Shunning the black t-shirt: What creatives really think

By Ruby Derrick | 8 January 2024
Credit: Alice Dietrich via Unsplash

Many creatives in the industry are nonconformists to the black t-shirt staple.

Commercial creativity, they say, isn't found only in a room full of cliched clothing.

Apparently, this process is about leveraging the skills and diversity of each department. 

And clothing has little to do with it.  

AdNewsCreative Insights, a lighter series of articles asking Australian creatives about themselves and about the state of the industry, revealed that ultimately all creatives feel that what they decide to wear does not dictate what they’re thinking.  

The creatives featured suggested that a room full of black t-shirts would only stifle commercial creativity; conformity is antithetical to creativity, they say.  

Here, Australian creatives comment on why they defy conformity and reject the industry uniform. 

For Gabrielle Sandal, creative at DDB Group Melbourne, the advertising industry uniforms are an interesting concept to her having started in account management. 

“I’ve still got a wardrobe of blazer combos that personified the ‘dress for the job you want’ mentality, but when it comes to the black t-shirt uniform it feels too close to the Silicon Valley tech bros for me,” says Sandal.  

Partnering the nuances of client knowledge with the insights of a boundary-pushing strategy department, then bringing that work to life with efficient and engaged production and studio teams is when commercial creativity thrives, believes Sandal.  

“The best concept in the world remains a concept until there’s a team around it willing and able to bring it to life,” she says.  

David Roberts, creative director at BMF, has swapped a black t-shirt for the technicolour plastic bracelet his daughter made him that spells out the words “POSITIVE THOUGHTS”. 

“Clothing has nothing to do with how interesting the inside of your brain is,” he says.  

Ben Clare, executive creative director at We Are Social, has never felt that he needs to ‘look creative’ in order to be it.  

Every day is different, notes Clare – who tends to dress to match his mood.  

“Plus I love denim shirts too much to restrict my wardrobe to just black,” he says.  

Limiting creativity to just the creative department means witnessing the same set of creative minds coming up with ideas that mirror their styles or preferences, believes Clare. 

“I think generating ideas that are worthy of people’s time and attention has never been harder,” he says. 

“And the greater the diversity of perspectives that contribute to these ideas, the more culturally vibrant and relevant they have the potential to become.” 

Hayley Olsson, head of production at Jack Nimble, says her slick bun is her black t-shirt. 

If commercial creativity could only take place in a room full of black t-shirts, Olsson would like to see what would actually come out of that room. 

“I wholeheartedly believe that the best product comes from the many voices of a well-rounded team. That said, I do believe there can be too many voices in a room,” she says. 

“There is something to be said for trusting the team that has been assembled and not stepping in, steamrolling, or diluting their message and vision. Having an opinion for opinion's sake is one of my pet peeves.” 

Lauren Moran, associate creative director at CHEP Network, likes to think she has found a mix between the all-black Melbourne cliche and a few ‘Hi, I’m one of the creatives’ statement pieces.  

Moran thinks the black t-shirt crew are actually the nonconformists. 

“Holding tightly to a decision they made a lifetime ago as everyone around them evolves. Branch out my friends, we believe in you,” says Moran. 

Commercial creativity cannot take place in a room full of people in black t-shirts, says Moran. 

‘Not in a way that moves us forward from the same work we’ve already seen. Great work requires genuine empathy, where we truly strive to see each other's point of view,” she says. 

“This especially applies to how we work with our clients.” 

Liam Jenkins, art director at The Royals, believes conformity is antithetical to creativity, but not everyone literally wears their creativity on their sleeve.  

“We all have different ways of expressing our creativity, fashion and self presentation is one of mine. That’s not to say that you can’t be creative in all black, because everyone pours their creativity into different aspects of their life,” says Jenkins.  

“If the only seats at your table are reserved for people who look, think and behave the same as you do, you’re not only limiting the potential of your output, but you’re limiting the potential of those who don’t fit into your perspective. Diversity, in all aspects, is incredibly important.” 

303MullenLowe Perth’s Damian Royce also doesn’t conform to the black t-shirt uniform and mindset. 

The chief creative officer says he doesn’t consciously dress to look like ‘the creative guy’ in the room.  

“I believe creativity and creative thinking should start from the top down in any organisation and not just when it gets to the marketing and creative departments. When companies recognise this and can harness the mindset, it often leads to commercial success,” says Royce. 

“My hope is that at a board-level more and more organisations see creativity as one of the important things to help build and move their business forward. Not every person in the room needs to be creative, but organisations need to recognise the power of it.” 

It’s way too hot in Australia for black t-shirts, says Clark Edwards, executive creative director at Ogilvy Sydney.  

“You make different by working different. This makes absolutely no grammatical sense,” he says. 

“But rooms full of people in black t-shirts tend to produce ideas that only vibe with people in black t-shirts. It’s the black t-shirt creative death spiral.” 

Deborah Rajadurai, senior account manager at Murmur-Group, says there will be no black t-shirts for her. 

She comes from a culture that celebrates colour and big statement pieces so that is generally the thinking behind her work outfits, she notes. 

In a room full of black t-shirts, that type of barrier is exactly what stifles commercial creativity, says Rajadurai. 

“I came across this creative thought exercise 'You're Fired, You're Re-Hired' where you come up with a creative idea that is so wild it gets you fired. Then you have to transform that idea into something that gets you re-hired,” she says. 

“This basically allows for creative freedom to go wide and then taper back down to something that is marketable.” 

Harriet Ronn, creative director at Howatson+Co, says for her, wearing a black t-shirt actually feels like she is being non-conformist.

“If you want to advertise products solely to people in black t-shirts, sure. But our industry needs to get better at bringing in minds, voices and perspectives from different backgrounds, beyond the black t-shirt brigade,” she says. 

“That way you get better work from a range of brains that are actually reflective of what our society looks like.” 

Common Ventures' Brian Merrifield – executive creative director, has been wearing black for as long as he’s been into heavy metal music. 

It just so happens to kind of be the industry uniform, he says. 

“I wish it wasn’t. Like most things in life - you’re a non-conformist until it becomes a trend,” says Merrifield.  

“A room of ‘same’ produces only nuanced variations of ‘same’. Diversity of thought wins forever.” 

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