On the other side of the door

by Roshni Goyate

The biggest ads of the year have landed. The tearjerking, smile-bringing, meme-making, spoof-inspiring Christmas ads. And some of the best loved brands have taken the plunge by putting people of colour centre-stage.  Yes, well done John Lewis, Sainsbury’s and Boots. It shouldn’t feel like such a big achievement, but it is. Here we are in 2016 praising adverts for daring to represent the society they serve.

Yet can we say the same thing about the agencies making those ads? Are the creative teams reflecting the societies they belong to, or the audiences they’re communicating to?

The answer is no.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with many branding, design and communications agencies in London – both as a full-timer and a freelancer. Yet I’d be hard pressed to tell you of a time I wasn’t the only person of colour on the creative team. (And let me be really clear: I’m talking specifically about creative teams here.)

The advertising and comms industry’s distinct lack of ethnic diversity became a problem for me a couple of years ago when I decided I needed a mentor. As a freelancer, sometimes the only sign that I’m doing good work is a fully booked calendar. I needed something more specific, constructive, to give me a sense of direction for the future. So I put the call out, emailing colleagues and friends, asking if they knew someone senior in my line of work, and importantly, someone who shared some aspects of my background – female, brown, working class, not privately educated or Oxbridge read – to become my mentor.

Nearly everyone, across the board, struggled to think of someone suitable. 

Sainsbury's Christmas advert, 2016

Sainsbury's Christmas advert, 2016

My attention has since turned to the line-ups of premium-ticketed industry events and judging panels of prestigious awards. I don’t want to state the obvious, but it’s obvious no one’s noticed: people like me, people of colour – and especially women of colour – are invisible.

"Here we are in 2016 praising adverts for daring to represent the society they serve."

When I don’t see myself clearly represented in my industry, the implicit message is this: ‘you might love what you do, but there’s no place for someone like you at the top, so you might as well give up now.’ Am I really working my butt off, day in, day out, only to feel excluded, marginalised and ignored?

Hell no. I refuse to accept that. Especially in London, my city of birth and one of the most ethnically diverse in the world.

So I’ve teamed up with my colleague and friend Leyya Sattar, to form The Other Box as a rallying cry to other creative people of colour. We want to see you, we want to show you off, and we want to show young people from minority backgrounds that their creativity and voice is worth something too.

We’re also heartened to see other organisations on a similar mission. Indy Selverajah has started 8andrising to make the advertising industry more balanced and diverse. The fine folk at Creative Access are helping young people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds get internships in the creative industry. And Creative Hustle bring young people from ethnic minority backgrounds together to learn, network and grow. (By the way Indy and a host of other talented, creative people of colour will be speaking at their event on Tuesday 22nd November, so see you there.)

'We’re making noise, we’re not alone, and we’re going to make sure the industry has no choice but to sit up and listen.'

In the meantime, I’m also looking at you (mostly white, male) creative directors, MDs, CEOs, heads of recruitment, whoever you are: take an honest look at your creative teams and ask yourself if society is genuinely represented there. If not, ask yourself why not.

If you’re going to the effort to cast brown and black people in ads for authenticity, how can your creative teams be truly authentic without being diverse? 

Header image courtesty of: John Lewis