The creative partner and co-founder at Coffee Cocoa Gunpowder talks to LBB’s Natasha Patel about his experiences with diversity in the advertising industry in Australia and beyond
It’s no secret that the topics of ‘diversity and inclusion’ are hot at the moment. From the adverts adorning our screens showing diversity like never before to more hires being made that highlight how a diverse workforce is a dynamic one, it seems that everyone is taking the concept of inclusivity seriously. But as we all too well know there was a time where it wasn’t like that at all. There was a time where being ‘different’ or having a darker skin tone was seen as a negative thing and one that would be a hindrance to gaining employment.
Things are changing fast, and the likes of Coffee Cocoa Gunpowder’s Ant Melder are at the forefront of that change. The creative has been hosting the successful podcast, Brown Riot, since 2018 which he uses to highlight and champion diverse creative leaders. He also teamed up with BMF’s Pia Chaudhary and M&C Saatchi Australia’s Avish Gordhan to launch #Onlyoneintheroom which aims to show that, for the trio, being the only one in the room of their race is a positive.
LBB’s Natasha Patel caught up with Ant to hear more about this, diversity in Australia and his take on the Indigenous community’s representation.
LBB> Let's start with #Onlyoneintheroom, what made you and the other co-founders start this?
Ant> Australia is the most diverse country in the world. There are over 300 languages spoken here. 30% of the population was born overseas. 20% of people speak a different language at home. And yet, only 16% of people who work in Australian advertising are culturally diverse. In comparison, our industry is monochromatic. It doesn’t reflect the rich tapestry of cultures and races that make up the fabric of Australia. There is a disconnect between who we are and who we advertise to.
As brown creative leaders, Pia Chaudhuri (ECD, BMF) and Avish Gordhan (ECD, M&C Saatchi) felt like we were the exceptions rather than the rule. Each of us had been the ‘only one’ in many rooms. And while there has been much talk about diversity, there simply hasn’t been a lot of action. We felt we needed a grassroots approach, a way for all of us to move together towards more equitable representation.
LBB> When did you realise that this was a topic that needed to be touched upon in Australia?
Ant> There were two key moments:
In 2018, I was at one of those fancy production company parties in Cannes, chatting to an Australian creative. At the end of a brief chat, he congratulated me on my success with Project Revoice. I quickly realised he’d mistaken me for a good friend of mine, the awesomely talented (and also brown) ECD, Ash Naidu. A completely innocent mistake of course but it got me thinking that it felt as though there was only space for one brown creative leader in the Australian industry’s psyche.
Fast forward to 2020. Pia, Avish and I had each been thinking deeply about the diversity issue and taking various individual approaches to address it. When the Black Lives Matter movement started to gain huge traction in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in 2020, we saw it as a catalyst to drive much-needed change. Pia reached out to Avish and I, and we joined forces.
LBB> You were brought up in the UK, tell me about your experiences - or lack of - with diversity during those early years?
Ant> I was actually born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where my grandad is from. But yes, I was brought up in London and am very much a Londoner. Outside of advertising one of my formative experiences has been my relationship with The Smiths. As I teenager I was a huge, pretty obsessive fan of the band; I was devastated when they split up in 1987. When Morrissey’s solo record came out in 1988 I couldn’t have been more excited. However, the album included a song called Bengali In Platforms, which was a racist musing that multiculturalism will never work and people from other countries/cultures will never be accepted in England because “life is hard enough when you belong.” For me, it was the emotional equivalent of being punched in the face by your best friend. And a reminder that I had many challenges ahead of me. Many years – and many racist outbursts – later, Morrissey said, “Diversity can’t possibly be a strength if everyone has ideas that will never correspond...everyone ultimately prefers their own race.” Fortunately, by this point I knew enough to know that this was a pretty minority opinion and no-one I knew – or wanted to know – shared it.
Back on advertising, sadly, it feels like the UK ad industry is facing exactly the same challenges as here in Australia. As I grew up in the UK industry, as much as I loved the creativity, I felt a growing sense of unease about being different to everyone around me. People of colour in agencies were few and far between – outside of the IT department. It felt like a very culturally homogenous environment. And, although I was ambitious and had some amazing role models, it was sometimes hard to really see myself in senior roles. Along the way, I worked with some awesome people who mentored me, put trust in me and promoted me. Yet, although this was awesome, the further I went, the more often it occurred to me that I was the ‘only one in the room’ – in creative reviews, client meetings, pitches and so on.
Having said that, I’ll always remember a chat with my mentor, the legendary Dave Trott. He was asking me about my heritage, and I was telling him how I was part Bengali, part Anglo-Indian, part Cockney. His take on this was that my unique cultural mash-up, the fact that I would always be the ‘only one in the room’ with that particular background, was an amazing advantage. He urged me to embrace it, celebrate, use it as a tool to stand out from the crowd, bring a perspective no one else has considered and do different, better work from everyone else. I’ve never forgotten that chat and I pass it on to all the talented young people of colour who ask me for advice on the industry.
LBB> What does inclusivity in the workplace mean to you?
Ant> It’s difficult because there’s been so much talk about this, lots of stuff sounds super clichéd. But the idea of feeling safe and confident to bring your whole self to work resonates with me. By which I mean feeling proud of your background and heritage – and knowing that your own unique story and perspective will not just be accepted but welcomed and valued.
I know this sounds like a new age hippy love-in meets a Benetton colours of the rainbow ad, but our agency has such amazingly talented people with such diverse backgrounds and we’re so much richer for it. The mash-up of all those perspectives is just so fascinating and inspiring to be around. One minute I’m getting a crash course in Filipino cuisine, next thing I’m hearing about some awesome Chinese photographer and the next I’m being taught slang phrases in some remote South African dialect. Which is brilliant – and so stimulating for creativity.
LBB> How is Australia heading towards workplace inclusivity?
Ant> There’s a bunch of positive initiatives underway here to accelerate things from conversation to action. One of them is Changing The Face – an ongoing industry survey that’s charting the (literally) changing face of creative leaders in the Australian ad industry.
Predictably, that face currently looks like a mid-30s white bloke, but hopefully the face will get some colour in it over time! There’s also a diversity and inclusion census project called Create Space that’s being run by The Ad Council. And through #OnlyOneInTheRoom, Pia, Avish and I are aiming to kickstart a bunch of grassroots initiatives that are driven not just by us but by a diverse group of passionate people from all corners of the industry.
LBB> Leading on from that, in your opinion, what can be done better?
Ant> I’m starting to see a few more People of Colour pop up in creative teams, senior roles, on judging panels, speaking at industry conferences and so on. Which is great, but I’d love to see more of this. One way forward is inviting brilliant, talented people of colour to the leadership table. As we see more of us in leadership roles, our influence will grow and change will begin to pick up pace.
LBB> Australia is known for its indigenous culture, though there’s a lack of representation in advertising industries towards this demographic. Why do you think this is?
Ant> Considering Aboriginal people are the oldest race of storytellers on the planet, it’s a really sad and unacceptable state of affairs that they’re so poorly represented in the Australian ad industry. And what a massively missed opportunity. There are tons of reasons behind this and I’m absolutely not anywhere near an expert on the reasons why or the solutions. What I do know is that the industry would be better, smarter and more interesting with more Aboriginal talent in it – in agencies, production companies and on screen.
As an agency, Cocogun is on a learning curve around this. We’ve had agency cultural training and forged connections with community leaders. But, like many Australian agencies, we’re just at the beginning of our learning journey.
LBB> Tell us about Brown Riot, where did the idea come from and what has the response been?
Ant> The idea came to me directly after the experience I mentioned in Cannes in 2018. I began thinking that one way to bring more diverse talent into the industry and inspire kids right at the start of their careers, was to celebrate the careers of brilliant culturally diverse leaders.
I’ve had some amazing people on the podcast and, while some of their stories about racism/lack of inclusion have been depressing and frustrating, their energy, passion and achievements have been inspiring. The response has been overwhelmingly positive and supportive – I think that’s because, overall, the podcast is shot through with optimism and the idea is to bring everyone in the industry on the journey, rather than it being of niche interest.
LBB> The #Onlyoneintheroom team helped launch a diversity category at the B&T Awards. How does this feel for you? Is there a worry this could become a tick boxing exercise?
Ant> Nah, we think it’s a really important initiative. What’s one thing everyone in advertising can agree on? Our love of awards, right? So this felt like a great way to showcase the brilliant work and people who are making the industry more diverse, inclusive – and, in my opinion, more fun to work in.
LBB> Finally, tell us your hopes for diversity in the Australian advertising market?
Ant> When Pia, Avish and I launched #Onlyoneintheroom the ambition was that one day, the notion of being ‘the only one in the room’ wouldn’t exist. And, therefore, there’d be no need for #Onlyoneintheroom to exist. So that’s the plan/hope/dream. A self-liquidating movement!
And related, on a personal level, I’d love to get to the point where talented young people of colour coming into/making their way in the industry feel completely comfortable to be themselves. Where they come to me and ask me what all the fuss around ‘diversity’ is about because they’ve never felt anything but welcome, at home and encouraged to be as great as they possibly can be.