Firstly, I want to point out I’m not writing a Black History Month piece.
Black History Month isn't something that I grew up celebrating; my dad is mixed race and I never met his dad who was the only Black person in my family. I didn’t even know the extent of my heritage until only fairly recently. Growing up I thought I was from Bermuda, and told everyone as much when I got asked “No but where are you really from” *eye roll*. But many discussions over Christmas and a targeted chat with my aunty earlier this year where I point-blank asked her, “Seriously where are we from?” revealed we’re actually St Kittitian. My days of mystifying people with stories of the Bermuda triangle were over and swapped with a meek proclamation of my new ancestral melanin backstory. But even this can’t really be confirmed, my dad’s dad (whose name I don’t know) came over as part of the Windrush generation, and back then whatever was the favourable island was the one you put down on your passport. So who knows, I could be from Mars!
So yeah, I’ve had a bit of a disassociated upbringing with my Blackness, all I’ve really known is that I’m mixed race and that comes with certain biases. I have had to learn what it means to be Black on my own terms and what that history means for my own identity.
As such, Black History Month has always been a sticking point, I’m more for making history than reciting it. But enough about me, this article is about highlighting and celebrating people that have in some way influenced me, the ones behind the work being done in our industry, in real time.
I interviewed 10 trailblazers from across the creative landscape who inspire me; Antoinette de Lisser, Ete Davies, Julian Douglas, Lydia Amoah, Marvyn Harrison, Nana Bempah, Rania Robinson, Sarah Jenkins, Shannie Mears and Trevor Robinson OBE and boy, did I come away from those conversations even more in awe.
Above: Shannie Mears
Here are some of the key takeouts:
● Making history doesn’t necessarily mean being around for a long time, it’s what you do in that time that is important. Shannie Mears joined the industry just under seven years ago through an internship at Livity, fast forward to 2017 and she co-founded the inclusive brand-focused agency The Elephant Room. How major is that?
● There is always a way in, whether it’s through the post room, the reception desk, the side door, apprenticeships or more contemporary routes like Brixton Finishing School, Iconic Steps, D&AD Shift/New Blood and Saatchi Open; perseverance and passion will get you over the threshold.
Julian Douglas, Rania Robinson, Sarah Jenkins and Ete Davies were all inspired by the impact that adverts had on them which launched them on their course to success.
Above: Julian Douglas
Julian “Dougie” Douglas, international CEO and vice chairman of VCCP Group shifted his whole career away from trading when he saw the Audi ‘Yuppie’ spot directed by Frank Budgen. That was that spark for him, “I thought it was the most powerful short-form content and was the most amazing thing I had ever seen.”
Above: Sarah Jenkins
Sarah “SJ” Jenkins, managing director of Saatchi & Saatchi, got into the industry in “the golden age of advertising” in the mid-’90s - the time of Levi’s and other pinnacle commercials such as Swatch, which she had to research as part of her coursework. SJ applied to all the grad schemes to no avail, so she took the plunge and moved to London and hand-wrote 100 letters to SME agencies whose addresses she got from ALF. She got her job in a week. What a legend.
Above: Ete Davies
Ete Davies, EMEA COO at Dentsu Creative was always interested in advertising creativity, even as a kid. “When I was really small, I used to watch a show called ‘Tarrant on TV’ that covered unusual, interesting and funny content from around the world. A section of which looked at ads of the world – that was the bit I would sneak down ‘after bedtime’ to watch”. A strong academic, Ete excelled particustly in arts, music and English but when he went on to further education, STEM subjects took precedence partially due to interest and influence from his West African parents. It was only after university that he re-engaged with behaviour, technology and creativity, and although he applied for various recruitment schemes in consulting firms he never landed one, instead Ete pivoted and fell on his feet in a multifaceted account exec role at a small agency in Folkestone – which kickstarted his career.
Rania Robinson, CEO and partner of Quiet Storm left school at 16 and got her first job in the industry at 22 through the back door. “I didn’t have a desire to go to uni but what I realised and hooked onto was that, at that time, everybody had secretaries, so I was like I’m going to become a secretary in any industry that I want and that’s my way in.” Rania met a lot of resistance whilst trying to climb up the career ladder but someone saw potential in her who came from a similar non-traditional route which allowed her to break through the glass ceiling.
● A common theme that kept coming up throughout conversations was legacy. Future-proofing the industry for the next generation, creating impact, and helping others.
Above: Antoinette de Lisser
Antoinette de Lisser, business development consultant, spoke about building her own path and owning her uniqueness and creating legacy. “All of the people that are being interviewed for this piece leave a little piece of themselves behind that another person can grab and run with. I’m just leaving starting blocks all over the place. I’ll just leave that there and you can run with it.”
Lydia Amoah, speaker, coach, consultant and author and creator behind The Black Pound Report, said “I’m standing in my power, it doesn’t matter how long it may still take for me to achieve what I want for the industry, for the opportunities for me, the next generation, legacy. I’m in the legacy stage in my life now, everything that I need to do now has got to have purpose, meaning. I’m not messing; I'm not playing. All the hard work has finally paid off and I’m truly grateful.”
Trevor Robinson OBE, founder of Quiet Storm agency and Create Not Hate, says: “We’ve adopted an Employee Ownership Trust model, so everyone has a share in our company. I really want to leave the Quiet Storm stable, thriving and the people there making big coin out of it as well. My ambitions are always very small; I just want Quiet Storm and the people who work there to do well and leave them a legacy, a proper legacy where they can build and move on.”
● There’s a big shift in attitudes and ways of working. The future of the industry is promising.
Nana Bempah, co-founder of POCC says: “The really exciting thing about the industry today, the arena in which we’re in, is the proliferation of different mediums and the great shift away from big TV spots, million-pound ads to different channels… there’s a whole load of new companies and new ways of approaching the work, creative ways of approaching business, new businesses cropping up and new models.”
Marvyn Harrison, founder of BELOVD Agency and Dope Black Dads says: “There’s some great young talent and there’s a lot of technology and tools that people can use to accelerate their development which allows people to go out on their own. The level of platforms… really democratises the whole industry even if there are still biases and problems inside the processes, there’s a lot more opportunity that did not exist.”
There was no way I could squeeze into one article all the amazing insights from the conversations I had, each one as inspiring as the next, all prolific in their own ways… and there are so many more people I could and would want to write about, Melody Sylvester (head of film, Engine) Bona Orakwue (freelance executive producer), Chloe Davies (head of social impact, Lucky Generals), Kevin Morosky (co-founder of POCC) and Maria McDowell (founder of Lollipop Mentoring for mid level Black women already in the industry who need support in making it into leadership roles) to name a few but I’m running out of word count!
So time to wrap up, hopefully there are people at every stage of their career that can see a bit of themselves in this one article. I’m not going to stop here, as I said, this isn’t about Black History month. Over the course of the next few months I’ll be exploring collective themes over the discussions I’ve had and dive a bit deeper into each of these trailblazers’ stories, ambitions and future-facing outlooks on the industry and beyond.
“I think the importance of doing activist work is precisely because it allows you to give back and to consider yourself not as a single individual who may have achieved whatever but to be a part of an ongoing historical movement” - Angela Davis