The advertising industry talks a lot about diversity, inclusivity and representation. It also talks a lot about doing great work, and sometimes it even talks about its purpose as a force for good. But as the incident of the Nigel Farage cover and article shows, as an industry we can fail spectacularly at all three and that’s because all three are connected.
I’ll be honest and say that the coverage affected me, personally and professionally. Even Farage would admit he’s got an ugly mug, but to have him grinning up at me in the office as the illustration of a celebratory piece made me recoil. I turned it over. I asked myself: is this industry really for me?
It’s taken me nearly a week to recover. And I want to feel positive because if there’s going to be one silver lining that all of us take from this, it’s how to be a better industry.
Yes, this is emotional. And why shouldn’t it be? For many of us this movement has brought with it fear, prejudice, verbal and physical abuse. Yes, this is personal, and it should be okay in our industry to raise our hands to say that.
It should have been enough to say this was a diversity fail. But sad to say (sorry to the folks at Campaign, and credit to them for publishing this), this was also not great work. The magazine made a legitimate choice to say we need to understand the social and political impact made by Farage and those who have managed his campaign. Wherever you sit in the political spectrum, this is something we all want to know. As an industry striving for ever more effective campaigns, it’s fair to ask how the impact was achieved.
Here’s the problem: neither the broader campaign that sits around Farage nor its impact was properly investigated. After all, he’s not a one-man movement. There’s money and machinery behind him. Instead of exploring the mechanisms, the editorial fell hook, line and sinker for the exact brand campaign that this political movement has been running – that is to say, it bought that this is about one man and his cigar-smoking, man-down-the-pub demeanour. I’d have hoped for better.
There were valuable insights to be extracted about the ethics of constructing a campaign and how to identify moral compass. Can you misuse people’s data if ultimately you win? How should you navigate laws such as those about electoral fraud and spending – or more broadly about truthful representation and mis-selling? What responsibilities if any does a brand have for any negative or toxic side effects of a campaign? These are all important, legitimate questions any brand specifically and our industry generally should be asking itself. And this was the ultimate case study to do so where everything is bigger, bolder and in sharper focus.
What about covering the impact of the campaign such as rising social hatred? A UK survey by Opinium published in May found that 71% of people from ethnic minorities say they have faced racial discrimination, compared with 58% in January 2016. Meanwhile, the NSPCC reported that racial abuse and bullying of children had risen by one fifth since 2015-2016.
And here is the final, perhaps most existential point of the fails: how do we understand a campaign with regards to our industry’s own moral compass? How does this fit with our aspirations to be a force for good? The coverage had no moral compass other than to applaud winning at all costs. And there is a cost, and it’s not just people like me but the whole of society who is paying the price.
It’s easy to point our fingers at this incident, but it’s important to locate ourselves in our own organisations and be aware that this could happen in any organisation across adland. Because what went wrong here goes on every day. I’m saying this because it is personal, it affects me, and so many like me. But it should be personal to you. And it should be a matter of professionalism for all of us.
We all love to say we are diversity advocates, of course we do. Who wouldn’t? We put it on our creds (mine says EMpower’s 2019 top 100 minority leader). But diversity bylines and accolades aren’t about shiny trinkets and cool epithets. If it’s to mean anything, then being a diversity champion means ongoing work and speaking up with honesty and power when things are wrong.
So what did we learn?
It’s possible – as much of the social media chatter has declared – that the office this came out of was (as they say) "pale, male and stale". That’s still a huge problem in an industry massively under-representing women and minorities. If that’s the case, it’s good to call it out. But for every person calling it out, we need to turn inwards and ask, is this happening in my organisation too? The industry – including Campaign – is making headway in improving diversity in the workplace. Maybe not fast enough, but also maybe not effectively enough. So why isn’t this having an impact?
I’ll speak honestly about my own feelings: it took me two days to comment publicly on Twitter. I asked myself why I was apprehensive about writing so openly. It’s because I don’t want to be that woman, you know, the one who looks a bit different, has some different cultural ideas, and points out uncomfortable truths.
Those who are under-represented – heck, let’s just say it, women and ethnic minorities – are constantly policing ourselves in our minds whether we should say something that contradicts the status quo. Who wants to be the one to make a fuss? Who wants their professional opinion that something is completely wrong to be misinterpreted as their personal opinion, and an opinion designed just to be awkward?
But ultimately everyone in the industry should be thinking hard about what went wrong. It is about diversity and representation. But it’s about more than that. Who are we as an industry and how can we be really great? How can we lead the conversation and culture? And can we (should we?) be a force for good.
This isn’t about Farage. After all, he’s nothing without the methods and tools of our industry. We need to have more courage and belief in our own power, and we also need to reclaim our collective conscience. I’m speaking up – so should you.