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Why Advertising Production Needs to Open Up About Racism and Representation

Trends and Insight 0 Add to collection

Industry experts talk supporting Black and BIPOC talent, racism in casting, the importance of transparency and new initiatives like Bid Black and Change the Lens

Why Advertising Production Needs to Open Up About Racism and Representation
“This push, this movement right now has been something that has been happening in our lives. All our lives, we’ve all been fighting systemic racism one way or another,” says director Savanah Leaf.

She’s speaking from Los Angeles, where she’s joined by EP Alli Maxwell and fellow director Rohan Blair-Mangat – all leading figures in the recently-formed Black Filmmakers Collective. They recently launched Change the Lens, a pledge for production companies to increase the diversity of their crews at all levels and to consult a head of diversity and inclusion . 

As Savanah notes, the systematic racism faced by Black people is entrenched, but circumstances around this summer’s Black Lives Matter movement have galvanised society into action. In the advertising industry, the lack of representation in agencies has come under scrutiny – and in the world of production several groups, companies and collectives have been working to address the lack of diversity, the barriers to entry and progress, and forms of discrimination.

To that end, LBB has brought together industry insiders who are spearheading change to examine how much work the production world needs to do, underlying structures that need to be overhauled and positive steps forward. 

Alongside the Black Filmmakers Collective, Saatchi LA associate producer Sydni Chustz who has launched Bid Black a platform designed to showcase Black creative talent; Alex Bennett Grant, CEO of We Are Pi and the brains behind Before You Shoot, a shocking piece of research that reveals the extent of racism in advertising casting; Mia Powell, Head of Sales at Prettybird, a production company that has committed to increasing BIPOC and female representation in crews; leading casting director Kharmel Cochrane; Lief founder Margo Mars, who has been collaboratively drafting up anti-racist clauses to be included in production contracts in order to force clients, agencies and production companies to agree standards up front; and Dom Thomas, Object & Animal founder and MD, who has recently joined the APA Council in part to help the UK’s production association navigate underrepresentation more effectively.

Tackling representation and nurturing Black and BIPOC talent is not simply a case of diversifying a production company’s roster. "Often times there’s a quick knee-jerk response of ‘oh we’ll add some black directors to the roster’. That is important but just one piece of the ecosystem that has to shift. People are quick to release stats and get defensive (‘oh look we have these brown faces on our roster’) but it also matters who the advocates in the building are, who the EPs are, what the staffing levels look like,” says Alli, an EP who also argues that the commercial industry needs to pay more attention and respect to the music video world, an area rich in Black creative talent.

And when companies have made efforts to invest in talented directors from underrepresented backgrounds, agencies and clients need to have the vision and creative ambition to give them a shot. Mia and Margo point out that often when Black talent is included in long lists and pitches, they’re up against the big names who have already been afforded the opportunities to establish their reputation... and in today's data-reliant, risk-averse climate many clients have lost their taste for breaking and making the big directors of tomorrow.

Confronting underrepresentation isn't just something that production companies need to do. "We're not just talking about production here - I think post production is another lens we need to focus on in terms of representation. We don't have that many Black, female editors out there, we don't have that many Black editors out there - why? And where are the people talking about them? It has to be all of production that we're talking about in this lens," says Mia.

In front of the camera, casting and onscreen representation is still an ongoing battle. According to We Are Pi’s survey of 500 people in the ad industry, 94% believe that the industry needs to take action against racist decision making in the casting process – and it also revealed that agencies and clients tend to use coded language to evade accusations of racism.

That’s something that Kharmel has experienced. “I don’t really think they’ve got better, I think people have become more aware of how to hide what they actually want… so we’ll get briefs all the time that are ‘all ethnicities’ and then I’ll get a call from the producer saying ‘they mean white’. So there’s never a paper trail for any of the stuff that goes on.”

One unavoidable complication when it comes to redressing the balance in production as well as calling out racism is the unequal power dynamics that exist between production and post houses with agency and brand clients. Though, as the evergreen Bill Bernbach quote goes, 'a principle isn't a principle until it costs you something'. "I do feel like to really make a difference it's going to hurt and even though production companies are at the bottom of that chain, if there are things they are seeing from an agency or client that they think are problematic, they have to speak out even if it's going to be at the detriment of their business," says Rohan.

That's why agreeing on industry-wide standards, getting buy-in from clients and associations at a top level and getting partners on the same page ahead of productions has something to recommend it.

As for creating access and fostering an ecosystem where Black and BIPOC/BAME talent can flourish in production, groups such as the Black Filmmakers Collective and projects like Bid Black and Before You Shoot are creating concrete, measurable steps that companies can take. 

“It’s transparency as well, making sure people aren’t afraid to mark where they are right now, setting their objectives and goals so they’ve got something where they can track their progress,” says Dom, who suggests that the hyper-competitive nature of the industry could be harnessed for good as businesses work hard to outdo their competition.

However, many of the panellists suggest that companies that are truly committed to making a true and substantial difference to their business and productions should consult with D&I experts – expecting existing Black employees and talent to shoulder that burden and to suddenly be organisational experts and to be able to speak on behalf of a whole community or even many communities is exploitative and unfair.

Ultimately, whether it’s about the representation in the work that the ad industry creates or the ecosystem in which the work is being created, the production industry has its work cut out – and there are difficult conversations to be had. But there’s also tangible steps to take in order to create real and substantial change.

For more information and to explore next steps:
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