If society doesn’t end up looking back on 2020 as a year that drove positive change on diversity and racial politics, then it will be to our great shame. After the innumerable horrors of events like George Floyd’s killing, as well as the inequalities that continue unchallenged, humanity clearly needs to do better.
Rani Patel Williams, whose day job is business partner at youth marketing agency Livity, was one of the many who drew on the anger and dynamism of 2020’s renewed Black Lives Matter movement as a motivation to do something new. So she started #BrandShareTheMic with two other Livity agency partners James Hogwood and Alan Bryant directly as “a response to the [marketing] industry after George Floyd's death,” she says. Predictably, it hadn’t been doing enough. Rani emphasises “The ad industry was built in a time when racism was accepted, and when we look back, we see how racism has been part of the communications the ad world has put out. The ad industry operates on a model that is over 50 years old built to serve and benefit a particular community. #BrandShareTheMic is a way of breaking old systems and creating new ones for brands to better work with and serve the Black community.”
The aim was to help create a better future between the next generation and brands so that brands can “earn a place in their lives”. #BrandShareTheMic opens up brands’ Instagram channels to the voices of young Black creatives and activists in the UK. The project is explicitly about taking first steps towards a more equitable, sustainable creative culture where brands do a better job of putting Black talent in the position of decision-maker, creator and author. As well as the general sense of injustice of the Black Lives Matter movement, the initiative was directly inspired by and approved by Luvvie Ajayi Jones’s #ShareTheMicNow
in the US.
Seven months since #BrandShareTheMic laid out its mission, The #BrandShareTheMic team have paired 41 Black creatives and activists with brands for social media takeovers, working to give these young people’s messages exposure to the audiences of brands from Google to KFC to Ren. Reaching over 2.5m people with 160k engagements on the content created in the process. With numerous brands that took part showing that the content shared across BSTM day was their highest performing content of the year up to that point.
The key was to zero in on the Black community and Black voices. “This was coming from my own personal experience being marginalised as someone from Black heritage,” says Rani. “It's also about showcasing the talent that you can have in front and behind big brand advertising campaigns, which I think brands just haven't really leveraged until recently.”
As a youth marketing agency, Livity’s huge network of young people encompasses Black talent creating in many different capacities and the first big challenge for Mahadi Manyokole, community manager at Livity, was matching the right people up to the right brands. She spent a lot of time looking into Livity’s network of 4000 + young creators, entrepreneurs, community leaders and tastemakers to find the perfect pairings. “It was a lot of sifting, and a lot of back and forth with the team. A lot of consideration went into it,” she says. She was looking for people that were paving the way, forging their own paths using their creativity.
Once the pairings were made, the collaboration put the creators much closer to the brands than Mahadi was used to working in her job for Livity - usually the agency would be the go-between, but the connections for #BrandShareTheMic were directly between the talent and the brands. She says it was “a little nerve wracking, but we had all the confidence in the talent to kind of manage and hold their own.”
An important value of the project is to give the talent autonomy and authority over their own creativity while they had access to these new audiences. It’s all about lifting up voices, not altering them. “We want to amplify the talent,” says Mahadi. “At Livity we’ve always been about that positive influence, to amplify these voices who are pioneering and doing amazing things in their own lane.” An important part of all Livity projects is tracking the impact on young people involved in the work, and Brand Share The Mic is no different. Through this tracking we saw that BSTM was doing what it set out to do, with the creators on average scoring Brand Share The Mic a 8.4/10 for feeling that it provided them opportunities to express themselves, and a 9/10 on provided them with opportunities to work with new people.
Photographer and content creator Ejatu Shaw
is a creator who was involved in one of the first #BrandShareTheMic takeovers in August 2020. They paired her up with legendary British photographer Rankin, who she describes as “someone that I've always loved and admired from afar.”
Ahead of taking over Rankin’s feed for a day Ejatu began liaising directly with him. They found some parallels between their stories. Both had come to photography after abortive careers in different professions while they’d struggled to convince their parents that they could make a life for themselves from photography. Ejatu had studied architecture while Rankin originally went into accounting to please his family.
Ejatu ended up taking over Rankin’s feed for a day, sharing her photography work, that of other Black photographers and some of her perspectives on working as a young Black creator both in front of and behind the camera, reflecting on the importance of representation and the effect of the Black gaze on visual output.
Having worked as both a model and a photographer, Ejatu has felt a lack of diversity repeatedly: “Even during the [summer 2020 Black Lives Matter] protests, it was quite a common theme for white photographers being hired to photograph the protests for publications. So I just wondered why this wasn't being pushed to Black photographers as well.” This formed the crux of the discussion she wanted to provoke on Rankin’s platforms. “The main point I was putting forward is that we need a lot more behind-the-scenes representation, to be able to tell our stories, and be prioritised in that sense, especially for stories of trauma. We need to be able to tell them in the right tone.”
The relationship that began between Ejatu and Rankin from #BrandShareTheMic grew even further from there. Ejatu ended up shooting a cover for Hunger too. Her subject was Malachi Kirby for an interview between him and ‘Small Axe’ castmate Letitia Wright
, in which they discussed representing Black British history on screen and working with Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen.
“That was a really amazing jump in my career,” says Ejatu. A full studio shoot with all the equipment and advantages a world-renowned photographer like Rankin has, it was the first time she had worked with an assistant. “It was like a day in the life of Rankin,” she laughs.
The depth of this ongoing collaboration is exactly what Rani wants #BrandShareTheMic to be about. “I'm really excited to see the talent in Brand Share the Mic do the takeovers, but they're not just flashes in the pan,” she says. “They become long-standing relationships and ongoing things. Brands are realising the longer-term impact and the value in these relationships, and they help give them some more perspective.”
André Anderson, headmaster of the art college Freedom & Balance
, was paired by #BrandShareTheMic with one of the biggest brands on the planet. He took over Google UK’s Twitter feed for a day in November 2020.
He describes the focus of his energies as “people figuring out how to build their own education systems”. Usually his work is hyper local, focusing his attention on west and northwest London. But Google is about as global as a brand gets, and he particularly valued the chance as it’s a “company that is focused around knowledge.”
André’s approach to the takeover was personal to begin with, “going into where it came from, from a biographical place,” he says. With an audience of 190,000 followers, he broke things down to explain the work he does at its simplest.
Then he shared resources for creativity and a step-by-step guide to building a curriculum that works. The challenge from André’s perspective was, “figuring out a way in which we take all of the huge discussion we normally have, but then introduce all those topics to someone who doesn't even necessarily feel like education should be changed.” He was acutely aware that much of the audience was leaning towards white and middle class, whereas Freedom & Balance’s usual audience are working class and mostly Black.
Having collaborated with Google sends a powerful signal about his educational work, he says: “It helps settle a lot of people’s hearts. Beforehand it could easily look like this is just something we’re doing for fun. But when you see such an important company as Google standing with what we’re doing, a lot of people [realise] there’s value in the proposition that we’re making.”
André’s still speaking to Google two months on from the takeover. “I feel like it's the first part of a two part conversation,” he says. The second part is a longer conversation: “If we were to truly collaborate, what can that collaboration look like in both of our worlds?”
Dr. Sotonye David-West, who runs the educational Instagram account Gynaegossip
, was able to join the #BrandShareTheMic experience when female health brand Daye, who make CBD-infused tampons signed up to the November coalition for the first time.
She had a clear idea of how she wanted to make the most of this new audience from the get go. “I already knew that I didn’t want to change who I was or what my platform is naturally about,” she says. “Gynaegossip is about educating other people about vaginal, sexual and menstrual health, menopause, fertility and contraception. I started my Instagram page in June, soon after George Floyd was killed. I knew that I wanted my page to be one that supported and brought attention to inequalities and health care challenges that Black people face. I love pages that allow you to interact with the creator therefore I decided to make sure the content I posted on the day allowed my audience to get involved and let me know what they were thinking!”
The result was a day of Stories
that put the spotlight on the many varieties of racial inequalities and lack of representation in obstetrics and gynaecology, delivered with a sense of humour and backed by heaps of facts.
This one was just the beginning of a relationship too. After the takeover, Dr West was featured on Daye’s ‘Dear Daye’ series, where she answered anonymous questions submitted by their followers. She also featured on their blog in an article ‘Should You Get STI Tests In A Long-Term Relationship?
’ that has a readership of over 60,000 readers a month.
Dr West is encouraged by the momentum that the #BrandShareTheMic platform has already built, but she’s keen to see awareness and recognition of the health of Black people - and particularly Black women who suffer from health inequalities - pushed further. This includes the fact that they are more likely to die from cervical cancer but have the lowest uptake rates of cervical screening. The statistic that Black women are five times more likely to die during childbirth than their white counterparts is also one that she feels needs to be repeated until it changes. These are “truly terrifying,” she says. “We need to investigate these inequalities and begin to root out the deeper causes and prejudices that are harming a whole population. In order to do this, we need to keep speaking about these topics, keeping them in the public eye, keep sharing information and experiences. Change doesn’t happen overnight but I’d love to see the momentum carried on until it does.”
Dr West sees the extent of the potential that initiatives like #BrandShareTheMic offer brands and would love to see more of them collaborate with Black creators. “Brands shouldn’t be shy to go a little bit further and share something that may be new to their followers or make them think,” she says. “Often these sorts of events are popular only for a moment and then die down. Perhaps joining with Black creators on a more lengthy contract or basis would help keep the momentum going and begin to be the change that we want to happen.”
André sees huge potential for these kinds of partnerships in 2021. “I think that like there is a genuine opportunity for the UK to make things that the world hasn't seen before,” he says. “There are now new voices that haven't been heard before. Over a long period of time, not just over a year, but over five years, 10 years, if these voices were to grow, if these communities were to grow in their voice, they would be able to provide UK creativity, even global creativity, with something that we haven't given a chance to develop before, which is so exciting.”
The #BrandShareTheMIc team understands the value the initiative brings to the brands and future voices of the industry, they plan to continue the planned coalitions throughout 2021. There are pre-planned dates available for brands to sign up to, if you’re interested in sharing the mic email the team at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more.