Ant Melder is (he thinks) the world’s only Bangladeshi-Cockney ECD. He’s passionate about building a more diverse industry that’s more reflective of modern Australia and delivers work that truly connects with a broader audience. He’s just launched Brown Riot podcast, a series featuring creative industry leaders from diverse backgrounds. Here he talks us through the thinking that led to its creation.
Picture the scene. I’m in Cannes, at a production company pool party. The sun’s beating down, the rose is flowing, pissed people are dive-bombing into the pool, a Romanian CD is complaining loudly to anyone who’ll listen that his unshortlisted ad should’ve won Gold. Good times.
A friendly chap ambles over for a chat and we shoot the breeze about ads for five minutes. I’d never met him before but put his friendliness down to the we’re-all-in-Cannes-having-a-good-time-instead-of-back-home-tweaking-banner-ad-copy factor. “Anyway,” he says. “Good to see you, Ash. And congratulations on the success of Project Revoice.” Realising that this is a case of mistaken browndentity, I awkwardly accept the congrats and shuffle away. Easy mistake to make I think to myself, let it go. Except the same thing happens again the next day. And again the day after that.
This was pretty funny, but it got me thinking two things. Firstly, “Damn you Ash and your awesome Grand Prix-winning Project Revoice campaign!” Secondly – and probably more importantly – is there only room for one brown ECD in the collective consciousness of the Australian advertising industry?
On the plane home, I couldn’t stop thinking of that classic moment in The Office when David Brent mistook one brown team member for another. “Ohhh. It’s not you, it’s the other one!” he grin-grimaced. F**king funny, but with a profound point about race relations in the workplace.
This train of thought led me to reflect on the piss-poor levels of diversity in the advertising industry. While 24 per cent of Australians were born overseas, 34 per cent have two parents who were born overseas and 40 per cent of us describe ourselves as ‘working class, our agencies are embarrassing generic.
Inclusion and diversity have long been a passion of mine. But they’re the polite, PC terms for what I’m on about; another way to put it is – kicking the doors down. Which is exactly what one of my favourite bands, The Clash, did in 1977. “White riot/I wanna riot/White riot/A riot of my own” screamed Joe Strummer on their debut single. White Riot referenced the inspiration they’d taken from witnessing up close the West Indian community’s furious, take-no-shit response to police brutality during the riots at the Notting Hill Carnival in 1976. It was a desperate cry for white kids to find a similar sense of communal passion, to unite behind their own sense of outrage at social injustice.
White Riot was a game-changer for me…despite the fact that I’m not white. I’m a British Asian mash-up of Anglo-Indian, Bangladeshi and Cockney blood. Brown as a Mars bar, the same Pantone reference as the perfect cuppa. But I thought, ‘If there’s a black riot and a white riot…surely there can be a brown one too?’
Then, starting out in advertising in London many years ago, I’d look round and wonder – as I still do today – why this industry is so weirdly mono-cultural. I worked my way across some great agencies but every time I looked around me, the creative department seemed to be whiter than a suburban Women’s Institute AGM.
When I moved to Sydney in 2013, things took an interesting turn. I arrived slap-bang in the middle of an ongoing industry-wide debate about gender politics and the lack of female representation in creative departments. But while, over the last few years, the diversity debate has become more deafening than a Slipknot album turned up to 11, it still seems to me that no-one’s adequately addressing the ethnicity and class elephants in the room. All the ads created to speak to this fabulously multicultural nation are still made by white (mostly) male middle class university graduates.
Now many of those white male middle class university graduates are really bloody talented (and really good mates of mine). And I’ve always been very much against the idea of affirmative action and quotas. I don’t want black, brown and yellow kids to be given jobs on anything other than merit. However, I do wish there were more opportunities for a more diverse range of kids to start out in the creative industries. For Indigenous kids to have a way in. And more non-white role models, more brown people in senior roles at agencies to provide living proof to working-class kids from diverse backgrounds that they can do this.
When I was starting out, HHCL’s brilliant You Know When You’ve Been Tango’d campaign was the benchmark. It was co-created by the black, working-class legend Trevor Robinson. As the diametric opposite of all those over-confident Oxbridge toffs you’d find in agencies he was a huge inspiration to me. He made great ads and worked on social projects to get black kids out of gangs and encourage black people to vote. He was a cultural exception to the homogenous rule. And he still is today.
Think for a minute. How many black, brown, Asian, Greek or Lebanese creatives do you know? How many non-white, non-middle class CDs? ECDs? CCOs? You can probably count them on the fingers of one hand. And hold on, is that an Indigenous Australian creative? Or have I been distracted by a flying pig, tripped over a hen’s tooth and trodden in a great big dollop of rocking horse shit?
For me, the ideal agency is a brilliant mash-up of influences from all over the shop, but one common obsession: to do awesome, game-changing work. And that’s the point. I’m not celebrating diversity to ride some boring PC hobby horse to a Pyrrhic victory. I believe the diverse backgrounds, histories and stories we each bring to the table can make agencies richer places and give us the cultural foundations to do the kind of work great people are passionate about. Works that moves and entertains people, that makes a mark and a difference. Work that matters.
I see diversity as an ongoing mission rather than a passing fad. It’s not about hiring a couple of Vietnamese transgender muslim vegetarians, ticking a few boxes and moving on to the next thing. It’s about building awesome agencies that reflect the cultural make-up of Australia, then creating the conditions for that talent to flourish and create brilliant work. Departments are full of today’s Trevor Robinsons, who’ll attract and inspire tomorrow’s Trevor Robinsons.
There are pockets of positivity out there. Some agency leaders and star players from a bunch of fascinating and brilliantly diverse backgrounds. And some agencies that stand as exceptions to the boring, homogenous rule. I’ve worked at a couple of places that, while perhaps not quite the fantasy Benetton-style rainbow nation, are very progressive and forward-thinking. Most importantly, these places are enthusiastically exploring and trialling new ways to bring more diverse thinking in.
Because a certain orange-faced leader of the free world may want us all to batten down the hatches, keep looking inwards and assume anyone who doesn’t look like us is a bad hombre. But, as anyone with a creative bone in their body knows, creativity comes from the smashing together of contradictions and opposites. When things get weird, messy, gnarly and diverse, they start to get interesting.
It all starts with people. Not data, stats or quotas. People. The bottom lines is – if smart young kids just starting out in the industry look around and see a sea of generic sameness, they’re going to be discouraged. As the saying goes, if you can’t see it you can’t be it.
That’s why I’ve launched a new podcast series celebrating the careers and achievements of a bunch of creative industry leaders from very diverse backgrounds. Brown Riot is a reminder to the industry about the depth of talent we have – and how it comes in every colour of the rainbow. Brown Lives Matter too, right?!
And while I want to inspire Youngsters-Of-Colour (YOCs – go on planners, you can have that one on me), this is a conversation we should all be part of, whatever the colour of our skin.
The process has been brilliantly inspiring and a lot of fun. Talking to a bunch of legends, all guided and shepherded by the considerable talents of the team at Smith & Western. And if you think I sound like a stuttering buffoon on the podcast now, imagine how bad it was before Dan and Nick shaped these a bit, culled the boring bits and came up with the musical sting. The guys have been awesome: their production expertise, creative flair and musical talent are second to none. Plus they are some of the nicest guys in the business and a joy to work with. Please please please get them to look at the sound/music for your next project.
And please have a listen and share the podcasts. If you’re in a position to make a difference – through hiring, shaping departments or speaking out with a supportive voice – please do. By mixing things up you can help make our industry better, the work better, the world better. At the very least, you might save me from being mistaken for some other brown bloke at the next industry event I go to.
Hear more from Ant Melder on the subject of diversity in advertising at B&T‘s Changing the Ratio conference on Thursday 30 May in Surry Hills. Ant will be participating in The Debate on whether quotas are needed to achieve greater diversity in the industry. Check out the full 2019 schedule today.