Campaign posted a perspective from Jonathan Akwue on the dearth of diversity in the U.K. advertising industry and the standard efforts to address the issue—namely, minority youth outreach programs. Why, even diversity crusader Sir John Hegarty made an obligatory appearance. What’s next? Neil French speaking at a 3% Conference?
A Wish for Cannes — A More Creative Future
By Jonathan Akwue
By some accounts, I’m at a disadvantage simply because of when I was born. You see I’m part of Generation X. I grew up in the seventies, commonly regarded as ‘the morning after the night before’ — the night before in this case being the sixties. Of course it was far less clear-cut than that, but many still regard the period as a decade of bad hair, bad drugs and bad attitude.
While the Hippies became disillusioned by the fact that the Age of Aquarius hadn’t ushered in a New World order of peace and love, the sense of hope wasn’t completely extinguished. The future (while not yet Orange) was at least brighter and generally cleaner — at least in terms of fashion.
Sci-fi shows such as Space 1999 predicted that in the future we’d all be wearing matching shiny threads. This tradition extended back to Sci-fi movies such as Forbidden Planet, and to the Star Trek series. Even in dystopian visions of the future like Logan’s Run or Rollerball, people generally wore matching gear.
As far as I’m aware, no one predicated the rise of the Hipsters, who make a virtue of the fact that nothing matches — except perhaps their beards and tattoos.
But here we are. Living in a world in which the Hipster has inherited the earth, or at least the advertising industry. There is nothing wrong with this of course (after all, some of my best friends are Hipsters). Despite their sardonic disposition and propensity to share images of food on Instagram, they are in my experience, a warm hearted set of people, with ethical values a keen sense of moral justice.
It is therefore somewhat surprising that as Hipsters increasingly populate advertising and marketing agencies in the UK, the industry as a whole stills struggles to reflect the diversity of modern Britain.
Urban theorist, Professor Richard Florida convincingly argued over a decade ago in his seminal book, ‘The Rise of the Creative Class’, that creative people enjoy living in urban environments that rank highly on what he defined as a Bohemian index, Gay index, and Diversity index. He concluded that if cities want to attract highly productive creative people, they should ensure there is a good mix of cultural activities and tolerance for different sexualities and ethnicities.
His theory (although hotly contested) led to a sea-change in town centre planning and theories of urban renewal. The growth of coffee shop culture and the resurgence of independent stores in the trendier parts of cities and towns today are in part informed by his thinking.
While town planners and urban theorists leapt on Florida’s concept in an attempt to attract more highly valuable creative people to their neighbourhoods, the creative industries themselves have been slower to incorporate this thinking into their recruitment practices. As a result, many of the young Hipsters now working in advertising actually meet a more diverse range of people when outside of work than within it. Some agencies have recognized the need to change this, but many still lag behind. Fortunately there are increasing signs that change is going to come.
On the June 12, The Ideas Foundation celebrated their Annual Celebration at the IPA in London. In the centre of the event (which was designed by the Foundation’s Scholars Council), stood a ‘wishing tree’ upon which people could write their wishes for the future of the creative industries. The wish that summed it up best for me was: ‘Get more people involved in the magic!’
The event showcased the work of young people that the Ideas Foundation has worked with through its various programmes such as I Am Creative and Incubate, spearheaded in schools in the North West. It also featured a Q&A interview session with Sir John Hegarty, Creative Nerds CEO, Dirujan Sabesan, and Claude Borna, SVP Global Customer Strategy & Worldwide Commercial at Sony Pictures Entertainment. The three interviewees represented different strands of the creative industries, but each spoke passionately about the need to find and follow one’s passions.
In the same week as this event took place, The One Club from New York held a week long Creative Boot Camp in London for aspiring Creatives, sponsored by the agency Mother and run by the amazing Director of Diversity, Traecy Smith. I was able to drop in on the final session on Sunday held at the London College of Communications and witnessed a large, diverse group of young people leaving fired up about the advertising industry and keen to make their mark.
Meanwhile, this week in Cannes, the Festival of Creativity kicks off. While Britain used to be disproportionately represented in the awards, over recent years our influence has waned as more international agencies walk away with the coveted Lions.
I believe that these events are not unrelated. For Britain to regain our position as a creative superpower, we need to learn lessons from the world of sports and open our doors to a more diverse pool of talent. I’m convinced that you’ll hear no complaints from the younger generation of Hipsters in our agencies — quite the opposite in fact. It won’t be long before our clients, like frustrated Football club owners begin to demand it.
We may not be living in the future we expected, but that’s no reason to hang onto the past. If we want our agencies to be filled with the brightest and best, we should heed the words of the prophetic reggae singer from the seventies — Nesta Robert Marley — and ‘Stir it up’.
Jonathan Akwue is a Partner at Engine and Chair of The Ideas Foundation.