Phil: I wish I could say that I had a “master plan” of sorts but actually once I left Wall Street – I’m a former Goldman Sachs trader – my path has not been linear in the traditional sense. But everything has been rooted in exploring the value of culture and systems that exist on the margins. I was driven by a curiosity about the world and building deep and meaningful connections, so everything I have accomplished has been powered by leaning into those desires. Along the way, I have been fortunate to collaborate with amazing people from Brooklyn to Mumbai and everywhere in between. I center humans in everything I do.
Sinclair: What kept you motivated along the way?
Phil: My motivation comes from feeling that the work I do is important and has the potential to be of some value. It is not always easy when you’re building something and resources are scarce, so you need confidence and you need vulnerability. Confidence allows you to push past where you are comfortable. Vulnerability allows you to be honest and open, and that creates endless opportunities for the universe as manifested by the people you touch and surround yourself with.
Sinclair: What’s one project/event/venture that you’re proud of?
Phil: It is hard for me to pick one project because I am equally proud of all of them. I am most proud of being consistently ahead of the curve in terms of where the culture is going. When I was editorial director for FREE Magazine, we were giving covers to people like Selita Ebanks before mainstream magazines came knocking. Influencer Conference was the same. When I launched it in 2010, it was ahead of the mass branding of “influencers”.
Beyond the projects I focus on, the people I have met along the way that helped me manifest my ideas and vision. So whether I look back at creative branding work, events I have launched, Influencer Conference, etc., I think of the people in the trenches that often did the impossible time and time again to create dope work. I feel fortunate to have walked shoulder to shoulder and arm in arm with so many smart, courageous, talented people who are capable of doing anything. So, I put my crew above any project.
Sinclair: What’s one challenge you think men of color face as they seek to progress in your industry?
Phil: The challenges that men of color face in marketing/advertising/creative are the same as in every industry meaning: systemic barriers of race and bias. Very rarely do we have senior people/decision makers who look like us and are empowered to bring us on to do work, so it can feel as if you are starting over from project to project. Deep and strong relationships are critically important in order to have success, and when your chosen industry lacks diversity, developing those relationships can be a challenge but not impossible.
Sinclair: Have you ever felt like a fraud while on your journey to where you are today?
Phil: Actually I have never felt like a fraud. I don’t believe in the “fake it till you make it” mentality. So once you’re honest with yourself and with others, everything falls into place. It’s the simplest way to avoid feeling fraudulent.
Sinclair: Tell us about a time you failed and were able to bounce back.
Phil: The effects of failure are not evenly distributed. Nor is failure a necessary rite of passage as mythologized by the start up/tech community. Years ago, along with partners, I had a significant project that was killed off by an eminent domain intervention. It was a huge blow, and in some respects, the ramifications are still being dealt with even though time has passed. I don’t know if you ever “bounce back’ as much as you keep moving forward because ultimately there is no choice. I was able to pick up some pieces and keep going, but it takes a concrete actionable plan in order to pull yourself from the brink. You have to marshal your resolve and be strategic in determining your next best alternative.
“Your next opportunity will likely come from your network, and the stronger it is, the more valuable and mobile you can be.” – Phil McKenzie
Sinclair: What’s one thing that’s been bringing you joy lately?
Phil: I am always most at peace in two states: when I am in nature and when I am immersed in music and art. I spend as much time as I can in the natural spaces that NYC provides, Prospect Park chief among them.
I am also obsessed with music and I DJ so I love that feeling of discovering music and playing music for people. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is my favorite art museum and I try to visit it several times a year.
Sinclair: What are your unshakable values and when did you become clear on them?
Phil: My definition of culture is: the ideas and values that we share and connect us and manifest through people, institutions and networks. So, values are key component of my work. Although there are several that are important, if I had to list just three I would focus on compassion, openness and collaboration. Those values have been the most consistent throughout all of my work. Those values have always been part of my perspective and they are a reflection of my upbringing. So, I have always been clear on my values and always felt compelled to do what is natural and right. I just needed to create a creative environment where I could manifest them regularly.
Sinclair: You’re a Howard alum. What’s one piece of advice you have for the class of 2019?
Phil: I would tell them that they should spend the earlier years of their career truly challenging themselves. Don’t get complacent in your work and in your vision, but make yourself indispensable with focus and hard work. No task is too small and your effort, attention to detail, and fortitude will make you stand out. If you’re in a large institution, make it part of your job to know everyone up and down the food chain. Your next opportunity will likely come from your network, and the stronger it is, the more valuable and mobile you can be.
Sinclair: Imagine that all your life’s work disappeared and you only had 1 minute to tell the world what you believe to be true. What would you say?
Phil: Your work does not define you and the magic of our existence transcends everything.
Philip L. McKenzie is an anthropologist who uses his expertise in culture to advise organizations on how best to thrive in an increasingly challenging and uncertain environment. Philip’s work has placed him at the center of understanding the significance of culture as a reflection of shared values. As a result, he is a sought after strategist working with a myriad of global organizations.