When Brianne Boles-Marshall graduated from the University of Michigan with her bachelor’s degree, she already knew she wanted to earn an MBA to follow her passion for marketing. “Whatever profession I did, it had to be soaked in creativity because that’s how I breathe,” she says.
But she didn’t have the easiest time getting there. When Boles-Marshall approached one of her college professors excited about pursuing an MBA, she says her enthusiasm evaporated with the certainty in his response. “He said, ‘You’ll never get it, you should just figure out something different.’”
It struck her as odd. After all, she was receiving good grades in his class. But it was also a reaction she’s had to deal with her whole life from her white peers and superiors. “There was a hint of racism in there,” Boles-Marshall says. “Those things are commonplace. When you’re a person of color, you have to figure out how to deal with that.”
It’s that tenacity, along with her education — including the MBA that she did ultimately receive from Wayne State University — that has propelled Boles-Marshall into her current role as General Motors’ lead of diverse media strategy and investment, where she is working to ensure Black-owned media platforms see their fair share of ad spend. As she writes on her LinkedIn profile: “You really can't spell ‘media’ without me.”
As Boles-Marshall stipulates, the drive to place more spend into diverse media isn’t only a people-based, ethical one, but a business imperative.
“Businesses are coming into the realization that 100 percent of their growth is going to be sourced from diverse consumers,” Boles-Marshall says. “That is an irrefutable fact. We’re all coming to the knowledge that if we want to be successful at growth, we have to learn how to make headway with these consumers now.”
She points to NielsenIQ’s research that estimates the buying power of Black American consumers is expected to grow to $1.8 trillion by 2024, bolstered with the population of Black consumers rising by 22 percent between 2020 and 2060.
“Do you think the Air Larrys would have blown up in the same way as the Air Jordans did?”
Boles-Marshall came to GM in 2021, after more than 15 years of experience working across categories at agencies like Starcom’s spinoff, GM Planworks, and FCB, where she worked on the Coors account. A native of Flint, Michigan, the mom of three (twin boys and a baby girl) currently resides with her husband in Detroit. The passion she exhibits in her work carries over to her personal life — she is also a member of the Black Executive CMO Alliance, known as BECA, which aims to empower diversity in the industry by investing in promising Black marketing talent.
The Alliance is what brought Boles-Marshall to the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity this year to pitch a tool she believes can convince chief financial officers at major companies to allocate more ad spend toward diverse marketing campaigns. The BECA-created tool, conceptually called Amplified, is designed to measure the increase in return on investment by measuring the level of influence a diverse marketing campaign has on mainstream consumer behavior. Because naturally, Black culture, as Boles-Marshall attests, influences not just that consumer segment, but mainstream culture overall.
“Do you think the Air Larrys would have blown up in the same way as the Air Jordans did?” she asks.
Spending more with Black-owned media is an area that GM — and other companies like Procter & Gamble, McDonald’s, Target, and more — publicly committed to improving upon in the wake of George Floyd’s death in 2020, which launched a national outcry around the treatment of Black Americans and what the nation’s largest companies could do to support Black communities and become more diverse themselves.
The auto giant currently dedicates 4 percent of its ad spend to Black-owned media, double of what it started out with in 2021, when they launched their “Road To Equity” journey in media. While Boles-Marshall says GM has always invested in diverse-owned media and has sought ways to be even more deliberate in the space, including declaring its investments publicly, the company has still seen criticism.
In 2021, GM Chairman and CEO Mary Barra was called out in full-page ads in several newspapers by leaders of Black-owned media companies — including Byron Allen, CEO of Allen Media Group, and Ice Cube, the rapper and actor who owns the production company Cubevision — insisting that GM needs to do better.
By 2025, the automaker endeavors to invest 8 percent of its spend with Black-owned media companies. GM also closely monitors its spend with other diverse media companies to reach all segments of the U.S. population, Boles-Marshall adds.
But it’s not as simple as placing more ad spend where it needs to go. GM understands that in order for buying opportunities to arise, the diverse ecosystem has to continue to grow as well. “If companies aren’t finding new platforms and territories to sell us ad space, we will have our hands tied at what we can buy to meet our goals,” she says. “So we’re looking at doing things to stimulate the ecosystem.”
On that front, GM launched its Diverse Owned Incubator Fund in 2022, which aims to invest $50 million in diverse owned media and marketing companies over the next 10 years, with the goal to drive diverse talent and marketing across the areas of business administration, data analytics, and creative and innovative marketing solutions. The company is also working with other advertisers and diverse-owned media companies to remove roadblocks in place through its media hub and events.
“I honestly don’t know of any company that is as aggressive as we are,” Boles-Marshall says. “We are really putting our foot on the gas pedal, pun intended.”
As the nation’s largest automaker by revenue and one of the top ad spenders in the U.S., GM has the staying power and ammunition to take a stand. Just last week, the auto giant announced that its net income rose by more than 50 percent in the second quarter of 2023, and that revenue is up by 25 percent, driven by consumers’ demand for new cars, like GM’s largest pickup trucks, and upgrades. But mounting pressure with inflation and higher interest rates are still driving the automaker to cut costs on some projects.
Eventually, Boles-Marshall would love to get to a place where there doesn’t need to be a special line item or disparate investment goals when it comes to levels of ad spend placed with diverse media platforms.
To her, it should be all-inclusive, simply part of overarching investment goals. Just like there was no world in which she wasn’t going to get her MBA, there’s no world she sees in which advertisers won’t have to cater to everyone as equals.
“I’d love to be part of the transition internally at GM to get the partners and processes that we have with diverse-owned media companies folded into our total market ways of working,” says Boles-Marshall. “I think everybody will have to do that, and I’d love to lead the charge there.”