Zena Hanna is the CEO and founder of Zena Digital Group. She has spent over 10 years working in the digital media industry and is passionate about creating a diverse and inclusive workspace. Zena’s excitement for bringing a social impact focus to social media strategy and branding is contagious. Through her company, Zena hopes to make the digital media that we consume ceaselessly more authentic and representative of the whole spectrum of humanity.
Where are you from? Where did you attend school?
I am from a small town in Northern New Jersey. I am Assyrian and Armenian, and I am a first generation American. I grew up with a very traditional family speaking Arabic at home.
I attended William Paterson University in New Jersey, where I studied Marketing and Studio Art.
During my junior and senior years I worked full time at an Ad agency and I worked at a hotel on the weekends. I wanted to take over the world – I wanted to hurry up and make it already, whatever the cost. I was ambitious and never felt tired from all the work I was doing, I felt invigorated to keep going!
As a first generation college student I had to build everything for myself — my network and connections were not set before me, so I had to start from scratch. I was working in environments that did not have diversity, and it was weird and uncomfortable at times, but I just thought it was because I was new to the “corporate” setting.
Back then, I didn’t have the language or awareness to describe what I was feeling in terms of standing out. Now, in retrospect, I understand why I felt like an outsider in those positions. And in fact, it is why I started my own company.
I left New Jersey and moved to New York City 8 years ago.
“Social media has changed how we connect, how we consume news, and how we shop. Beauty standards have also changed with face altering filters, we don’t even know what people look like in real life anymore.”
How did you get started with the digital media industry? Why do you like working in the industry?
I graduated from college in 2010, and I got a full time job at the ad agency I had been working at as an Receptionist. At that time, all of these social media platforms were still pretty new. No one knew what was going on, and no one knew where these platforms were going. At the time, the agency’s main focus was all about brand ambassadors in the beginning.
After working in the industry for a few years, I grew fed up. I had been laid off three times and I constantly thought: what am I doing wrong? I don’t think it was because of racism, but I do think that people have an unconscious bias. I decided to leave the country and backpack by myself for three months across Central America. I tried to figure out what was wrong with me and heal through the shame. At that point, I didn’t want to go back into the ad agency world. I was done.
When I returned to New York, a friend passed along a job posting to this boutique firm – and when I walked into the interview with the Managing Director who was a strong black woman, I was so pleasantly surprised; I knew right away this place was different.
The agency was very diverse and my second week working there, they sent me to Italy. At that firm, I was respected for my work, which was also a new feeling. That is when I got more into the paid media side of the digital media industry.
I worked with luxury clients, and if you’ve been paying attention to the news in the last couple of years, there’s been a diversity crisis in the industry.
Through my past and current work, I can especially see the power of media and the detriment of it. My approach to digital media is about keying in with a level of understanding that focuses on being careful and mindful about what we post, what we share, and who we reach. Most of it is just psychology — understanding the humans we are trying to reach. I find the digital media so fascinating because it has such a great presence in our lives. We are exposed to so many ads a day, and they do impact us – it is nothing to joke about.
What inspired you to start Zena Digital Group, and what is the primary focus?
Zena Digital Group is an ad agency that partners with clients that are ready to be inclusive and truly understand how dynamic their audiences are. We do this through strategy, paid media, creative production, organic social media, reporting and analytics – all through the lens of diversity and inclusion.
The last agency I worked at was really beautiful and diverse. When I began working there, in Italy I was working with some really big brands like Versace, Prada, Farfetch and more. We had a small team in New York and I was the only one who managed digital in Milan, where there was little to no diversity. But, even when I was working with other US vendors and agencies, I felt the lack of diversity and inclusivity.
At that time, and still, major retailers were making huge mistakes with their ads and promotions because nobody internally had representation to say “hey, this ad is culturally insensitive”. Part of this is due to the fact that these countries are mostly monocultural, so it’s understandable, but that means that whoever they hire as their media partner needs to be in the know.
Media agencies are the gatekeepers for brands. We start the conversation. So, with my agency, I talk about what representation means. I push campaigns that are about representation and inclusivity. That is my passion and that is why I do what I do. I want people on my team to have that agency to also stand up and speak up for making messages for all.
We are a small agency – I work with only 2-3 clients at a time. That way, I can fully focus on building meaningful communication with our partners.
What do you expect for the future of digital media?
Social media has changed how we connect, how we consume news, and how we shop. Beauty standards have also changed with face altering filters, we don’t even know what people look like in real life anymore.
Our human interactions are changing because of our social media lives. But, I am hoping and expecting that the pendulum will swing back the other way.
I expect that our relationship with the screen is going to change. We won’t be using our phones as much as things shift to be more voice focused. Social Media itself has become a business platform; some people have created businesses solely through these platforms, so new channels pop up for content creators.
People also don’t want their personal information online forever – so we’re seeing younger generations leave facebook and other platforms that have privacy issues.
How do you go about developing a brand’s identity?
Primarily, I advise companies to focus on their objectives and audience. It doesn’t take a lot for a brand to work with a cause that matters to their audiences, so I always encourage brands to use their power to make an impact. People are paying attention to that!
We always do an audit for our partners to learn who the real audience is. From there, we build a communication strategy on how to reach those people. This includes focusing on how often we post, which channels our audience is most responsive to, etc. You use different media sources with different approaches. You wouldn’t use the television the same way as billboards or as the radio. It is the same deal with social media platforms. There is a real scientific approach to it – a marriage between art and science.
What advice would you give a younger version of yourself?
Get as much experience as you can. Stay humble and work hard.
Don’t be afraid to push back. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Don’t be afraid to walk away if something doesn’t feel right.
Also remember, it takes time to be an expert in these things.
I would recommend this book to my younger self: Chop Wood, Carry Water. I wish I had read that when I was in college. It has these golden nuggets of wisdom that are priceless.
“This is who I am, this is what I’ve been through and this is where I am going.”
What are your hobbies?
I love writing poetry and short stories. I am trying to take that more seriously. I am part of some really incredible communities here in New York that I am proud of. I love spending time with those communities; they are so fulfilling and nourishing. Also, I love reading, going to art shows and fairs, meditating, consuming beautiful things, going to concerts, and traveling. I really like to live a full life – even during the hard times.
What makes you feel powerful? What does being powerful mean to you?
Being powerful to me is full embodiment and mastery of myself. Not being afraid to be fully me. And embodying that completely that is full power. This is who I am, this is what I’ve been through and this is where I am going.
I feel the most powerful in that embodiment – within my community and when I am with my friends who really see me, when I take care of myself, when I am fully present it has nothing to do with the outside world or what I have. My power is in the intangibles.
Updated responses from April 21st:
How has the pandemic altered your life and career?
Before the pandemic even started, if we can all remember this far back, our president was impeached, there was a potential threat to go to war with Iran, and we were already in an election year, so I saw a major slowdown in work since the start of 2020. With Covid-19, I haven’t had any clients or income, so it’s been tough, but also a good time to re-evaluate my career and business.
Or how has this pandemic altered your relationship to your home or environment?
It’s hard to work from home nowadays. I thought it would be a great time to learn new skills with the slowdown of work and all, but all it’s shown me was that I wasn’t paying enough attention to myself and the “non-productive” parts of my life that I really enjoy doing like writing, reading, cooking, meditating and more.
How are you continuing to cultivate your most powerful self during this pandemic?
Embracing the slowness has been the most challenging and rewarding part of all this. I am growing up as an entrepreneur in this pandemic, learning my boundaries, realizing how nice it is to have a day to do absolutely nothing but what my heart desires, and getting reacquainted with myself. This doesn’t come without my worries about income, though. I did an okay job at saving last year, but I am definitely at the end of my rope, and with the disappointing news about the federal loans tapping out, I’ve decided to take on smaller clients to help pay the bills, join workshops to help with leads, and collaborate with friends and non-profits to remind me of my power.