Dear ad industry, you are not half as disruptive as you think

 Seyi Alawode
Seyi Alawode

A final-year student at Warwick University and founder of youth-led agency CHL, Seyi Alawode thinks agencies need to face up to some uncomfortable truths.

Last year, during my quest for the perfect second-year-of-uni summer internship within the advertising/marketing/PR/media industries, I couldn’t help but notice just how many times agency websites mentioned the word 'disruptive'. If I got paid for every time it was mentioned, alluded to, rinsed, repeated and then reiterated, I would’ve had a much more financially abundant summer than I did. If only...

Anyone semi-familiar with the above mentioned industries knows that along with 'diversity', 'disruptive' is up there among the creative industry’s favourite catchwords. But what does it truly mean to be disruptive?

If the industry is really as innovative as it promises, why do brands/agencies only work with the same creatives from the same demographics? Why are brands and agencies jumping on bandwagons instead of creating their own paths? Why is diversity being treated as a mere trend when it should be the norm? Why does a large portion of the industry spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on an annual festival on the French Riviera, to discuss solutions to important issues that never actually get implemented? Where is the progress?

To say that the creative industry isn’t thriving in other aspects would be totally dishonest. I think I should also mention here that I am no industry expert and my opinions should not be deemed factual; as I am myself fairly new to the industry. In fact, I would go as far as to consider myself an outsider looking in, merely speaking from a young minority’s point of view.

My opinions on the creative industry have been shaped by my experience as a 21-year-old running an agency (it’s called CHL and yes this is a shameless plug) that helps young people like myself access the industry, while helping like-minded, ethical brands communicate with people who look like me.

They are also inspired by my experience doing internships here and there across marketing, advertising, journalism and PR, the articles I’ve read, events I’ve attended, and the people I’ve come across so far in my creative journey. Though I’m no insider or expert, I do think it’s super important that the industry considers some uncomfortable truths in order to grow. Thus, in this piece, I address where I feel the creative scene is lacking, and the collective action we could take to overcome these hurdles. 

So, to put it in the nicest way possible…

Your obsession with influencers is pushing consumers away

Speaking as a business owner, the key to any successful brand is its ability to create and nurture a valuable relationship with its audience, and a pretty decent way to enable this is through relatable influencers. Speaking as a consumer, however, the dire need to 'keep up', stay relevant and remain ahead has caused brands and marketing/PR agencies to overestimate the value of influencer marketing, which in turn is slowly creating a neglect of consumers in the process. 

Bear with me; here’s an example.

A PR agency recently put on an event for a leading beauty brand to celebrate the launch of its new range of products. As you do, right? Well, the odd thing here was that this extravagant, well put together product launch was an invite only, influencer-plus-friends-minus-consumers event.

Ordinary consumers – you know, the ones actually buying and using the products, whose opinions are crucial because we don’t get paid to use or advertise the product and thus in whose hands the success/failure of said product lies – were nowhere to be found at the launch. Perhaps it’s my industry naivety, but I’ve tried and failed woefully in deconstructing why a brand that truly cares for its audience would often leave them out of the picture. Consumers are central to your growth, and your very existence, quite frankly.

I do believe influencers work extremely hard in helping brands grow, and they ought to be rewarded as such. My only qualm here is that this often manifests itself through exclusivity – influencer-only events, exclusive perks and holidays etc (although this is technically no surprise, given that ‘exclusive’ is the industry’s middle name).

What this exclusivity has created is this popular ‘us vs them’ rhetoric between brands/influencers and everyday people. In other words, when influencers are seemingly put on pedestals over loyal consumers, they become unrelatable. Studies show that users are five times more likely to tune into digital content they can relate to, and are three times more likely to buy a product advertised by people who look like them. Considering this, building a relatability gap between your influencers and desired audience probably isn’t the best idea. 

Consumers want to feel cared for. Hosting consumer-centric events, regular digital communication with your audience, collaborating with them through focus-groups (but make it, like, millennial), product testing and giveaways etc, are all stellar ways to keep the brand-customer relationship alive and shows that you do indeed, give a *insert expletive*. Prioritising influencer, and excluding us in the process, does quite the opposite.

You’re sort of exclusive. Scratch that ... VERY exclusive

The creative industry and exclusivity; where shall I begin? Perhaps with the fact that it was once casually mentioned to me in convo that at least 60% of the jobs within advertising go unadvertised? Or the tech and media industry’s emphasis on a ‘culture fit’? Or maybe a good place to start is with the fact that Cannes Lions – the industry’s largest annual festival of creativity that has the potential to change lives as it did mine – is averagely priced at about £2,000, thus excluding a whole class demographic and most young people from attendance? Yeah, let’s go with that one. 

Not too long ago, I attended Cannes Lions Festival for free (!) thanks to Google UK, which recognised my agency as a force to be reckoned with. Google gave myself and nine other creative self-starters from around the world the opportunity to join Roger Hatchuel Academy and network with global industry leaders at the festival. Cannes was a life-changing experience I’ll forever be grateful for – it genuinely changed my life. I left with lifelong mates, a stronger network, and a bunch of prospective clients.

Unfortunately, my trip didn’t go without fault. Running a business dedicated to bridging the access gap between young, diverse people like myself and the creative industry, while being at a festival that the average person cannot afford, evoked within me the biggest wave of imposter syndrome I have ever felt. I felt like such a fraud. At the start of almost every festival day, I had to give myself those cringey, sitcom-like mirror pep talks. I had to remind myself that even though hardly anyone there looked like me, I, Seyi Alawode – a young Nigerian woman – deserved to be at Cannes Lions.

I particularly remember looking forward to attending a panel-talk midweek at the festival, which addressed how to capture the minds of the Gen-Z audience. Being Gen-Z myself, I was weirdly excited to contribute to the conversation and share ideas, only to find out that the talk was invite-only and targeted at certain industry leaders. Saltiness aside, I don’t think I’ll ever grasp the benefit of an invite-only panel talk. Ever. For the industry to progress, we cannot exclude people out of conversations. We cannot possibly surround ourselves with people who think like us, look like us and us co-sign our every move; and expect anything to change.

As mentioned earlier, we all need to have those awkward, uncomfortable conversations in order to grow. Choosing to liaise solely with people who tell us what we want to hear only creates stagnancy. The very people excluded from these important conversations may simply create their own paths, and gradually become competition. Plus, I don’t really know of that many Gen-Z industry leaders, so I wonder how well that panel talk went...

CHL research from earlier this year, where we interviewed more than 100 diverse creatives aged 18-25, showed that there is, as we predicted, a scarily big knowledge, access and opportunity barrier standing between young people/minorities and the creative industry. Bit weird though, as I find that these demographics are almost always the "target audience" of several leading brands. Seventy-seven per cent of those asked felt like they "didn’t know enough" about opportunities within the industry or felt like they needed to know-a-guy-who-knows-a-guy, in order to get their foot in.

It is so difficult for your average young minority to get their foot in the door; fresh out of uni or not. It’s why I built CHL in the first place, because it’s one thing to be unaware of the various opportunities available within the creative industries, and it’s another to be completely clueless about how to leverage them. 

To solve this problem we need to create more access and awareness. Brands, companies and agencies looking to do this should collaborate with platforms like, CHL (wohooo!), Creative Equals, Livity UK, Creative Mentor Network and so on. Platforms such as these allow young, diverse and talented creatives to navigate an industry that seems closed off to people like us. Another great solution is to increase your brand’s presence on student campuses, so that we’re made aware of what opportunities you have to offer, because when it comes to lack of awareness regarding the creative sector, the student sphere is a whole other ball game. 

While we cannot expect the nature of the industry to magically transform overnight, it’s important that we at least start somewhere. Hopefully, conversations like these will enable us to do so.

RE diversity: you’re doing WAY too much talking, barely any walking

O-M-G, if it isn’t the industry’s favourite buzzword! Cannes Lions 2019’s most recurrent theme! The hot topic of almost every marcomms panel talk in 2019 so far! Given that the industry won’t shut up about it, we clearly all know that diversity is important. Diversity across race. Gender. Class. Age. Sexuality. Religion. Ability. We know it’s necessary for the survival of the industry, so why is it being spoken about more than its being implemented? Why do popular festivals that shall not be named believe it’s ok to request free labour off black women and then only respond adequately when called out on social media?

Why do brands that profit off 'black culture' pay black influencers considerably less than their white counterparts? Why do people even attempt to profit off cultures that aren’t theirs? Why does the industry in general still commercialise Pride Month despite the gross underrepresentation of LGBTQ+ people within the creative workforce? Why do sports brands think it’s enough to drop female-centred ads on International Women’s Day while paying their female athletes much less than their male ones? Why are hard-working women having their slogans ripped off by large media powerhouses? 

I assume a few nerves were touched there, and it was my exact intention to do so. As a young black woman, trying to navigate an un-diverse industry, diversity across all spheres means a lot to me. And I mean diversity that is actually implemented, instead of just being spoken about, plastered all over websites, and then ignored. To know and not to do, is not to know.

I could spend the rest of this article pointing out where the industry misses the mark regarding diversity. Or instead, for a more productive use of both my time and yours, we could get into how we can begin to diversify the industry in ways that go beyond sitting on a panel for an hour.

Google Creative Campus. Roger Hatchuel Academy. TheOtherBox. Hustle Crew Live. SocialFixt. POCinTech. UKBlackTech. The Pop Up Agency. Ogilvy Roots. Gal-Dem. Soho House’s Impact Programme. SheSaysUK. LGBTQDesign. CHL (hello, again). D&AD Night School.

These are all programmes, platforms, schemes and agencies that have helped in some way or another, empower minorities within the industry and increase representation and inclusion in the creative sector. If you truly care about diversity, fund and liaise with the people running these programmes. Set up schemes that allow working-class people to get their foot in the door.

If your target audience is Gen-Z, then collaborate with Gen-Z creatives to work on campaigns instead of relying on outdated, biased ‘culture reports’ – nobody can tell our stories better than we can. Furthermore, stop profiting off cultures you don’t own. Pay minorities for their labour, on time. Pay women equally. Call out sexist, racist or prejudiced culture in the workplace. Increase LGBTQ+ representation within your workforce and allow them to tell their own stories, particularly during pride month. That is how you do diversity. 

But a panel talk will do... I guess.

Seyi Alawode is the founder of CHL

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