Over a Zoom call, Jay Richards is buying me a theoretical birthday present. The founder of Imagen, an agency that feeds brands insights from the gen Z community, has gifted me a pair of trainers that I already own seven times over. But he’s giving me that eighth pair regardless.
“This is a prime example of what brands do to the Black community,” he says. “‘We’re going to start a Black initiative. We’re going to start another diversity thing.’ But they don’t fucking ask us what we need. They just tell us.”
It’s been three weeks since George Floyd was murdered by the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, triggering widespread demonstrations and a global revival of the Black Lives Matter movement. In the US we’re seeing ongoing footage of Americans coming out of their homes on a daily basis to demonstrate despite often being met with teargas, rubber bullets and general police brutality, and the fact that the country (and world) is in the middle of a pandemic.
Recent years have seen other large scale demonstrations for racial equality in the US. The Ferguson uprisings in 2014 slowed down when the family of Michael Brown requested that people not protest on the day of his funeral. Meanwhile, 2015 demonstrations against the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore began to slow down when the officers guilty of killing him were brought to justice. But as this article on Vox
lays out, Chauvin was charged some two weeks ago and still people are taking to the streets, many under curfew, in big cities and smaller towns.
It feels like a shift is happening. It’s a shift that Kelly Harrison, senior director, marketing and communications, US at R/GA demonstrates with an excellent analogy. To paraphrase Kelly, it’s as if society is living in a burning building. On every single floor there is a fire. The most marginalised people live at the top of the building while the least marginalised are closer to the ground. For the people at the top the entire building is on fire. The people at the bottom heard their fire alarm go off last week - they’ve known that the building is on fire but it didn’t affect them so much. They called 911 but didn’t feel the need to actively help extinguish the fire. “Now it’s getting to a point where we’re realising that we need to put the fires out,” she says.
The reason that Jay and I were talking is a video that he posted on social media
shortly after George Floyd’s death that called brands out for utilising Black culture when it suited them to sell products, but ending their support of Black communities there. “Brands over the last two or so years, many even beyond that back to the days of Run DMC, love Black culture,” he says. “I love the fact that brands want to be a part of Black culture and that they want to talk about Black culture, but I started to notice that they were loving Black culture without loving Black people.”
“It’s been some time in our industry where elements of Black and African culture are leveraged in the mainstream,” says Charles Duncan Jr., VP of technology at Brooklyn agency Elephant. “Whether it be music, fashion or things like that in order to sell products or position a brand as more cooler, more millennial, more urban. Sometimes it’s very evident, other times it’s not very evident.
“Obviously there are the brands that actually use Black people within their marketing,” he adds. “Nike has athletes of all shapes, sizes, colours, genders telling a message and it’s not about their racial background but they are very conscious about showing diversity because they’re selling products to a diverse set of people. But as for the brands out there that just have the music, have the style, it’s more of an appropriation instead of genuine connection with people.”
Jay has a theory for why appropriation like this happens and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it mostly boils down to plain ignorance. “A lot of folks aren’t racist. They don’t hate Black people,” he says. “A lot of folks don’t want to take the time that it takes to understand the Black experience in the UK, US and beyond. If agencies and brands took the time to understand the Black experience from their friends and colleagues, they would then realise that they can’t just take parts of that culture. It comes from a place of ignorance - if you don’t understand something then you don’t have any issues taking parts of it.”
He speaks from personal experience. If you had asked him about the LGBTQIA community when he was 12, he’d give you a very different perspective to now. “I have friends from that community that I speak to and hear their struggles, so I read up and I research and I try and understand so I can comprehend it,” he says. “My friend is South Korean. I wanted to understand what it’s like to be a South Korean woman in the UK. People say she’s Chinese. She’s not, people are just ignorant to that point. I’ve had to learn about those cultures so that when something comes up and I’m in a position where I can appropriate that culture or be racist, I won’t. It comes from a place of ignorance. People are not understanding Black culture so they are happy to take from it without any repercussions.”
The impact of that appropriation is becoming harder for brands to ignore, and they’re also being scrutinised to see if their internal business practices match up to their marketing. Sure, they shared a post about Black Lives Matter, but how diverse is their leadership?
As Kelly points out, people have been holding brands accountable before the Covid pandemic has sharpened our focus, not only when it comes to racism but also whether brands have the right to bathe their marketing in the warm glow of social righteousness if their actions don’t measure up. It’s a trend that will continue, she believes. “We have more visibility now and people are expecting more from brands,” she says. “20-30 years ago you bought something because it was good quality. Without the internet, it was about seeing something that was popular and buying it. Now you know about how that company treats its people, where it sources its materials. You can see the chain of humanity that they’re leaving or lack thereof.”
With regards to brands’ immediate reaction to the demonstrations, the one thing that is certain is that it has been widespread. The real question is the sincerity of those reactions and whether there’s any commitment past a social media post for genuinely setting about to change. “While there are some companies that have remained silent during the recent Black Lives Matter movement or simply put out superficial statements of support, there are plenty of others trying to elicit and demonstrate real action,” says Roger Ramirez, head of account management at Brooklyn production agency Mustache. “Beyond using their voices publicly, I urge companies to continue to peel back the layers around the issues of racism and underrepresentation and be open to active self-reflection and scrutinisation from consumers and employees as they navigate comprehensive changes.”
Roger’s point about scrutiny is unavoidable for brands in the public age of 2020. There’s no place to hide and little point in trying to do so. “Just looking at the last two weeks, it feels like brands have to say something,” agrees Charles. “If they have never said something before they have to apologise for having never said something before. To me that does seem a bit odd - you understand that brands would have a stance on it but sometimes it’s not necessarily tied to what they do as a core business.
“I’d want to feel that if a brand is going to say something that it’s committed to internal representation, internally standing up for it,” he adds. “If brands are going to state a position and make a stand, I want to make sure that it’s a stand that they’re holding themselves to account for internally as well as the representation of the brand to the external world - not just making a statement.”
“There has been a wide spectrum of action over the last few weeks; some of it is performative, some of it is comprehensive,” adds Roger. “My point of view is that all of the action in support of the movement is a step in the right direction, but that there are levels to how big or substantive each step is that we should all be held to account for. If as a brand or a company or a person you are willing to take a public stand, I support that; but I will challenge you to follow through and be ready to explain how you will continue to advocate and bring about change going forward.”
One brand that has been singled out by many as an example to follow is Ben & Jerry’s. The Unilever-owned ice cream brand has a longstanding history of supporting social issues, and released possibly the most pointed brand statement on current events
. “They are very in-tune,” says Kelly. “They do their homework and take measures that I don’t see any other brand taking.”
But if you’re a brand that doesn’t have a history of activism like Ben & Jerry’s, that isn’t a reason to hide away, Kelly says. Soulless social media posts should be avoided but a spot of honesty and commitment could go a long way. “If you’re a brand that does not and has a history of not supporting Black people and Black employees, and you come out with messaging, Black Twitter is relentless. They want to see authentic measures. If you are a company that doesn’t have a track record of being an ally to Black people, then you should be honest about making efforts and the things you did wrong in the past. Everything is public, it’s not like you can hide it.”
When looking to the future, authentic, actual change in various forms is the desire. For Jay, it comes down to two simple questions related to the theoretical trainers he gifted me earlier: what do you already have and what do you need? “Ask what the Black community already has within your space,” he says. “Ask them or folks like myself who are connected to this community what they have at the moment that they don’t need anymore of. People always say they’d love to be mentors. As nice as that is, I have mentors coming out of my ears. So ask them what they already have.
“Secondly, in a humble, ‘we’re ready to learn and work on it’ way, ask what do you need?” Jay adds. “It’s simple. What do you have and what do you need? But when you ask that second question it’s a sign that you’re ready to put budget and effort behind this to actually push it forward. Within each space it’ll be wildly different but if you ask those two questions to people that are leaders in their community, running their own businesses, senior leaders in agencies, we will have very good answers for you. And don’t just ask one person, ask multiple. Engage the community in the conversation. When they do that, brands will mitigate and get rid of the risk of having shit impact with our community.”
For Roger, it’s about representation in the media. “Show Black people in your advertisements and campaigns positively,” he says. One of the ways our culture systemically oppresses people of colour is by not casting them in certain roles. For example, if CEOs are almost always depicted as white males, we implicitly associate this position of power and importance with white males. As an industry, I think we have a duty to understand how what we represent in media affects perceptions of reality that may ultimately be problematic.”
Charles, meanwhile, puts more responsibility at the feet of the agencies actually making that work and suggests a shake-up of hiring. “If you have a diverse set of people contributing to the work you’re going to get a richer set of work that will have a greater sense of relevancy,” he says. “That all starts with the talent and some of that might be encouraging people that might have never thought of this industry as a career path. It starts there and the work will continue to be more sensitive and reflective of what’s happening in the world. I would focus on the talent and the people creating the work. The clients can hold agencies accountable but really it should start with the agencies themselves holding themselves accountable to having a diverse talent base.”
He is aware that this argument isn’t necessarily new to the industry – it’s just that, for the most part, the industry hasn’t acted upon it. Read any trade magazine or attend any conference over the last five years and you’ve almost certainly stumbled across some kind of opinion piece denouncing the advertising industry’s approach to diversity and siloed hiring processes. What’s more, industry leaders have signed open letters making related pledges and we’ve seen companies like WPP pledge to fight racism
and invest in Black talent. Only time will tell of the effects.
Charles also notes general business problems in the industry right now and its potential knock-on effect to widespread change - it becomes much harder to hire anyone, regardless of race, during a time when people are being laid off at a higher rate than usual. “The most important part for me,” he concludes, “is that internally agencies have a sense of self-reflection about how they are managing their people and setting a great example. If it starts there that will ooze out externally in terms of the work and the brand of the agency itself, which will attract talent that will want to work at your shop because what you do for your people is something that others will want to become a part of.”
Jay notes the importance for brands’ transparency as the purchasing influence of gen Z continues to grow. Brands have gen X and millennials relatively sewed up at the moment but they aren’t going to be around forever. And in Jay’s mind, and the minds of his community of gen Z consultants, gen Z - and younger - will set a precedent of plainly not purchasing from a brand if they don’t back up any claims around diversity, the environment or other causes. “Gen Z are going to fuck brands over,” he says. “I feel this to the core of my being. There’s enough technology now where they don’t need them [brands]. Brands are fooling themselves that they’ve built this wall around them that’ll keep them here forever. Some brands are latching onto it and they’re the ones that are reaching out to us. Others are comfortable being the big 1%. But gen Z will build something better and get rid of you. Gen Z sees the world in a wildly different way to us. The way they see gender and race is different.”
This fits with a prediction that Kelly holds for the future, one that involves a surge of Black-owned brands and more loyalty towards them. “Every now and then you want to put on a Gucci loafer,” she jokes. “But would I rather buy a Gucci loafer or something by a Black-owned company that is creating goods and services that are of equal or greater quality? I am going to support that. We can help to create more legacy brands and level the playing field and create equity in every single space.”
From an overall brand point of view, she stresses the importance of intention of knowledge of influence. “Use that influence in a way that benefits everyone if possible. That might be a bit idealistic but you have such a great opportunity to elevate so many platforms. You buy advertising, you have highly tracked websites, you have social media presences that are viewed by hundreds of thousands of people a day.
“I don’t think brands have the luxury of ignoring their influence anymore. You have to use it for good. It’s a balance. You’re still trying to sell things. But you should also be very cognizant of how you are positioning yourself as a brand. Brands are seeing that. They know and I am hopeful that they start moving their efforts in that direction.”