What a disabled-led cast taught me about challenging stereotypes

I see a lot of people in our industry talking about inclusivity, but very little action. The work often feels superficial and made for dubious reasons.

"I always get my leads from Maplin, never Amazon. I need to see what I’m buying."

Innocuous if slightly meticulous words. Well, they would be if they weren’t from Stephen. Stephen was registered blind from birth. As those words, "I need to see what I’m buying", fell from his mouth, he was on his hands and knees, under his desk, among a snake pit of wires, plugging in a keyboard cable with ease. It was at this point that I knew our Beco soap campaign had to change. 

The problem wasn’t the idea. Beco is a social enterprise and soap brand, and 80% of its staff have a disability – mostly sight and learning difficulties. Our brief was to raise awareness of the disability employment gap and the idea was called "Steal our staff". I loved it, it felt counter-intuitive and it had the right amount of edge to help a small brand pack a big punch. 

The work had been written by Dan [Kenny], Tom [Gong] and Duncan [Brooks]. Their ambitious output – print, posters, website, on-pack, direct, social media and film – had all been signed off. But after that meeting with Stephen and his Maplin cables, the script we’d written was only headed one way: the bin. It now felt too generic. 

The main problem was that it wasn’t actually representative of the people who worked there. It didn’t have their humility, their normality and, most importantly, their humour. 

To write a more insightful script, I decided we needed to really get to know the staff. So the creative team spent weeks on end on the factory floor interviewing, chatting and having tea with the staff. Most of the workers are blind or have learning differences, and the team engaged them in a way that astonished me – a way I doubt many other people, let alone productions or agencies, ever had. 

They spent so much time there, I had to hire freelancers to cover their other workloads. I even went a whole fortnight thinking one of them was on holiday in Fuerteventura. Hats off to them; I have never seen a team so dedicated and so immersed at such a deep, personal level in a job. 

Gradually, they gained the workers’ trust, respect and even friendship. They even witnessed the blind leading the blind, as a staff member helped another to their workstation. This helped us write humour into the work. The team discovered the real Stephen; he’s somewhere between Matt Lucas and Rory Bremner. They spent hours with him laughing at his impersonations. But it was when he took the piss out of the audio descriptor voices on Netflix that they realised we had the backbone of our spot. We would never have written jokes like that without the staff. It felt far too awkward coming from us, but when they did it, it felt credible, fun, human and honest. 

We ensured there was never a shot in there that could be accused of being a visual cliché of disability, unless we were subverting or misdirecting it. The best example is the opening scene, which made Stephen laugh out loud when he first saw the script: "People always presume that we’re sad." It’s a shameful truth that he was so used to being defined by his disability and a presumption about how he must feel.

It wasn’t all plain sailing. We found ourselves having to be much more flexible than we were used to when it came to directing. For example, we wanted the staff talking to camera. It wasn’t until we were on set that we realised how impractical this pre-production decision really was. So along with Camilla, Beco's fantastic chief executive, and our director, Dan Castella, we decided that we’d try our best to make our visually impaired talent aware of the location of the camera, but not get too hung up on them looking down the lens. This meant everyone could focus purely on the performance. 

This is a small but reflective example of the constant differences that occur minute by minute when in production with a cast who have disabilities. You can do all the talking and prep beforehand, but you have to be able and willing to adapt the way you work.

As well as working with the staff to come up with the right tone and content for the work, we also had an ongoing partnership with Scope and The Valuable 500 (a collection of employers committed to putting disability inclusion on their business leadership agenda). This helped guide us and make sure we weren’t making any glaring errors and were prepared in the event of any negative comments or questions.

This was a big one: "Aside from an awareness job, how’s this helping the 1.1 million people beyond the 30 staff at Beco?" Expecting this feedback, we partnered Evenbreak, which has a database of all the people with disabilities looking for work. So whether the staff turned down a job or Beco didn’t have a suitable candidate, we could pass on further details of other people looking for work and make sure the opportunity created wasn’t lost.

I see a lot of people in our industry talking about inclusivity, but very little action. And the work often feels superficial and made for dubious reasons (yes, I mean awards). Or when it is well-intended, it’s often badly executed. I think if you are going to do purpose, it has to be inherent to the brand and that brand has to do more than just hold up an awareness flag – it has to actually do something and commit.

I always wanted to ensure that this work drove fame, sales and shelf space for Beco. But because it’s a relatively unknown brand, I was paranoid that it would be too easy for people to just dismiss Beco as a charity. So I was adamant that we could never leave the product behind. That’s why the pack designs are at the heart of the idea. The CVs are on the soaps; there is no ambiguity.

What we almost did was write a script as though the people at Beco were defined by their disability and then cast for that disability. What we ended up doing was finding the people first, finding the truth of their world, and then writing for them. If you don’t do this, you end up casting for disabled stereotypes. This way round, the finished work is about the people, not what they can’t do – and that’s where I take pride. 

Michael came in with his guide dog Hermes to help us present the campaign to the whole agency. That meant a lot, but not as much as when he mentioned that he was keen to sign up to a casting agent and do some more acting work so that disabled people are better represented in advertising. That felt like real purpose. If you see his mug shot in your next pre-production meeting, I thoroughly recommend him. 

Andy Jex is chief creative officer at TBWA\London

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