Young, black and challenging advertising's black stereotypes
Black family dancing in the yard while having chicken, black women dancing for washing powder, young black people dancing for airtime…. We have all seen it on our television screens, but personally, I have only seen my people dance on a dance-floor.
There is this weird perception in advertising that shows how little representation there is of black people within agencies. You can tell by the cringe-worthy stereotypes in advertisements and how black peoples’ lifestyles are often misconstrued. You can tell that there is a lack of representation and a lack of understanding but “let’s go with it anyways” because “it works”. It doesn’t work. It’s lazy advertising and completely embarrassing that there are so few brands willing to challenge these perceptions.
I work in advertising and too often have I found myself in a room filled with white people trying to sell ideas and perceptions of black people to each other, and often the black people they consult are those who have found themselves being silenced by fear of challenging the powers that may be. Why are there no adequate consultative processes followed when advertising does influence perceptions in society? How far removed are you from the average South African that your perceptions do not match their reality? How do we progress as an industry if we’re afraid at all levels, across multiple levels of experience, from different journeys, to have these tough conversations that will force us to open our minds and perceptions of each other’s lives?
It is extremely important to understand that being young, black and creative in advertising is often extremely frustrating, because you must watch your people being represented across the board in an incorrect manner, and that’s primarily because the lack of representation higher up and the younger black creatives are often scared to speak up, expecting their assertiveness of incorrect representation to end up with them unemployed or as being ostracized in their respective agencies. We must challenge the powers that be so we can be honest about the type of content we’re producing and the way young black people are experiencing the advertising world, because a lot of young black people feel undervalued, unimportant and frustrated. The belief is that penetrating the sphere of whiteness is too difficult and thus you find young black people leading unsatisfied lives, just going to work to get the salary and not feeling fulfilled by what they’re doing on a day to day basis. Agencies are partially responsible for killing young black talent – they drown it out and silence it with their terms and conditions that deprive young black people of progressing further – you then find a lot of young black people feeling stagnant. How would I know? I’m only one young black person, right? Well I asked them and this is what they had to say.
Being a young black creative in advertising in South Africa is like this: “I’ve been in the “creative” industry since 2009. I’ve worked in the magazine industry from an intern up to senior position; and then swopped over to branding (after going back to school) where I’ve worked since 2015 (as a Strategy Planner). I’ve recently started my own company (a digital agency) with a friend, which I guess directly relates to my experience in the creative industry.”
Firstly, in every single job I’ve worked in (other than when I worked for a publication aimed at middle market black people) has been dominated by white people. I’m sure the same can be said for many industries, but the disparity in the creative sector is so vast because the shades of black get harder to spot the higher you climb up the levels of seniority.
Secondly, the reality of a black creative, is that you must work harder to prove yourself – there’s very much still a stigma that black people are lazy, entitled etc. - so you’re starting off on the back foot right from the start. There’s also still an expectation that black people are fit to do “admin” intensive jobs, so in the case of an advertising agency, black people are concentrated in departments like Account Management and Traffic, where the “creative” jobs (strategy, design & copywriting) are still hard to crack as a black person. And if by some miracle you do make it to a position of seniority, your capabilities and competency are most likely to come under scrutiny (“how did he/she land that job?”), or made to feel like an act of Affirmative Action (as though you couldn’t possibly have earned that job through merit) – I could elaborate on this, but unpacking racism in the workplace will need a lot more time.
Then don’t even get me started on being both black and female – I’ve often sat in meetings where I was not only the only black person in the room, but also the only female (white patriarchy still rules advertising & media). Furthermore, as such, you are then expected to be somehow representative of every other black person’s view/perspective. For example, you might largely be left out of a conversation in a meeting, but when it comes to voicing the opinions of black people, suddenly they look to you as the “resident black person" to have all the answers about “your people”. In my view, it’s this limited perspective and cookie-cutter approach that leads to “black people dancing for airtime” type advertising that not only fails to resonate, but also ends up making a mockery of our country’s largest racial group. This is completely unacceptable.
I think overall, my perspective as a young black creative is that we talk a lot of transformation, but do very little to action it. A quick glance at the top creative agencies will show you that this is barely happening or not nearly fast enough. We struggle to find mentors (particularly black females in positions of seniority) on whose success we’ll model our own – we only know what success looks like for white men & women, and of course the occasional black man (as is the case at many agencies today e.g. Ogilvy, TBWA).
As such, young creatives like myself who see no real growth opportunities or future in this environment quickly take the skills we learn and move on (often to entrepreneurship, meaning a loss of potentially great talent for the agency and a potential new competitor in the market).
Another young black creative said this: “I am graphic designer by trade, I have been a working citizen for 6 years and have been properly employed for one year in my working career at Bona. Prior to Bona I was sort of employed but more contracted to a construction company and before that worked for a tiny agency run by a reputable copywriter and his wife for less than a year (this was straight out of varsity). Post-Bona I freelanced (which is something I technically have never stopped doing since before my last days of varsity) and have since worked on some cool clients like STR.CRD and the A-Re-Yeng bus service marketing campaign. I am currently starting a design organization that will be my first business.
Now as you can see I have not had much experience with large agencies that employ large amounts employees and have them work late hours whilst giving them, basically minimum wage. I have, however, surrounded myself and at times, even worked with people who once worked or still work for these large conglomerates that are supposedly exploiting the black culture, both internally and externally in their portrayal of our people in branding (the latter being a topic for another time). And with I have notice that the issue of pay has been the common denominator. This is usually followed by unfair promotions favourable to the fair skin and the stealing of ideas by those above you. One thing that I find interesting, which in a way feeds off the last sentence, is that there is usually a celebration of the creativity that comes from the black creatives. This is usually done internally, as the medallion, be it a Lion or a Loerie, goes to the company, and stays there as a p (for show). A display of the company’s success (without the faces that made it possible). This of course is all bureaucracy, right?! Without getting too lost in my own thoughts, I think the creative industry, just like any system, is designed to always benefit a certain group of individuals. I mean when you think about it a large portion of the products we consume as the new age urban culture, can be consumed by almost all races. In a way, we are one culture of consumers. We go to the same parties; we have the same friends and we even speak and sound the same. Yes, black culture has always inspired much of the creative industry (hip hop, fashion, food and so on), however, it also allowed itself to be adapted into every race. This is possibly why white culture feels deems it appropriate to open a club that speaks only to a black crowd in a black township (Zone 6) for example. What is left for us, is "conscious" based speeches, that try to remind us that "we are magic", riots that are cries to say "we matter', protests by little girls about their hair and strikes by students who would like to get free quality education.
It seems to me that we are always fighting for something. And the more we fight, the more we become aware of ourselves, the more we stay angry, the more we become aware of boundaries in a war that has been designed to always give the opposition a better weapon, even if they are not as skilled. And so, I think, as a creative, we are trapped in a world that tries to remind us what we cannot do, and we forget that we are not aliens, we are from the land. In many ways, we know the terrain better than those who sell us the idea of weakness. What I am saying is, black creatives just like any other human being, possess the capacity to create something greater than the circumstance. This is not new information. I think we get trapped in the black "wokeness" of it all and sometimes forget to create something that works, purely because it works. I mean we know that we will never be treated the same, and in truth so what... Sometimes it's the challenge of rising above oppression that creates Queens and Kings. The idea is to recognise that we are not our pay cheque or position at work. Let’s not get trapped in it. If we can do something, then let’s do it. Let’s do it for those who can't. Creatives can warp and change minds. We can influence ideas and encourage confidence. We cannot sleep on that, even when they think we aren’t shit”
And the experience of another was this: “I don’t think I really wanted to be a copywriter per se. An HR manager in the industry read poems I’d written that my mom had taken with to work (proud mother things) and thus began the influence from high school to go in that direction. It seemed cool. It had its cool factor but it was a horrid experience for me as a female copywriter and being black. I was not only surrounded by black men who sucked up to whiteness but who formed cliques like high school kids. You could feel it if you were an outsider, ironically in an industry where the idea of self-identity (you, th e unique brand) is supposedly a thing. I was awkward and never quite fit in. There existed only two black female copywriters at the time and I was one fighting for my department to be treated equally. HR flatly told me that creatives had egos and I need to be careful to not step on toes. Eventually I was let go of legally. The ECD of another huge agency in South Africa went on a lunch break when their HR finally booked me for an interview. After months of ignored emails. She went on a lunch break. They said they'd reschedule but never. Years later she did an interview on television talking about empowering black women writers. I was hysterical. These people had planted in me such doubt about myself that I gave up on the industry and believed I was not creative enough. A black CD from the same agency contacted me for a possible job. He liked my stuff even though at this point my portfolio was nothing to write home about, he saw something in me. This was a definite yes. A month later, there were technicalities then silence. I feel the industry is small. People know about people and black pride is a novelty adorned by darkies who kiss up enough. Who allow the wrong perceptions of blackness be paraded for laughs over beers and pats on the back by whiteness. Of course, this culture might differ from agency to agency but. I’m forever tainted. I freelanced at one recently, did a great job. Saw the culture of white praise still prevalent but it wasn’t too bad. Still. I was the only black female writer. I just want out... entirely.”
Acknowledge the fact that the apartheid system still works in today’s modern day society, don’t shy away from it. We need to know that it’s important to acknowledge the past injustices so that progress may continue, if we all are for the betterment of the industry. We also need to acknowledge how many agencies only hire young black talent to maintain B.E.E Accreditation, and thus you find young black talent feeling more and more exploited by these spaces. The reality is, we have much to work on as an industry overall.
Essentially, if we want the advertising industry to be inclusive of all cultures, and heritages, we need to be realistic about all that we need to challenge to make it a reality that even when a specific group of people is represented that it is done correctly, with next to no mistakes.
I may have damaged my reputation and I may lose my job, but suffering in silence isn’t appropriate especially when it’s no longer about just me anymore.
Thanks to Azeeza Ranguwala and Pieter Howes for helping with the edit and to the young black creatives that spoke to me about their experiences in the industry.