David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham and shadow justice secretary, “grew up thinking the nuclear family was white and middle class” because of what he saw on TV and in advertising.
His experience points to the significant role that advertising can play in shaping perceptions of marginalised groups. “Many people underestimate the power of the creative sector in playing a large part in that,” he says.
However, Lammy says that the lack of diversity in the creative sector is still “worrying” – for both the future of the industry and the people it represents.
Ahead of his appearance at Creative Equals’ RISE conference next week, Campaign asked the MP about his views of the creative sector and how it can help rebuild the economy and heal a “divided nation”.
Just 18% of creative directors in advertising are women and 1% are black, Asian and multi-ethnic women. What are your reactions to this data which shows who is creating advertising?
A lack of diversity is bad for everybody. Above all, it is yet another example of social exclusion, where underrepresented groups are systematically denied a chance to showcase their talent. However, a lack of diversity in the workplace isn’t just worrying for those who wish to aspire to higher positions. It is worrying for the advertising industry itself. More diverse organisations are more innovative, have more welcoming workplace environments and achieve better results.
Diversity is central to advertising. If companies wish to attract a wide range of groups to the product they are advertising, they need a diverse group who have a far broader knowledge of their market. Research continues to point to diversity creating far higher revenues due to innovation. Companies will suffer if they fail to modernise.
How influential do you see the creative sector being in changing the narrative around perceptions of marginalised groups?
When I can spare a moment to watch TV with my wife and kids, it does surprise me the differences in the people that I see on the screen compared with when I was younger. From TV shows to adverts, I grew up thinking the nuclear family was white and middle class. I didn’t fit into that and the older I got, the more I realised that neither did a significant number of people in this country.
The creative sector has undergone drastic changes in the past few decades in challenging the narratives and stereotypes that we have of certain groups. Many people underestimate the power of the creative sector in playing a large part in that.
In terms of business, this works. If people feel that they can relate to a product then they will be far more likely to buy it. In turn, this challenges the perceptions other groups might have, kickstarting a positive feedback loop.
There has been criticism of the advertising and media industries for being an elite ‘London bubble’ and overlooking diverse communities [including ethnic minority groups but also those outside London]. Do you think this is true and why does this matter?
I think it’s clear that almost all advertising and media industries are guilty of this, as are almost all industries. I think it would be naive to think that communities across Britain haven’t been overlooked.
Customers value integrity and, above all, authenticity. The only way firms will be able to address this is by, first of all, admitting the mistakes they have made. Acknowledgement is the first step in a long journey to diversification.
It is no surprise that the creative industries are still disproportionately focused on the capital. There are signs that things are improving, especially in regard to digital excellence, which is clearly growing in places such as Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds. But with many companies keeping their hubs in London, far too many companies in areas in the North are seeing talent drain into the capital. Industries are an ecosystem; if there is an imbalance on one level this will feed into all levels of society.
To the Labour Party, how important is the UK’s creative sector?
Labour and the creative sector have a long history that interweaves back decades. From the days of Harold Wilson and The Beatles to Tony Blair and Oasis, Labour has always taken pride in supporting creative sectors.
In the past few months, we have been trying to work with the government to ensure that creative professionals would be able to work and travel within the EU without unnecessary delays and bureaucracy. The government promised last year that their freedom to travel and work in the EU would be protected, but have since backtracked on this promise.
Throughout the crisis, Labour has called on the government to help protect freelancers working in creative industries. The creative sector is so central to the UK economy, contributing £13m every hour. Yet many have been left behind during the pandemic, without the vital support they need, and have had their concerns ignored by the government.
As much of the existing support is pulled back by the government over the next few months, Labour will push the government at every opportunity to protect those who need it so that our creative industries can continue to thrive.
How can the creative sector play a role in rebuilding our economy and society following the pandemic?
Following our current trajectory, the next few years are going to be extremely difficult for businesses. If the government continues to ignore the concerns of those in the creative sector and fails to address the problems that businesses will be facing after the pandemic, those sectors, as well as the economy as a whole, will suffer.
In the short term, Labour wants the government to guarantee support for those in precarious working arrangements. When the furlough scheme ends later this year, Labour is calling for a plan to protect jobs and businesses through the last stages of the crisis while the vaccine is being rolled out.
In the long term, Labour is demanding a plan to secure the recovery in those critical first months as we emerge from the crisis and reopen the economy. We want the foundations of a future economy to be built on sustainability and secure employment. Over the next five years, we want to see an expansion of the Start Up Loans scheme and get 100,000 new businesses up and running.
There has been a lot of discussion that we are a ‘divided nation’ – do you think this is true and if so what role can the creative industries play in fostering unity?
In a sense, Britain has always been a divided country. However, evidence suggests that people are becoming more polarised in their political opinions and that people are reacting more intensely to differing opinions than they did 40 years ago.
We must acknowledge that polarising identities do not evolve in isolation from the changing structures that divide us. Creative industries can be central to forging greater cohesion between social groups. That’s because people need to feel represented and heard. We are losing the trust of people across this country in our institutions. By ensuring that representation is central to the output of creative industries we can begin to rebuild this trust.
One example is found in the regional disparities within the creative sector. Employment in the UK’s creative industries outside of the South East would have to grow fivefold over the next 20 years to match the economic clout of London’s creative sector. People need to feel represented across the country, and the longer sectors like the creative industry ignore this, the longer it will take to heal these divisions.
See David Lammy on the virtual stage interviewed by Karen Blackett, UK country manager of WPP and CEO of Group M UK, at Creative Equals’ RISE conference on 13 May. Campaign is the event’s media partner.