In this opinion piece, Avish Gordhan, creative director at Cummins&Partners Sydney, argues why the industry needs to broaden the discussion around diversity beyond just gender.
I am a brown person. I was born in South Africa and am of Indian descent. I celebrate Diwali, eat curries and, unfortunately, I stand out in advertising in a way that’s not good.
At an industry lunch recently, while talking to two other brown people, someone nearby drew our attention to the fact that the three of us had huddled together at one end of the event amidst a sea of white people. It was funny for a moment – a kind of social apartheid had occurred through no one’s fault nor out of malice. But as I looked around, it dawned on me how serious a situation this actually was – this industry is not representative of the people you see on the streets of Sydney.
The discussion around diversity today focuses largely on attracting more women into the workplace and setting them up to succeed as leaders. While I firmly agree that women are underrepresented in our industry, I think it would be more accurate to admit that we have many diversity issues. We need to broaden the discussion so that we include cultural diversity as something that needs to be remedied.
David Ogilvy once said: “If you’re trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language, the language they use every day, the language in which they think. We try to write in the vernacular.”
The question is: what is the Australian vernacular?
Fifty years ago, the overseas-born population of Australia was 18 per cent, with 32 per cent of that population coming from England and just 1.6 per cent from India and China combined. In 2016, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ census results, 49 per cent of all Australians were either born overseas or have at least one parent born overseas. And since 2010, China and India have consistently provided the highest number of permanent migrants to Australia, overtaking the UK. That is a significant shift in the cultural makeup of this country.
The issue is that we have not shifted the make-up of our industry in the same way. Walk into most creative agencies today and you’ll find a pretty monochromatic representation of this country – you don’t see many Chinese, Indians, Vietnamese, Malaysians or Filipinos marching through the corridors of our businesses. This needs to change.
But please don’t get me wrong – this is not about equality or giving everyone a fair chance. This is about money. Our clients’ money.
If our agencies and creative departments become more diverse – with different people, different theories about life and family, different advertising styles and different senses of humour – the work we produce will not only be more creative, it will be more effective for our clients within this shifting Australian market. We need to be talking to the people who make up a significant portion of Australia in a way that is truly insightful and respectful. We cannot rely, as it seems we’re currently doing, on assimilating all cultural groups en masse to a melanin-deprived version of the “Australian way. It’s not effective, not efficient and it can sometimes be racist.
The thing we need to figure out is how to attract culturally diverse people to advertising.
The first time I told my uncle I was going to study art direction, he asked me if I was going to become a painter. When I eventually explained what art directors do, he said I should go study something that would get me a real job. Where I grew up, if you didn’t become a lawyer, doctor, an accountant or go into IT, you became a teacher. These are the honourable and valuable professions (for a long time my desktop pic was the title of Jacques Séguéla’s book Don’t Tell My Mother I Work in Advertising, She Thinks I Play Piano In A Whorehouse). From my interaction with other Indian and Chinese families in Australia, I would hazard a guess that the same negative stigmas about advertising exist in these broader communities today.
We need to attract more people of diverse backgrounds to what culturally may seem as an unsavoury, dishonest or fruitless career. To do that, we need to tell more good stories about our profession. We need to talk about what we do for the economy. We need to explain how creativity and effectiveness are not just ideological theories – they are essential tools that can be learnt and practiced. We need to go into schools and unis and educate young people of different backgrounds. We need to educate parents so that they feel encouraged to let their children pursue this business.
As an industry, I believe we need to make more of an effort to attract people from different cultures into advertising because I don’t believe it’s going to happen organically. If we don’t, our clients lose out and so do we. Also, I don’t really want to stand out in advertising for the colour of my skin.