The Livity Business Partner on amplifying Black talent with #BrandsSharetheMic this Friday why brands and agencies need to act now
“The industry is remarkable and it’s so amazing to be part of it, but it's so disappointing at the same time because it holds so much power in terms of the ability to shape popular culture, to shape ideologies, to shape perceptions. And it doesn't use that power for good,” says Rani Patel Williams.
As a key member of the agency team that launched CoppaFeel!, she’s well aware of the enormous potential for the advertising industry to change hearts and lives. She’s a Business Partner at youth marketing agency Livity, a shop with social impact mission, but after 12 years in the industry she’s well aware of the wider reluctance to sincerely enact positive change and improve inclusivity, bothwithin agencies and the content they put out. Following the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests, Rani wrote an open letter via the Marketing Society sharing what she describes as ‘a sliver’ of the racism, sexism and classism she has experienced in her career and implored the industry to admit that it’s racist.
This Friday, though, 13 brands are handing over their platforms to a spectrum of Black talent in a wave of proactive support #BrandShareTheMic. The initiative has been spearheaded by Rani and the team at youth marketing agency Livity. Rani was inspired by the social media takeover led by Luvvie Ajayi Jones’s #ShareTheMicNow in the US, which saw white Insta influencers cede their platforms to Black women – but realised there was a space for brands to use their reach and platforms to help a cross section of Black talent reach an audience.
“The brief that was given to the voices and to the brands is when you share your mic or when you take over the mic, it isn't about talking about Black suffering. We’ve already seen that and that is very much the ongoing, old narrative, right? We’re either seen as really negative characters in the press or we’re always just suffering,” explains Rani. “This action is about community progress. It's about handing over your mic to a Black voice in your community, who can then talk about progress and why there needs to be more voices in this space.”
It’s a project that helps brands to take a small step that could make a big difference to a Black creative. For example, photographer Rankin was one of the first to sign up and he’ll be handing his platform over to a young Black photographer. All of the featured talent will be paid for their creative work, though the team at Livity has been coordinating it on a pro bono basis.
For the brands that have joined the movement to ‘share their mics’, it’s an opportunity for them to take action and trough the coalition to be part of a community that it committed to making a small, but significant, difference. The brands sharing their platforms on Friday (Bloom & Wild, CoppaFeel!, Depop, Freeda Media, Kate Morross, Living Proof hair care, Lovehoney, Murad skincare, Rankin, REN Clean Skincare, Spotify, TALA, Universal Music UK I Globe, Vita Coco, and of course Livity) are just the first wave. There are more brands and agencies that are already in talks to take part in a second round. But Rani also senses a wider reluctance from the marketing community.
“I think some brands have not been sure if they should take part because they feel that they need to have their house in order before they do. And what we've been saying to brands is that it doesn’t matter, no one has their house completely in order - not one single brand, be it white-owned or white-led,” says Rani, highlighting that brands are almost paralysed by their own prior inaction on anti-racism. “This is the first single step you can take. It’s one small action, that can lead to real change.”
Livity is also taking the time to strengthen its own operations with regards to anti-racism and diversity and representation. This includes setting up an allyship program for clients, designed to pre-agree working standards. “We're working on a bigger allyship program - a blueprint that we will be putting in place across the agency to ensure that acceptable working standards and practices are adhered to.
“We want to make sure that the brands and partners have a clear and transparent understanding of how we work, and that these standards are laid out and agreed up front. We want to truly support the partners and the brands that we work with - but being a true ally means that you are able to give honest and open feedback, calling out unconscious bias when you see or hear it. Being a true ally - and creating a strong working relationship - is all around trust, honesty and feedback.
“So, for example, if you are in a meeting where you are being told to take certain people out of the cast - because their face doesn’t fit the look - you can call the brand or partner out without the conversation becoming awkward. Hopefully this won’t happen, I suppose if it did the brand wouldn’t have signed up to the allyship program anyway.”
Outside of her work with Livity, Rani brings this mindset to all her projects. She is also the founder and creative director of FANGIRL, a fashion brand that’s inspired by Black club culture and LGBTQIA culture and is gender neutral in its designs. Through that platform she’s incredibly proactive when it comes to inclusivity and representation of LGBTQIA talent of all races. When directing the brand’s debut film Black & Boujee, she worked with twins, Priince and Majeesty, dancers in the UK ballroom scene to explore the various, intersecting facets of their identities.
A passion to create work that defies narrow stereotypes seeps into every aspect of Rani’s creative life. One of her enduring frustrations with the way the ad industry portrays Black people is that, by failing to include Black talent, it sticks to the same narrow and shallow archetypes. “We find ourselves in this cyclical place where people don't really know what the black experience is. They think they know because the media has shown them the same Black archetype which it replays over and over again.”
With #BrandShareTheMic, Rani hopes to proliferate the opportunities for other Black creatives and specialists and help to break that cycle.
Beyond the takeover on Friday, Rani hopes that more agencies and brands will get involved. While a small handful have responded to the project and conversations are underway for future iterations for #BrandShareTheMic, she’s concerned that a sense of inter-agency competitiveness might be holding others back,
“I think it's been interesting because it just hammers home, how much work there needs to be done in the industry. Change can't happen unless you're doing it consistently, together,” says Rani.
Nonetheless, and despite her own demoralising experiences of racism, sexism and classism in the agency world, Rani is hopeful that there’s something in the unprecedented, heady confluence of Covid-19, lockdown. That a global surge in anti-racism protests and conversation is kicking off a genuine wave of change.
“I think it comes back to the fact that the world has had to stop and stand still. Usually there'll be ‘new’ news and new distractions, and the next thing comes along that keeps the world moving. But with George Floyd is was different - there's been a level of reflection we have not seen before, or at least for a long time. When time slightly stands still, you become more aware of a situation and you become more present. People have also become more empathic than I think they might have been before, because we're all, in some ways, united by the lockdown experience.
The world is built on systems, which means that there are people that are more privileged in so many micro levels. But we're all having to deal with locked down - it doesn't matter what race you are, or what gender.”
Whether the industry truly takes the moment of disruption to enact substantial change remains to be seen, but if now is not the time to take a step and make a start, when is?