Long Read - Reconnecting creativity and diversity

Paige Murphy
By Paige Murphy | 12 August 2021
Advertising Council Australia Reconciliation Action Plan. Artwork created by Alysha Menzel, a Torres Strait Islander woman.

(This article published in the July-August AdNews magazine. Subscribe here to make sure you get your copy.)

Creativity and diversity have an intrinsic relationship, yet adland continues to struggle with a diversity problem. As an industry that commodifies creativity, it beckons questions around how good the work is if everyone working on it is the same. AdNews speaks to the industry to find out how the two can be tied back together.

The start of a new decade, some would say, has been more “roaring” than 1920 of a century ago. Australians were faced with an intense bushfire season, a Black Summer, followed quickly by the dark shadow of a global pandemic.

Donald Trump was ousted as president of the United States and the death of one man, George Floyd, from police brutality became a catalyst for people across the globe to protest against racism, discrimination and police brutality against black, Indigenous and other people of colour (BIPOC).

Movements such as Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate have seen people around the world calling for unity and change. At home in Australia, people marched to protest against Aboriginal deaths in police custody.

Younger generations in particular are not only challenging law enforcement but are rallying for brands to use their platforms to help initiate change. This means being representative of society today both internally and externally. Those brands not reflective risk boycotts and loss of customers and revenue.

Victoria’s Secret has undergone a major rebrand following ongoing criticism of its Angels, a group of supermodels donning hypersexualised lingerie looks. Many are questioning whether it’s too little, too late.

The company, founded in 1977 specifically as a place for men to feel comfortable buying lingerie, has been called out for its outdated and sexist stereotypes of female beauty and lack of ethnic and body shape diversity. As a result of this, the brand’s stake in the American women’s underwear market dropped to 21% last year from 32% in 2015. Its revenue also dropped 7.7% in 2019, even before the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a bid to save itself, the brand has ditched its Angels and replaced them with the VS Collective, which comprises a group of accomplished women from diverse backgrounds including actress Priyanka Chopra Jonas, LGBTQIA+ activist and professional soccer player Megan Rapinoe, and refugee and model Adut Akech.

In an interview with The New York Times, the company’s CEO, Martin Waters, admitted the company responded “too slow” to criticism, but with the VS Collective the company is making plans to put women first.

“At Victoria’s Secret, we are on an incredible journey to become the world’s leading advocate for women,” he said in a statement. “This is a dramatic shift for our brand, and it’s a shift that we embrace from our core. These new initiatives are just the beginning. We are energised and humbled by the work ahead of us.”

While brands such as Victoria’s Secret have a long and bumpy road ahead to gain credentials as an inclusive business, others such as Dove (owned by multinational consumer goods giant Unilever) have made it their core proposition for some time.

The brand launched the iconic Real Beauty campaign back in the early 2000s, and during the years, has launched a number of initiatives which align with its goals to eradicate stereotypes and showcase real women but not without its critics. Some have called out its Real Beauty campaign for not being diverse or inclusive enough.

Unilever general manager, beauty, personal care and homecare, Markus Rehde tells AdNews that since launching it, the company has focused on continuing to learn and improve ways it can champion inclusivity.

“Our advertising plays an important part in this so alignment with our goals to improve women’s self-esteem and inspire a generation of girls to have a more positive relationship with the way they look is critical,” he says.

In 2019, Dove launched project #ShowUs, a partnership with Girlgaze, Getty Images and women around the world to create what it says is the world’s “largest” photo library created by women and non-binary individuals. Rehde says the library, which is made up of more than 5000 images, aims to “shatter” beauty stereotypes and offer an inclusive vision to all media and advertisers.

He says Unilever has also set itself the challenge to “create marketing, not just advertising, that will help influence the next generation of people to be free from prejudice”.

“Today’s aim is to go even deeper — to make real, structural changes to the entire marketing process,” he says.

“This will include provoking inclusive thinking across the full end-to-end marketing process; ensuring an Unstereotype charter for every Unilever brand that outlines the DEI (diversity, equality and inclusion) commitments the brand will deliver through its marketing; and increased representation of people from diverse groups on screen and behind the camera.”

Starting inside out

Unilever’s commitment to increase representation of people from diverse backgrounds, both on screen and behind the scenes, is a move being considered more widely by other brands beginning to look from within at the makeup of their own teams and those who they partner with.

This comes as consumers scratch beneath the surface and call out brands which “woke-wash” and don’t practice what they preach. Sunita Gloster, an advisor for Accenture Interactive and UN Women Australia, says the digital age has paved the way for a new kind of activist consumer.

“The power of the digital citizen — that has traded placards for hashtags — is the stage on which brands are now held to account. And hell hath no fury, nor virulence like the scorn from the woke,” Gloster tells AdNews.

“But our community is not the same as the one that entered this crisis. #metoo, #BLM, #COVID-19 have changed our expectations for how brands build and contribute to a connected, inclusive and cohesive community. To misread the room is to trigger tone-deaf activism that impacts brand value and reverberates globally.”

#ONLYONEINTHEROOM, formed by creative leaders Ant Melder, Pia Chaudhuri and Avish Gordhan, has been working with global marketing management consultancy Trinity P3 to develop a diversity index for local advertising agencies.

“They found in the US and UK, specifically during the pitch process, advertisers are now asking for diversity breakdowns of agencies,” says Chaudhuri, who is also group creative director at BMF. “So they have been incorporating that into procurement processes over there.”

Multinational consumer goods corporation Procter & Gamble (P&G) has been a leader in this space. The company is using its power as a client to push agencies and fellow advertisers to put diversity as their number one priority.

Several commitments, backed by fellow advertisers on the Global CMO Council, have been made to set a standard within the industry to ensure diverse and equal representation filters through from behind the scenes all the way to who appears in the ads.

While Australian brands haven’t been requesting to see diversity breakdowns of agencies yet, it is only a matter of time before they follow suit.

“It will be based on census data to create some benchmarks for agencies to measure against,” says Chaudhuri.

“The process will be similar to how they would do procurement during the pitch process and work with agencies to identify areas they are over-indexing with broader diversity — not just cultural diversity — and areas they are under-indexing on, and therefore create plans to work on that.”

There is no recent data on the state of diversity within the Australian advertising industry. Industry body Advertising Council Australia (ACA) is set to launch a census later in the year though.

Integrated communications agency ThinkHQ and the Scanlon Foundation have launched a survey to better understand diversity and inclusion across the marketing and communication sector.

The most recent data adland has is from industry collective Agency Circle which began surveying creative agencies in 2017. Its most recent survey, in 2019, revealed that despite some shifts in diversity across the board, the industry was still 77% caucasian.

This is compared to the Australian population, of which almost a third (29.8%) were born overseas, according to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). More than one-fifth (21%) speak a language other than English at home.

It’s a similar story when it comes to age in the industry. Only 5% were aged above 50 years in 2019,
compared to 32.9% of Australians.

Sarah Palmer, chair of the Agency Circle and head of talent at Leo Burnett, says while more of the industry is getting behind D&I programs, the most important development will be seeing the data move. She says it shouldn’t just be seen as an HR policy but as something that will ultimately lead to better ideas and solutions for clients.

“I can’t believe there are still people around that don’t understand the benefits of it,” she says. “It’s quite surprising to me because I think in an industry where we work with creativity and ideas and innovation, it’s absolutely intrinsic to being able to produce great product. Being able to better represent, through our people, the communities in which our clients operate in means we are able to provide better solutions to their client’s issues.”

When creativity meets diversity

The correlation between creativity and diversity is becoming more widely accepted. Gordhan, who is working with Chaudhuri and Melder on #ONLYONEINTHEROOM and as executive creative director at M&C Saatchi, says creativity is just diversity of thinking.

“Having more diverse people in our position will make our work more creative,” he says. “If the people in our business are not representative of the audiences we’re talking to, there is a disconnect in the way in which we reach them.”

#ONLYONEINTHEROOM was quietly formed last year after Chaudhuri called Melder and Gordhan in the midst of the global Black Lives Matter protests. The collective has now officially launched with professionals from across the advertising industry, representing more than 20 cultural backgrounds.

Melder, co-founder and creative partner at Cocoa Coffee Gunpowder and host of podcast Brown Riot, says the trio came together to initiate change in the industry.

“It probably doesn’t need to be said that the industry is a little bit generic and it just doesn’t reflect the makeup of Australia,” says Melder. “Therefore the work is not as good.”

As an industry that commoditises creativity, diversity needs to be ingrained within a business to provide clients with the most unique and innovative thinking. Palmer sees diversity as a “business imperative” with long-term financial benefits.

And there is evidence to back up her view. According to a Boston Consulting Group study, companies that have high diversity within their management teams reported 19% higher revenue due to innovation.

Gloster says the business case for diversity is “unarguably” stronger than ever before.

“For our industry specifically, one that spends its life advocating that creativity drives growth, we have been late to champion diversity as a driver in that outcome,” she says.

“Exposure to differences in people and thinking enhances creativity, innovation, growth and profitability. Every one of those aspects has been proven time and time again.”

Even with all the evidence pointing to positive business impacts for equality and diversity, Gloster says she still doesn’t see it being made a priority in many decision making rooms.

“Sadly, for many, the business transformation priorities of 2021, have relegated equality and diversity of efforts to peace-time pursuits,” she says. “Some even flag equality fatigue.”

The next steps

Change starts with pathways into the industry. The federal government announced changes to funding for certain university degrees which will see students studying degrees such as communications, creative arts, social studies and behavioural science having to pay more for their courses. This has raised concerns from some in the advertising industry about the barriers to entry.

While tertiary education isn’t necessary, it’s often listed on job specs. If arts degrees are too expensive for those from
disadvantaged backgrounds, there is potential for that to limit the pool of talent.

Host/Havas CEO and ACA deputy chair Laura Aldington says the industry needs to do better at educating school leavers on the opportunities available.

“When I look at the people I know in the industry, very few of them have a professional qualification that’s particularly relevant to the deal of advertising,” she says.

“I mean, I’ve got an English literature degree so I didn’t need that to get into the industry. I think it’s actually about going into schools, even before they are choosing their degree subjects to help them understand their pathway in.”

Aldington says she would love to see the industry broaden its search for new talent beyond just new graduates as this will diversify the skill sets agencies have at their disposal and therefore enhance creativity.

AWARD School’s Indigenous scholarship and the recently opened Western Sydney Ad School are among some of the newer avenues opening up for people to enter the industry.

Diversity has often become a “box ticker” for HR. But with this mindset, there will be no true progression. For Gloster, it starts with conversations but she says the steps that proceed won’t be easy. “The more we talk about diversity, the more we progress,” she says.

“The next steps are hard. We need to move beyond ambition, frameworks, the sharing of best practice and pledges to accelerated action. ‘When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression’ is the adage that is widely acknowledged. Conversations about diversity too often feel like walking on eggshells.”

When Gordhan arrived in Australia eight years ago, he was excited about the conversations happening around diversity. However, since then, he says he has seen little change. To see change, Gordhan believes there needs to be some level of tokenism initially in the hiring process.

“At the moment I think we’re so overwhelmed by the state of the problem that we feel every small action has no contribution,” he says.

“If we don’t set ourselves bigger ambitions, bigger goals and put our targets down, we’re just in a cycle of never getting any further. The tokenism argument only applies to the person you hired, right? If you get true diversity in businesses [so] you’re representative of the multicultural place we live in, at a certain point, it’s such a melting pot in the business that tokenism falls out the window. As an argument, it’s just the initial step that looks that way.”

What does diversity mean to you?

Host/Havas CEO and Advertising Council Australia deputy chair Laura Aldington

The three parts of diversity for me are that our population more closely reflects the Australian population; the environment allows these people to thrive; and therefore, creates an output that is more diverse because it is based on lived experience.

Accenture Interactive and UN Women advisor Sunita Gloster

Diversity is about accepting and welcoming differences. It’s more than just representation, because for it to be worthwhile it needs to coexist within the holy trinity of diversity, equality and inclusion. Otherwise it’s reduced to a hero shot on a PowerPoint slide.

Australia’s great storytellers

Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders make up 3% of the population, yet the representation within the advertising industry doesn’t match up. Peter Kirk, a Jerrinja man and founder of Indigenous creative consultancy Campfire X, wanted to change this so he approached ACA’s CEO Tony Hale.

Not only did he point out the lack of representation but also that the culture of Indigenous people is based around storytelling -- one that is a perfect fit.

Kirk explained to ACA CEO Tony Hale that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up 3% of the Australian population, yet this was not reflected in the advertising industry. Not only that, but they are a storytelling culture -- one that is a perfect fit for adland.

Hale says after his first meeting with Kirk, he offered up six scholarships to AWARD School on the proviso that once they have applied they are blind judged on their own merit and graduate on their own merit.

Since then, the school has had a number of students through its programs including Alysha Menzel who was the 2019 AWARD School SA top student and Alice Buda who was in the top 10 students in Victoria for 2020. Menzel also went on to become the artwork designer for ACA’s inaugural Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) which was published in April.

The RAP was compiled by a committee within the industry body led by Aldington and in consultation with Kirk. The results see the organisation focus on four key areas: educating its membership base; encouraging members to develop their own RAPs; help provide pathways for the Indigenous community to get jobs in the advertising industry; and identify an industry-wide initiative to help support key Reconciliation Australia activities.


Multiculturalism turns mainstream

As more brands become aware of the opportunities diverse audiences present, especially in multicultural markets like Australia, agencies that specialise in campaigns and communications for multicultural audiences.

ThinkHQ is an integrated communications agency that also works with brands on their multicultural communications and has a dedicated localisation arm which can translate campaigns into 58 languages and localise the work based on cultural nuances.

Founder and managing director Jen Sharpe says for a long time, the industry has divided “mainstream” and “diverse” audiences. Her team, however, have been working with more clients and other advertising agencies to make sure they aren’t missing diverse audiences.

“Mainstream tends to get all the money, all the attention, all the priority, and then diverse audiences are considered very much a secondary priority,” Sharpe tells AdNews.

“When you take into account our First Nations history as well, we have always been a fundamentally diverse nation, and until we start broadening out the lens to include all audiences in our upfront strategies, then there’s never going to be the attention paid to what it should be.”

The rise and prevalence of movements like Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate have been what Lou Petrolo, managing director at WPP’s multicultural marketing agency Etcom, says are “a line in the sand” moment and “wake up call” for many brands as they realise diversity is not just a HR policy.

“We have had brands that previously we’ve approached, or we’ve had conversations with, come to us and say, ‘What are we doing? Are we doing well or not? And what do we need to do moving forward?’” Petrolo tells AdNews.

“It’s shifted the focus and put [diversity] front and centre, but from our point of view, we’ve been advocating for this for a long time. It’s encouraging now that it seems like it’s entrenched in people’s thinking.”

Western Sydney Ad School

Founded at the start of 2020, the Western Sydney Ad School was born to give those students who were disadvantaged by location, cost or not knowing someone in the industry a chance to pursue a career in advertising. So far the school has put through 35 students over five semesters and gained support from top agencies including DDB, CHE Proximity, Cummins&Partners, BWM Dentsu and The Hallway.

Founders and advertising veterans Rocky Ranallo and Matt Smith share why they think the school will help the industry.

How important is providing new pathways for talent outside of adland’s usual pool of people?

Very important as you can tell from the focus it’s getting not only from agencies here in Australia but around the world. It never used to be that way [but] somehow we all started talking to ourselves and live in a self-indulgent Eastern Suburbs bubble. I’m not sure how many agency creative people have been to Parramatta but I suspect very few.

What impact will it have on diversity and creativity?

It’s simple. Ideas can come from anywhere. The more diverse a creative department is, the more diverse ideas you get. Ideas that are relatable with an emotional connection for all, not just a few.

Have something to say on this? Share your views in the comments section below. Or if you have a news story or tip-off, drop us a line at adnews@yaffa.com.au

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