that moment when you knew that this was what you really wanted to do?
My first writing shot came on a Duracell “Trust The Power Within” spot. I was still working as an assistant, but Peter let me write scripts for the latest round of work in that campaign. He took one of my scripts into the meeting, and that’s the one they bought. It changed everything. I think the forces doubting me from within the agency couldn’t hold me back after that. They made me an intern, and I did both jobs for a while. Of course, Duracell ended up cutting funding, and that spot never got made. I learned a lot about the business right off the bat (laughs).
You broke in at a time when “inclusion and diversity” wasn’t on everybody’s lips, and creative departments tended to be low on melanin. What was that experience like, especially as someone relatively new to the business, and thus not necessarily in a position to enact change?
This is where my experience of being “the only one” throughout most of my schooling and social groups helped me. For better, but mostly worse, I was well versed in “absorbing the blows” and just carrying on. I was just so focused on proving myself. I wanted it. I didn’t ask too many questions or have expectations for anyone to treat me any differently than they did or anything to be anything different than it was. I wanted to be on set as much as possible. So I just grinded and pushed and kept to myself.
I’ve still only ever worked with a handful of other Black creatives. One or two at Saatchi, another one or two at Anomaly NY. I know other people have had more opportunities, but that’s not been my experience. I just put my head down and used the tools from childhood to get through. Now I’m trying to develop and use other tools. There are growing pains, but minimizing, denying, and keeping quiet aren’t going to work anymore. Not if I want to thrive creatively and emotionally in the way my vision demands.
"There are growing pains, but minimizing, denying, and keeping quiet aren’t going to work anymore. Not if I want to thrive creatively and emotionally in the way my vision demands."
Today you’re an ACD at Anomaly, and you’ve got a decade of experience in this crazy industry. What has changed for you and for the business in that timeframe? What has stayed the same, for better or for worse? Is there something that you believed back then that you don’t anymore?
Who I want to be and how I want to show up have changed tremendously. Not only do I want to be unapologetically Black, but I also want to be unapologetically me. If the industry has really changed remains to be seen, I think. Talking with Black folks who have been living and working in every industry longer than I, there’s a basic message which could be stated as “we’ve heard all the same promises before, we’ve even seen some of them be made good on…for a while…but then things revert back.” I do know that the change that comes from within is change that I can count on so I try to draw strength from that. That’s what lead me to ONE School. Not wanting to wait on anyone else to make change, but to participate in creating it. To be encouraged to stay in the work myself, for others, and the work that goes on inside of me.
What were your thoughts when you first heard about ONE School, both as a Black person and as someone who broke in without the hefty ad school tuition that has become the price of admission for so many in our industry?
I first saw a post about it on LinkedIn, and all I thought was, “DOPE!” I immediately raised my hand to mentor, and the relationship evolved from there. I think whatever pathways we can open up for those who want to walk it — great! I would never have gone to an expensive grad program. I have enough undergrad loans! I would have gone to film school or something earlier on if so. I think programs like this are vital to creating accessibility for all kinds of folks. Black, brown, indigenous, low-income folks. The industry is strengthened, the work is more exciting and creative when more diverse experiences contribute to the making. I think that’s why we’re seeing some sustained investment; it just makes business sense. Follow the performance. Follow the money.
You led the most recent Los Angeles class as its official tutor. Ostensibly that means that you taught a whole class of students, but what I really want to know is what you learned from them…
I learned and continue to learn so much from the students. They arrived with more “unapologetic” fervor than I had when entering the industry. They know their value way more than I did. I also just learned more about what I do by trying to teach what I do, as anyone who has instructed on anything would probably agree. I learned so much about the joy and value of community.
ONE School students are the people that I want to work with, and one day work for. That’s what ONE School is about for me, what ONE School Founder Oriel Davis-Lyons and I have talked about. In ten years I want to see ONE School graduates as CDs and VPs. In 15 to 20 years I want to see them as CCOs and ECDs, working at the highest level across the industry.
Even without looking that far ahead, their talent levels from day one were already so high. They just had to learn how to shape their already incredibly creative thinking into skill sets that match creative department needs. They’ve worked incredibly hard and I think they’ve all just about done it. And when they graduated a few weeks ago, there wasn’t much more to impart, other than to remind them to keep their heads up, keep close to each other, keep their instincts, and keep their hand out for the next ones coming up.
"In ten years I want to see ONE School graduates as CDs and VPs. In 15 to 20 years I want to see them as CCOs and ECDs, working at the highest level across the industry."
Applications for ONE School's Fall 2022 program are due Friday, September 9.