Observations: Creatives Laurise McMillian and Marshall Roach on Amplifying Black Voices
New York City is the concrete jungle where dreams are made of, and this has always been true for Laurise McMillian for as long as she can remember. Growing up in Maryland, she would take the Megabus to New York for internships at Elle magazine and MTV, and she knew that when it was time for her to be in “the real world,” she wanted to experience it in the city. It was the same for her partner, in both life and work, Marshall Roach. A native of Richmond, Virginia, he would also take any opportunity to visit the Big Apple whenever he could, from school trips to events and festivals. “I think it’s a common thing with East Coast creatives, if you decide you want to stay on the East Coast, New York is the Mecca,” he says.
For both, it was New York or nowhere, which proved serendipitous as they met there. Marshall, 29, a social strategist for creative agency Wieden+Kennedy who has also worked at Kith and Estée Lauder, was photographing the Harlem EatUp festival in May 2017, while Laurise, 27 was also covering the event for Instagram. They became friends, then neighbors, before taking the slow steps towards a relationship. “We really were creative friends at first. Every time we got together to do anything, it wasn’t Netflix and chill or anything like that in the early days. It was like, copy and design. We would talk about stuff theoretically, almost like where we are today but before we got to that place,” Marshall shares.
With a long, impressive resume that includes Clique Media Group, Bustle and Elle, Laurise has made a name for herself as the Head of Social at Refinery29 and its Unbothered platform, where she helps to celebrate Black millennial women and their experiences. It’s this same passion that led Laurise and Marshall to establish their own creative media studio, Camp Coconut, with the aim of amplifying the voices of Black creators.
For our latest Observations, The Folklore spoke to media creatives Laurise McMillian and Marshall Roach about creating spaces for Black men and women, what success means to them, and the inspiration behind Camp Coconut.
First things first, I saw that you just got a puppy, Louis Armstrong Roach. How is that going?
Marshall: It’s going. [To Laurise] Talk about Louis, you love to talk about Louis.
Laurise: We got Louis almost two weeks ago now. But he is the cutest little puppy! We had to get rid of our rug today, but he’s worth it.
Marshall: She started talking about a dog two years ago and I was like, “no, no, no, no, no, maybe, I don’t know, kind of, when, OK, fine let’s meet…” She just wore me down. I think too, also, a lot of my “no” came in a pre-covid time when we both left the house and went to the office every day, we used to both cover events after work, so it was “no” based off our work schedules, neither of us had the time to commit. But since we’re now here all the time, I couldn’t see a reason to push back against it anymore.
Tell me about Camp Coconut. How did that come about?
Marshall: It goes back to those creative conversations in the early days. I’ve had a bunch of different roles in my creative career but I never met somebody else who is like, oh, you can edit the video! You can write the social copy, or work on the strategy for the event, and I realized that when I met Laurise. I used to say that if I could clone myself, I could have my own company and then I met her and I was like, “You literally have all the skills I have and you have some I don’t, and vice versa”. So, theoretically, we started talking about it a couple of years ago. And with the pandemic, once we had all this time, it started to grow some legs.
What does Camp Coconut mean?
Laurise: We wanted to feel like a team, like a community, like a group but so many words we played with just did not sound very good. But we literally were just hanging out on a Sunday, and one of us looked over and said, “Thank God we have all this coconut oil!” And the other said, “Coconut oil is so great. You can use it to moisturize, on your hair or skin, cook with it, it’s a jack of all trades”. And we thought, that sounds like us! We do all of the things in the media world, like coconut does. We’re like a superfood! And that’s how we became Camp Coconut.
You were a couple first, and you have worked together in different capacities. How is that different working on a joint project like Camp Coconut together?
Laurise: I will be honest. In our relationship, I’m not going to say I’m a baby… We’re not big on gender roles but he definitely takes on some roles that make him feel like “head of the household” including cleaning and cooking. And so, when it comes to working together, I sometimes expect to be coddled in the same way. I’m like, “Oh, let’s go watch TV,” and he’ll say, “We have a project to do,” and I have to snap myself out of it and find those layers because it’s very different.
Marshall: There are definitely some creative learnings to work through and get stronger with but I also think we do a good job of the left and the right brain of things. I come from a more traditional, corporate side of the media world, whereas Laurise’s background is a bit more niche. What we’re trying to do with Camp Coconut is almost a hybrid of the two. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t using all of the skills I retained from my other roles, and watching the way that an agency should be run. Right now, we’re really fortunate because people are just hearing about us through word of mouth, people are giving us work, really interesting, innovating projects just because they know us individually. But I think the next step would be putting up a bigger face forward and a better presence.
How have you been able to stay creative during the pandemic, while living and working together, and adding a new puppy into the mix?
Laurise: We definitely have days where we’re not doing anything. We are just people who have lightbulb moments. Last night, we were just hanging out and he said something funny and I said, “That should be a post on Camp Coconut”. He said, “Yeah, and we should do this, too! I will write that down!” That’s how so many of our ideas happen.
Marshall: We both also have our own separate spaces, our own separate creative outlets but I think we also have the appropriate shared spaces, and so, really activating on those moments of creativity when they strike. I’m a big morning person, I like to wake up at 5.00am, 6.00am and spend time with the puppy. Weirdly enough some of my best creative ideas come early in the morning. Laurise is the opposite. She’s not getting up before 10.00am or 11.00am.
Laurise: I get up around 7.00am now, but it’s not by choice and I hate it!
Marshall: But sometimes, we pick up where the other person left off, she will say something that inspires me the night before, I’ll wake up and run with it and then when she’s up later, I’ll say, look at this thing that I did, something that developed from the last thought. I think it’s just having learned the other person’s habits and figuring out the best way to respond to them.
How different, or similar, is what you do at your day jobs to what you do at Camp Coconut? You mentioned using skills from your previous roles, are there some new skills you’ve had to learn at this agency?
Marshall: Absolutely, from not being in a traditional creative agency where you have copywriters, art directors, social strategists, the producers, account team. For my 9-to-5, I’m a social strategist so I only have to wear one hat. That hat is diverse, but it’s defined within my role. With Camp Coconut I’m all of the above. With larger projects, we’ve even outsourced and hired other young Black creatives to work with us, but you’re playing the account person, setting up client calls, kicking off opportunities, just really taking it further than I would have the responsibility for with my 9-to-5.
Laurise: I agree. I work at a magazine’s social media department. A lot of our stuff is in-house, so everyone is married to the same brand and have been for a while. Now I’m learning with these new clients, it’s just me. This isn’t an account you’ve been running for years, this is a new account where we’re not seeing the entire team sometimes. You’re not the only brand in the room, it’s a lot more collaboration. So, the preliminary steps are a lot deeper in this role. It’s really interesting and if you’re a strategy nerd like both of us, you’ll enjoy it.
Marshall wears the Mugwenya Boiler Jumpsuit by ALC and Burgundy Military Fez Hat by Simon and Mary. Laurise wears the Arquipélago Print Dress by Angela Brito and Candia Navi Earrings by Chalk Jewellery
How do you separate your voice from the brands you represent? Is that easy to do?
Marshall: If you’re good at doing social, you can remove yourself from the equation. When we’re doing client work for Camp Coconut, we definitely try to remember that it’s not about us specifically, it’s about the project. Tapping into a brand’s tone of voice, for us, is not that hard. People are coming to us with an intended audience. You wouldn’t come to us if you’re trying to speak to white men on Wall Street. You’re going to come to us if you’re trying to speak to people that look like us. Between the two of us, we have the range.
Laurise: It’s part of the skill. If you’re a good social editor, you’ll be able to get in that groove and be able to find the right voice for the story you’re trying to tell.
Being a Black woman is closely tied to what you do with Unbothered. From the outside, it looks like a great place for Black women to work and tell their own stories. Has it always been that way or did you have to carve out that space within a company like Refinery29?
Laurise: I got really blessed to come into Refinery29 when they were first thinking of building Unbothered. So, there were women already there who were carving that space out. It was 2017, I had just gotten out of college, and seeing that the senior social media editor is a Black lady who is trying to start, at the time, a Black lady Facebook page! What! I was really blessed to have what I like to call “four mothers” in the space, who made it a lot easier than at some other places for Blackness to exist at work. I also think that it definitely was hard to carve out the space when you’re trying to push for a Black channel. You’re often trying to separate your own emotions. You have to come in with the data, these are the clients we can pitch, and this is what it could be. And it worked, we just used straight data.
Over the last year, we’ve seen the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the protests against police brutality. How do you think the media industry has made changes so far, or do you think there’s still a long way to go?
Marshall: It’s a two-part thing. In the last year, as a Black creator, I feel like I’ve seen actionable steps across the board from companies, brands, creators and people working to tap in. I say it’s a two-part thing because I think only half of what I see is really authentic. For example, if you are a brand. I think everybody is clamoring to stand next to a young Black person, tap their point of view, throw them a few thousand dollars, throw a hashtag on something and say we worked with so-and-so to promote so-and-so for Black people and it only happens two times a year, for Black History Month and Women’s History Month, and that’s it. But the point is to look at Blackness at a 365-day thing. If you’re working with Camp Coconut, you’re working with us because you believe in that same logic. I can smell the fake brand promotion from a mile away. I’ve been in those rooms so many times and it’s just ironic that the things we’ve said our whole careers all of a sudden got noticed in this last year.
Laurise, you have a vertical on Unbothered called “About My Business” and you’re passionate about helping young people get in the industry. What advice would you give to yourself 10 years ago? What do you know now that you wish you knew back then?
Laurise: I wish I knew that a career is not a destination, success is not a destination. When I was in college, I was that kid who wanted this internship, that job, and to live in this city. I just planned my whole life out. And then when I got my dream job at my dream company, I was like, “Well, now what do I do?” I’ve peaked at 24 and I don’t know what to do with my life and now I’m depressed and have no direction. It took me a while to recognize that it’s not always about climbing and what’s next, it’s enjoying the little moments every day. Hence why we got a dog! For me, success now looks like having a good day in my house with my boyfriend and my dog, not necessarily a post getting 2,000 likes.
Marshall: Yeah, I was similar. All I could see was New York, designer, New York creative, New York ad guy. And with covid, there’s been so much time to sit and reflect, to dream bigger and think past what you thought the final output would be. Be open to evolving. There are things happening today that we couldn’t have even imagined, both positive and negative. Anybody who’s willing to roll with the punches, so to speak, those are the people coming out on top.
Marshall wears the Baba and Soke Rose Suit by Kente Gentlemen and Red Military Fez Hat by Simon and Mary. Laurise wears the Freedom Shirt by Fruché, Puzzle Skirt by Gozel Green and Emperado Eshe Earrings by Chalk Jewellery
What is next for you and Camp Coconut?
Marshall: There are two things we want to get off the ground. I have a background in fashion and product design so that’s something we’re excited to explore. We’re also trying to start hosting more digital community spaces. I have an idea for a Saturday morning coffee talk series, called Saturday Morning Cartoons, that emulates who we were as kids in the 1990s. I know when I look at what Laurise is able to do with her work on Unbothered, in my career, nine times out of 10, I have been the only Black man in any of those rooms. There aren’t really spaces for Black men and I feel like Black men don’t get talked about or celebrated unless they’re literally being killed. People know our names when they’re marching for us and that’s it.
When you look at the data and the numbers, the internet and the industry really, it’s Black women that are taking names and kicking ass in those spaces. There aren’t a lot of Black men coming out of media school because they don’t realize, if you don’t show people that they don’t all have to be rappers or ball players – I’m not an athlete, I have no interest in athletics and I’m not trying to be a musician, either. I like that space [Unbothered] and I’m interested in building something like that, that’s inclusive for all types of people, as well. I think young Black men could benefit from the same thing and I don’t know of any space that has such.
Laurise: I agree. I wish that I had more avenues to help all Black people of all genders, so Camp Coconut is for all Black people. It’s really special to be able to offer that. As a feminist, too, the whole point is equality, right? If studies show that our Black men are behind, and they are, how do we get that number up so there is just as much successful, qualified, healthy Black men as there are women?
Marshall: And even with the work, the dialogue. How do you change toxic behavior in the youth? How do you fight toxic masculinity? How do you deconstruct some of these narratives, if young Black men aren’t in school because they don’t see anybody that looks like them in school? Even in my career, when I told people what I do for a living, the companies I’ve worked for, the assumption is that I’m an associate, a stock boy, I pack, I move. It’s never inferred that my mind is valuable, only my physical, body or strength, so that’s something I’m really trying to counter.
Finally, you are obviously very busy people and busy dog parents. What do you do to relax, and chill in your downtime?
Marshall: If there is downtime, as of the last two weeks, when I’m done working, I don’t want to touch anything that has a screen, no notifications, nothing. Apart from the TV. Screen fatigue is real. We’ve been spending a lot of time with the puppy, playing with him, our house is now a hide-and-seek, fetch hub. We also watch a lot of documentaries, and lots of old TV shows like The Wayans Bros and Girlfriends.