How ad agencies can better cater to Indigenous communities

BWM managing director Belinda Murray
By BWM managing director Belinda Murray | 20 September 2018
Belinda Murray

Recently, we discovered something unnerving. Representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the creative and media sector is so low that Roy Morgan data deems it to be ‘statistically insignificant’. A fact that is particularly baffling when you think that creativity and story-telling are at the very heart of Aboriginal culture. 

Last month, we launched our Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) – the first of its kind in the creative sector – to help try and address this underrepresentation in our industry.

A RAP aims to build a bridge between the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community and non-Indigenous Australians, through a series of tangible, long-term commitments. Our first commitment was the launch of a series of panel discussions on ‘The Power of Creativity in the Indigenous Community’, hosted in our Sydney and Melbourne offices.

The panels featured some of the Aboriginal community’s foremost creative entrepreneurs and change-makers – from documentary film-makers to robotics experts, art gallery owners to fashion designers – who debated what creativity means to them and how we can work together to rectify the imbalance in our sector.

Here are some of the themes that came through and how we can try to address them:

1) Struggles of preserving this ancient culture

There’s an inherent richness in the creativity of the Aboriginal culture; from storytelling, to dance, to sand drawings; but it also comes with an intrinsic ephemeral quality. This makes knowledge hard to ‘preserve’ in the Western interpretation of it. As a result, there’s a persistent feeling of knowledge being ‘lost’ in this modern world. Already it is estimated that 120 of the 250 original languages are extinct, and there’s a significant challenge in preserving the ones that are left…

What can we do?

We can collectively use our skills to help preserve the rich stories and history that exists. Offer your services to Aboriginal owned and run businesses, to help with this mission. You can find a list here, on the Supply Nation website. At BWM Dentsu, we have offered our expertise pro bono to help the team behind the Bawurra Foundation, a non-profit organisation that is building a digital library of stories, art and culture, for Aboriginal youth.

2) Australia’s Two ‘Beginnings’

I was extremely surprised to learn that Aboriginal history is still not a mandated component of the Australian school curriculum. From the perspective of a young Aboriginal child, imagine how isolating it would feel to go to school to hear Australia ‘began’ in 1778, when you know your ancestors have walked this land for tens of thousands of years? As a result, a huge and damaging knowledge gap exists that perpetuates stereotypes and makes it hard to break down barriers.

What can we do?

Let’s build discussion, dialogue and knowledge around our history through mandated cultural awareness training. There are basic free online services available, as well as more comprehensive paid options.

3) Stereotypes in film

Where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people do exist in film and advertising, the portrayals are often largely clichéd, or their roles are not very visible. It’s hard to begin to break down these barriers when there aren’t many varied or modern perceptions of Indigenous people that exist in mainstream broadcast media.

What can we do?

Let’s try and drive out our unconscious bias and aim for a more varied representation of the Aboriginal community in the communications we create for our clients.

4) Huge creative opportunities

Aboriginal people are a swiftly growing group of experts in new technologies. KPMG research shows that the overwhelming majority of Indigenous Australians, even in very remote areas, are already engaged with new consumer technology. There’s something incredible about the idea of combining the world’s oldest living civilisation with its newest technologies and, right now, we’re missing out on the creativity this affords.

What can we do?

Let’s push for the inclusion of more Indigenous students in our agencies through internships and work experience opportunities. At BWM Dentsu, we’re working with Swinburne University to create an internship for Indigenous students, but companies like CareerTrackers help identify Aboriginal students and match them to agencies that would be a great fit for them.

Although just a small step on the drive for reconciliation, it would not be an understatement to say that we consider our RAP to be one of the single most important commitments that we have made as an agency in our 20-year history. So much so, in fact, that we’re offering our RAP to other agencies to help define their own, and are more than happy to lend our support and advice in the opportunities and challenges we’ve encountered to date.

Right now, as a sector, we’re missing out on the richness, warmth, creativity and resilience of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and we’re worse off for it.

If you’re looking to help address this imbalance, we encourage you, as a first step, to visit Reconciliation Australia to find out how to create your own Reconciliation Action Plan. As artist and author Yarramunua so eloquently put it; ‘If you walk on this red earth, this is your history and your culture too, so be open and be curious, because it’s yours.’

BWM managing director Belinda Murray

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