the Raft

Building ad cultures out of multiculturalism

By The Drum, Administrator

August 3, 2007 | 7 min read

My dad was born in Bolton so I’m something of prodigal really. However, I grew up in Durban, South Africa which is where I built my career. It’s a long way from Manchester – or so you’d think.

A recent trip through Longsight and I was instantly reminded of Durban. I loved the elegant saris, the spice shops, the eye popping Bollywood blockbuster posters and the bhangra music bouncing the cars at the traffic lights. In a strange sort of way, I felt at home.

Now I know it’s a small world but I can honestly say that Manchester is not what I expected. I don’t know why really. After all, the Manchester City Council website reckons that there are some 15 different ethnic groups living here – they include African, Armenian, Asian, Chinese, German, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian and Polish. Now you can add South African.

Some of these ethnic groups have been a part of the city for many years. The Armenians, for example, have been here since the mid 30s. That’s the 1830s! Now that may not be as long as the French Normans, the German Saxons or Scandinavian Vikings, but I still reckon it’s not bad going.

So, with all these cultures, why don’t we see the city’s diversity reflected in its work a bit more? After all musicians here have been doing it forever:

Blues out of West Africa via America, riffs and even vocals out of Morocco, drum and bass out of the Jamaica, brass and that ‘doc-doc- doctor’ beat out of Cuba.

While I may not be in a position to comment on the advertising industry in general, I do reckon I can say

a few things about the positive influence that multiculturalism can have on an agency. I’ve seen it

for myself. As an ex-creative director with TBWA\\HUNT\\LASCARIS\\DURBAN out in South Africa I’ve seen international creative reputations being made on it.

The best thing that ever happened to advertising in South Africa was the abolition of apartheid. Almost overnight we went from a country with only two official languages and an industry that worshipped English and American advertising to a country with 11 new official languages ranging from Afrikaans to Sotho, Tswana, Xhosa and Zulu. And that’s not counting the multitude of faiths such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Muslim, Christianity, Animism, the Hare Krishnas and the Zionists. Each with its own culture, rituals, celebrations and crafts.

That’s when you realise that if you open your head and your agency doors it’s all going to get pretty exciting. At our agency we always celebrated as many of the festivals as possible – not just Christmas. We encouraged it because it was fun, it was inclusive, it was a way of understanding where the new creatives were coming from and it always gave me some really good ideas. It’s how I saw my first Bollywood classic and Aishwarya Rai – a truly memorable experience.

And Diwali – I love Diwali, the festival of lights. What a beautiful concept and how else could you come in to your agency one morning and find the doorway draped in marigolds?

Multiculturalism really works when it comes to graphic design. I once saw a typeface inspired by handmade characters that had been cut out of sheet metal with a pair of side-cutters. The designer had seen them on a remote Karoo farm, presumably far from any townie sign writer.

I was also able to refresh a sugar company’s campaign by tapping into beat poetry, a collective township childhood memory and the Soweto street slang called Scamto.

My point is that South Africa continues to fight above its creative weight globally precisely because it taps into all of these cultures, both for influences and for creative staff, and then mixes it up with the established Anglo-Saxon business world. After all, fresh ways of looking at the world are important when it comes to getting your message noticed by an increasingly global and media-literate market.

Now try this - take a look through any awards annual and you will find there are almost always two styles that run across the categories nowadays. Let’s call the first, and the largest, ‘International-awardism.’ This style is usually characterised, in print at least, by slick luscious double page spreads, miniscule logos and witty headlines. And an almost complete absence of body copy. The only way you can tell where a campaign comes from is by looking at the credits.

The other style is work that’s been created by hooking up with graffiti artists, muralists and craftsmen that still make stuff with their hands. And that includes illustrators. That’s the stuff that’s really catching my eye nowadays. It’s coming out of places like South America, Asia and Africa. It doesn’t surprise me at all that the likes of Lowe are looking to the South Americans to bring them something fresh.

What I really like about it is it doesn’t get all heavy and worthy, at least not all the time. ‘Look’, it says, ‘I’ve got something to sell. Want it? Yes? No? OK. Cool. Let’s go to the beach’.

It has a breezy optimism that you’d expect from the land that brought us carnival, the girl from Ipanema, and Ronaldinho.

I also love the Orange stuff that’s on now. Isn’t one of the creatives from Brazil? What’s it got? What’s the word? Ah, yes. Flair.

Now, you can argue that the work is exotic because it comes from… well an exotic country. Well no actually. Not always. And here’s where it could get really exciting here in Manchester.

I have a client in Amsterdam, a city I visit from time to time. There’s something in the air over there, and it’s not just the smell of dope. It’s the advertising and design. It’s fresh. It has style. It’s inventive. Rules are being rewritten. Amsterdam is also a seriously multicultural city. After all, it has a colonial past too. But there’s something more – the advertising industry over there is attracting top creatives from all over the world. But why? The vibe, sure, but it’s also the fact that Amsterdam is using its cool reputation to build an increasing powerful sector for the economy out of the creative industry. And it’s also increasingly attracting big brands who want a bit of that global view headspace. It’s no surprise that some of the brightest campaigns for Adidas are coming out of the likes of 180 in Amsterdam. And that’s just one campaign of many.

Creativity is no one point on a map. Who’d heard of Portland Oregon before NIKE and Weiden and Kennedy put them on the map? So why not Manchester? After all, bands like Oasis and the Happy Mondays and clubs like the Haçienda have already built the foundations of Manchester’s cool reputation.

I’m now really looking forward to seeing how we can hook up with some of my fellow ethnically diverse Mancunians to create something a bit different at my own agency, The Raft. And remember, diversity to someone like myself (and anyone else outside of the UK) also includes Scousers, Brummies and the good folk of Yorkshire – among others. (Just what exactly is the “tinterweb?”)

I reckon that it’s all inspirational stuff. And the world loves it. Don’t believe me? Just look at all the Oscars that cheese-loving Lancastrians Wallace and Grommit have picked up.

My message is this: Multiculturalism is good for advertising. Do yourself a favour – see for yourself. Go online to Have fun. ‘Hamba Kahle’ as my Zulu friends would say. ‘Go well’.

the Raft

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