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Industry heavyweights Avish Gordham and Mandie van der Merwe call out the "glacial pace" of change in the sector

22 September 2022

Avish Gordham and Mandie van der Merwe are a formidable force in Australian advertising. The team is poised between major industry-shaping roles - soon to depart their positions as Executive Creative Directors at M&C Saatchi Group to become Dentsu Creative's inaugural Chief Creative Officers.

Before they make the switch, they will be in Adelaide as part of the AADC's Annual Talks program on September 29. Alongside Faycal ben Abdellaziz, NAB's Head of Brand, they'll tackle one of the industry's most stubborn and urgent issues, speaking on the theme of Making Creative More Inclusive.

Ahead of their appearance, they offered their insights on the current inclusivity and representation landscape in the sector.

AADC: Has the advertising industry historically been inclusive?

Mandie: When I started working in advertising in South Africa over 20 years ago, I was the only woman in my team. The guys used to turn up the air-conditioning as a joke to see if I was a padded-bra-kind-of-girl or not. They were brazen enough to tell me that that was their intent. So no, my personal experience didn’t suggest there was any inclusivity.

Avish: You just have to look at the advertising of an era to know about the people who made it. Look at the work that came out of Australia between the 60s and the 2000s - it paints a very clear picture that this industry was absolutely not diverse or inclusive. Don’t get me wrong, there was some brilliant advertising during these years, but the representation within the work is one-dimensional, which is usually a dead giveaway that the people who created it were pretty similar too.

AADC: Has anything changed? And if it has, is it enough?

Mandie: In October, Avish and I will step into a new role as the joint national CCOs of Dentsu Creative. I’ll be one of only two female CCOs in the country at a global network. Avish becomes, to my knowledge, the first person of colour in a CCO role at a global network in this country. The optimist in me looks at this as a sign of change. The realist in me knows that it has taken an unnaturally long time to get here and that if we want to make this industry more diverse and inclusive, change cannot continue at this glacial pace. Where is the transgender, neurodiverse or Indigenous leadership in our businesses that we know exists in our industry and in this country?

AADC: What do you believe are the greatest barriers to inclusivity and representation in the industry?

Avish: If we considered diversity as one of the most valuable and financially beneficial decisions we could make as an industry, for ourselves and for our clients, we would have done it already. So I think the biggest barrier is our mindset. We are in a “diversity denialist” headspace. We still think of diversity as an optional extra that may or may not be good for our businesses. We treat it as something that “should happen” rather than something that needs to happen now. Once we acknowledge that we will be vastly more profitable, effective and attractive to clients and that we will be inundated with exceptional broad-based talent, we’ll be on our way.

Why is it important for advertisers and marketers to educate their clients about inclusivity and representation? Why is this a responsibility we should take on?

Avish and Mandie: It comes down to relevance. Consumers care about the way brands behave. Especially Millennials and Gen Z audiences. If we don’t actively and sincerely address things like representation and inclusivity in our own work, we risk being outdated and unacceptable. We risk reducing a brand’s ability to relate to the audiences we’re trying to attract.

AADC: How can the industry avoid tokenism and foster inclusivity and representation that is genuine?

Mandie: Give the talent in your ads a meaningful role. Diversity is not a box ticking exercise (if it was, car ads from the ‘50s with bikini-clad women holding prices would be regarded as inclusive). It’s about telling narratives from a different perspective because the characters have different backstories to the ones we are used to seeing in ads but which our audiences call “life”.

Avish: The way we foster genuine representation is to stop making excuses not to have diversity in our work. The number of times I’ve had clients push back on using diverse talent in a campaign is too many to count. I think this stems for an inherent and inherited bias because we have not allowed diversity to be the norm. We still treat it as a challenging concept. And so it always seems like a braver decision to make than it actually is.

See Avish and Mandie discuss inclusivity and representation in person at the Making Creative More Inclusive talk on September 29 at 2.30pm as part of the AADC Annual Talks program on September 29.

Tickets and more information are available here.

See the full Talks program here.