Diversity: Is the industry doing enough?
The impetus to affect change is growing, but are businesses and brands walking the walk or just talking the talk? Tim Cumming speaks to a range of industry leaders, directors and activists pursuing the goal of a level playing field in the creative industries.
Diversity, equality, inclusion – it’s not a million miles away from the cries of France’s revolutionaries in the 1790s – “liberty, equality, fraternity”.
They ended up with Napoleon. But are we heading for a lasting revolution in how we represent and include minority, female, LGBTQ and working class cultures, or are the white, male powers that be in the creative industries content with window-dressing and lip service?
Only five per cent of our industry is working class, when 30 per cent of the population is.
In the wake of this year’s tidal surge in the Black Lives Matter movement – which started in 2013 after the murderer of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin – there’s been an equal surge by brands to position themselves on ‘the right side of history’ and on the side of social justice, like Nike, for instance, even though only 8% of the company's Vice Presidents, and fewer than 5% of its Company Directors are Black. In front of the camera, there’s a higher level of visibility for people of colour across all sorts of campaigns, but behind it, has diversity, equality and inclusion crossed the divide from what companies tell you they feel to how they operate?
Above: Ally Owen, founder of the Brixton Finishing School.
At Brixton Finishing School [BFS], which opened in 2018 to provide opportunities for under-represented people in the industry, founder Ally Owen drew on her own experience as a working class creative in a predominantly middle class arena. “Only five per cent of our industry is working class,” she says, “when 30 per cent of the population is. I live near Dalston, which is full of all types of wonderful people, but the odds of seeing any of my neighbours in my workspaces…” Owen trails off, not needing to finish the sentence. “You’ll have the odd pioneer, but pioneers they very much are. It should just be normal.” She admits to her own crippling bouts of ‘imposter syndrome’, of feeling she didn’t belong. “I won global awards but I always felt, am I really good enough? If you’re not one of the crowd you don’t feel secure, so you do a lot of adjusting of behaviour. It’s exhausting.”
All the big four accounting firms show there’s a direct link between diversity and inclusion and profit.
With BFS, she aims to put that right, investing her own money, along with industry support from the likes of McCann London, and reaching out to 18-25 year-olds from multicultural and working class backgrounds. “We train them for 10 weeks to get them an entry-level role,” she says, “looking for things like listening, positive input, creativity, teamwork – stuff that money can’t buy.”
The bottom line is not only promoting social justice but economic advantage: “All the big four accounting firms show there’s a direct link between diversity and inclusion and profit. Companies that are in the top quarter percentile for gender and race diversity can benefit from about 35% more returns. If you’re in it to win it, and you want to be competitive, and you want to be a destination for all types of talent, you need to get your house in order and change the make-up, which is what we do.”
Above: Dentsu Aegis Network’s CODE works with schools to increase diversity within the industry.
In the post-Covid world, BFS has gone digital, and with that move, another exclusionary factor is tackled – the location penalty that comes with living outside London, where the majority of creative work is to be found. The new, eight-week online course started this October, in part crowdfunded via Propeller Group’s 31 Challenge, launched after a survey revealed that almost a third of graduates felt their race presented the biggest barrier to entry. “The industry needs to take away these barriers at a really early age,” says Owen.
A survey revealed that almost a third of graduates felt their race presented the biggest barrier to entry.
At Dentsu Aegis Network’s CODE that is exactly what is happening. An acronym for Creativity, Opportunity, Diversity and Empowerment, CODE launched in 2017, targeting schools in 13 areas of low social mobility around the UK, schools that had a higher than average BAME population, and higher than average number of pupils on free school meals, and includes pupils from age 13 through to 18. “We’re always looking to partner with our clients and media owners to amplify what we can achieve through it,” says Dentsu’s Social Impact Manager, Scott Sallee. CODE’s workshops give pupils a taste of the industry, with insight days in the office, masterclasses, and as well as hiring students for entry roles, there are apprenticeships in advertising and media, content production, digital marketing and data analysis.
If you don’t have proper diversity in your business at all levels, you are going to fall behind, and we cannot allow ourselves to do that.
Like Ally Owen, Sallee emphasises the benefits for business as well as society. “If you don’t have proper diversity in your business at all levels, you are going to fall behind, and we cannot allow ourselves to do that.” As for CODE’s alumni, “We’d love to have the students join us as a company, but maybe they get inspired and set up on their own, or develop something so incredible they’re one of our competitors, or we work with them in the future. They will be the catalyst and for us to even play a small part in their development is a pleasure and a privilege.”
Above: Cult's Cat Turner helped set up the agency's Future: Generations initiative.
Cat Turner, at transatlantic indie creative agency Cult, helped set up the Futures: Generation programme during lockdown, matching diverse new talents with seasoned mentors. “It’s about giving access to talent of all different backgrounds,” says Turner, “giving people their first experience, their first placement, their first connection into the industry, because that is often the hardest bit. We’re drawing attention to talent behind the camera, and while there are lots of activations and campaigns happening, there has to be commitment to change and follow-through on it. Throughout BLM there’s a lot of light shone upon performative actions, on brands getting behind something and saying something, but not doing things. Doing things takes time.”
Our Black directors want to be hired for their work, not for being Black.
She describes the whole industry, and society, as “sleepwalking” through the diversity issue. The time for slumber has passed. “When we talk about diversity we’ve got to not just talk about it but really address it in how we’re hiring, casting, and how we work with our freelance network,” Turner says.
At producti studio NERD, Milana Karaica champions a wide range of global and diverse talent and, as a female creative, knows the thorny politics of inclusion first-hand. “No one wants to be hired to be the token,” she says. “I’d never want to be hired to be the woman of the team, and our Black directors want to be hired for their work, not for being Black.” Like Futures: Generation, she pairs fresh with experienced talents. “Our challenge is to empower that raw talent very early on, so we pair them with our seasoned directors, get them to collaborate, and help them bring their creative ideas to life.”
I’d never want to be hired to be the woman of the team.
In the wake of BLM, Karaica found her Stateside clients especially keen in pledging their support, but is it more surface manoeuvre or proper depth charge? “Clients are saying, ‘feel free to send any people of colour for the pitch, or any LGBTQ talent’. But this should never even have been a question – you’re sending the talent for their skill, not for the label.”
Above: Leo Burnett's Carly Avener and NERD's Milana Karaica.
At Leo Burnett, MD Carly Avener believes that 2020’s diversity drive is heading in the right direction, but that there are still issues. “We are still a very white and closed industry and until our work accurately reflects our clients’ audiences, until we see the right balance in the make-up of our staff, a huge amount more needs to be done,” says Avener. “This means looking at our systems, processes, policies and addressing foundational infrastructure which supports change.” As such, Leo Burnett is driving for diversity in front of and behind the camera, and it’s taking that drive to clients, too. “Diversity of talent brings a variety in thinking, approaches, viewpoints and, ultimately, ideas,” Avener concludes.
We are still a very white and closed industry.
From a US perspective, some have found the post-BLM industry focus on Black talent and opportunity means that other areas of diversity – Asian creatives, for example – are side-lined. For Grammy-nominated filmmaker JJ Augustavo, represented by m ss ng p ces, Asian men are the forgotten minority. “We’re never troubled enough to be considered a minority,” he says, “but also not white and also not female. And with all this you’re kind of left on the outside looking in on most conversations about diversity or normalcy in the film and commercial space.”
[Asian men are] never troubled enough to be considered a minority, but also not white and also not female.
Interestingly, he has done several UK shoots and found considerably more diversity on set in the UK than he does in the US. How to level the field so the excluded get a place at the table? “I’m trying my best to write stories and cast people who look like me as much as I can,” he says. “I’m very outspoken and proud that I’m Filipino American. It’s important to put that out there for younger folks to see me and think, ‘he looks like me, he talks like me, so I can do that too’. If we do truly do that, we change lives, we change culture, we allow access into countless beautiful stories, people, cultures that many have never known about. The benefits mean fuller, more authentic stories that could make a far more inclusive and open society.”
Above: Directors Jane Qian and JJ Augustavo.
Augustavo was, until recently, signed in the US to Knucklehead, whose Head of Production, Christa Thompson, recalls excruciating examples of structural racism on set – such as a skilled crew member being mistaken for the PA – underlining a long, unhappy tradition of “people of colour not seen as able to contribute on the same level as their white counterparts”. Now, she says, we are at a crossroads; “Are we going to continue to look at the world through the racial and gender bias views we always have, or are we going to take this opportunity to expand and include more diverse voices?”
Are we going to continue to look at the world through the racial and gender bias views we always have?
She’s cautiously positive. “The talent is there. It has just been systemically and purposely overlooked. We want to bring that talent to the forefront to give opportunity to those voices. There is a willingness now to explore more diverse stories. The mix of America’s social justice awakening and Covid-19 has made things very unusual, but I am hopeful we are on the path to making change.”
LA-based director Jane Qian signed with Knucklehead this year. Directing had been her aim since she was 12, and her drive to achieve her goal was fuelled by the people around her, from parents to educators, who said it was unattainable. “That lit a fire in me,” Qian says. “I had this relentless drive to prove people wrong, and while it’s good we’re talking about diversity, I would rather have my talent and my work show what I can do rather than people hiring me just for that diversity tick.”
I would rather have my talent and my work show what I can do rather than people hiring me just for that diversity tick.
Like Augustavo, she emphasises the need for systemic change, changes that production companies and agencies are now trying to address. But, like CODE, it needs to go even further back, to where the fencing off of expectations often begins in childhood. “For kids, it starts with seeing it,” Qian says. “If we see the director is a woman, or a Black woman, or a Hispanic male, it change things, it shows us it is not just a certain type of person from a certain background. If we change the stories then we implant seeds of inclusion and diversity.”
Above: Alma Har'el.
“To ask why we need diversity, and what is the benefit of it, is such a surreal thing,” says Alma Har’el, acclaimed video and film director and founder of Free the Work, a global talent platform of over 3,000 female, minority and LGBTQ creators from 45 countries. “The question itself is rooted in the fact that all our industries are so centred around the white male experience and gaze. That’s the default setting; the question itself is the answer. We’re controlled by a white male gaze – and everything we ask ourselves comes from there. But it’s not who we are as a society.”
All our industries are so centred around the white male experience and gaze. That’s the default setting.
Having built up partnerships with more than 160 agencies, as well as brands such as Procter & Gamble (the world’s biggest advertiser), the impact of Free the Work on widening that gaze is tangible. Since 2016 the percentage of women creators working on P&G’s campaigns has risen from 11% to 48%. “This year we’re focusing on set diversity beyond the director’s chair,” says Har’el. They are using mentorships, tutoring sessions and equipment access to pass on the kind of inside knowledge that gets outsiders a vital leg-up into the industry. “The mission has always been to find solutions, to find tools for the people who want to make the change.” As such, Free the Work is more an ongoing process than a fixed goal. “There’re always powers and structures to fight against, and though the fight may shift and the fight may change, there’s always something and someone to fight for.”
There’re always powers and structures to fight against, and though the fight may shift and the fight may change, there’s always something and someone to fight for.
Despite the scale of the challenge Har’el is optimistic. “I do see change and I see so much incredible work being made that cannot be ignored, and that is where I get my optimism from,” she says. It’s for brands and agencies to fall in line – for their own financial gain if not for social justice. “At the end of the day the only colour they really respect is green,” she laughs, “and if they want that green they will have to put more colour into everything.”