Trevor Robinson: burst the bubble
Trevor Robinson thinks the ad industry is too easy a target. But as those who work in it get further and further away from those they advertise to, maybe we should aim a few shots at it all the same.
It’s too easy to have a go at the advertising business these days. And at a time when we find ourselves in a post-truth era of Donald Trump and Brexit – just two recent developments that have made many people angry across a broad cross-section of society – it feels a cheap shot, too. But if there is one thing about our industry that makes me angry it is the bubble in which we exist.
As we have already found, gauging the feeling of the general public in today’s climate is bordering on the impossible. And if you are in any doubt of this, just think back to last year’s shocked reaction to the EU referendum vote. In recent months, many people have struggled to conceal their frustration and anger in response to an array of national and international events.
Anger is also evident at a local level, too. Having a nephew stabbed five times purely through jealousy of him being a rap artist in a neighborhood where nowadays they won’t just kill you, they’ll kill your mum as well just to make you understand how angry they are, is a connection that helps me to understand where we are at the moment.
But are we angrier as a nation? Or more mistrusting? Or less secure? From the middleclass London cocoon I now inhabit I can guess, but I do not know. Which comes back to my frustration with advertising.
Overall, people in this industry are very far from their target audience. And the longer they stay in the industry the further away they get, which reinforces a bubble mentality.
One by-product of this is the industry’s tendency to replay a particular aspect of its audience’s day-to-day reality in an attempt to persuade that audience a particular advertiser ‘gets’ it. But subtler tools – humor, for example – can create a stronger sense of unity.
If, as some suggest, we are now living in an angrier society, should advertising reflect that? I’m unconvinced.
If something makes me angry, I tend to use humor to belittle it – a mechanism deep-rooted in Jamaican culture and also shared across communities where people live in poverty. People deal with each other and the grim realities of life with a laugh because humor unifies us.
Anger can and should be harnessed when appropriate. A few years ago, Quiet Storm created a film called ‘Torture By Any Other Name’ for the Helen Bamber Foundation, which campaigns against human trafficking (a subject all of us can surely feel deeply angry about), featuring its president, the actress Emma Thompson.
In this film, which was made for the foundation in conjunction with The Body Shop, Thompson adopted two personalities – a woman before she was trafficked and that same woman after. It was an incredibly powerful piece of writing (by Thompson and creative director Neal Colyer), directing and acting which was powered by anger rather than simply playing back pure anger itself.
Perhaps the biggest downside of bubble mentality – and my greatest source of anger – is this industry’s obsession with what is familiar, safe and secure.
Consider the lack of working-class people (who accounted for 45.8% of the UK population in 2015, according to Ipsos Mori) employed by agencies and it’s hardly surprising that no-one ‘gets’ a significant proportion of those to whom they are advertising. Worse, all too often those responsible for casting are intimidated by those outside their own social sphere which leads to the profound lack of diversity in all its forms among the talent featured in so many ads.
When it comes to agency recruitment, it’s a similar story. Ask yourself who might be your ideal protégé? ‘Someone like me, just younger’ will be the answer for many. Yet the opposite of this is how this industry should think and act.
And this, then, is the challenge I’d set for our industry. To not see the world only through your own eyes. To go further than thinking of recruiting more women or more black people and also start thinking about how to find the right personalities with sufficient stubbornness and resilience to keep coming back.
Yes, the advertising business must cast its net wider. But as important is not to lose those gifted and diverse people who might have changed the industry for the better had they only decided to stay.
That’s why at Quiet Storm we don’t just look for new talent among graduates but people from all backgrounds. As an industry, then, we must stop looking for security in the familiar and seek intrigue and excitement in the unknown. That’s what life should be about, after all. Because with that comes enjoyment – and creativity, too.
Trevor Robinson OBE is the executive director and founder of Quiet Storm.
This piece was first published in The Drum's Anger issue in November 2017.