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Review of 2020: Black lives take centre stage

As part of Campaign's 'Not Normal' series of essays about 2020, we look at how after years of platitudes about racial inequality in the ad industry, the Black Lives Matter movement seems to be driving positive change at last.

Review of 2020: Black lives take centre stage

The banners might now be gathering dust and the debates may have cooled but there’s a feeling that the reckoning on race that took place in 2020 will leave an indelible print on the years to come.

It started with a brutal killing of yet another black man, George Floyd, at the hands of the police on 25 May. But something was different this time. Was it the abundance of disturbing video footage – where he heartbreakingly called out for his mother – that made this incident in Minneapolis more visceral than the countless other injustices? Or that a world in standstill, already at a low ebb due to Covid, had the space to absorb, process and then react to it?

Whatever the reason, demonstrations swept across the world and the rallying cry that “black lives matter” burst into the public and private spheres, leaving institutions and individuals alike trying to figure out where to go from here.

Trevor Robinson, founder and executive creative director of Quiet Storm, says he has noticed a change in racial discourse since the movement gathered pace in the summer. “I would use the analogy of a packed Tube,” he muses. “On a packed Tube, you never make
eye contact, but since BLM, peoples’ eyes are open, they are looking around at each other and being responsive.”

He recounts stories of cabs not stopping for him, commuters giving him a wide berth and being spat at by racists as a child. Had he followed the advice of his school’s careers adviser he would have ended up working for London Transport, despite his obvious creative talents.

All of these incidences, he says, “bubble up” and this year has been the first people have asked him what that has been like. “I’ve always felt that people didn’t want to have these conversations but now it feels as if everybody is, like, ‘wow, we get it,’” he says.

After initially feeling anger, Robinson sought to channel his emotions into something positive and revived his 2007 “Create not Hate” programme, which aims to bring more working-class ethnic minority youngsters into advertising.

Black Lives Matter: protests took place around the world, including Washington and London, pictured top (Getty Images)

Robinson and his team connected young people with mentors from the industry and offered support and training in the creative process. As part of the programme, the young people were also invited to respond to open briefs.

Between July and September, Robinson says about 150 young people aged between 14 and 25 took part in the scheme. He tells of how one boy started off by loudly declaring he had no interest in working in advertising only to end the session not wanting to leave. “That for me is the reward,” he says, adding that running Create not Hate also had the effect of “really bringing people together” across the agency. Asked how this momentous year has affected his outlook on life, Robinson says he is now “not looking for people to change, I’m looking to be the change”.

At a macro level, brands and campaigning groups such as Ben & Jerry’s, 56 Black Men and Nike, and the agency world responded to the BLM movement with pledges, such as the letter co-ordinated by Creative Equals that called on the industry to act against racism and inequality. Debates raged around the authenticity of these actions; brands with all-white boards were accused of hypocrisy, while black adlanders wondered why it had taken a man to die to get to this point. Issues such as the publishing of ethnicity pay gap data moved up the agenda and reviews of existing practices – spanning everything from casting to recruitment – plus all manner of internal groups sprung up as listening became the order of the day.

Responses to BLM: Ben & Jerry's, 56 Black Men and Nike

Ashley Alleyne’s new role as diversity strategist at Rapp came as a direct result of this type of activity. He helped his agency to establish its People of Colour Steering Committee and now dedicates 40% of his time helping Rapp’s clients reach diverse audiences. Echoing Robinson’s sentiment, he says “the BLM movement changed my career by changing me”.

“It made me tired, frustrated and less able to tolerate the platitudes that surround issues of workplace racism and racial inequality, especially at agencies.” He is, however, heartened by what he sees as a “period of widespread support, and that more and more of the people and initiatives that I’m seeing are talking about substantive action”.

This sentiment is echoed by Charlene Prempeh, founder of A Vibe Called Tech. Originally set up to report on the impact of technological developments on the black community, Prempeh pivoted the business at the start of 2020 to focus on creating collaborations between brands and black creativity and has signed up Gucci as a launch client.

Prempeh says her conversations with brands have shown they are willing to “genuinely change their approach”. While her decision to add creative agency services to A Vibe Called Tech pre-dates the rapid rise of Black Lives Matter, Prempeh says the environment created by the movement expedited her plan.

Like many others, she is optimistic that what took place this year will have a lasting impact, and imagines a world where major agencies and media outlets are black-owned: “I think the momentum will keep going as a lot of people are working to make sure this has longevity.”

Pictures (top two): Getty Images

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