Cultures Must Clash

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We’ve all heard the phrase ‘you’re not the right fit culturally’. I think I’ve heard it 15 times in my career. And it’s the worst phrase in any industry ever.

What it says is ‘sorry we’re not going to change the way that we work to accommodate you, as you’re a little bit different. This is our culture’. It’s absolving anyone from any responsibility.

I’m a proud Aboriginal man from Jerrinjah. Storytelling is in my blood. We pass our history on through stories, like we have for the last 60,000 years around the campfire. You learn respect for storytelling, and the spaces between the words.

Storytelling is also a key element in commercial creativity today. So why isn’t the advertising industry able to tap into this rich resource? Where are all the Indigenous people in agencies?

In the last ten years the industry has hit upon this word – diversity. So, they go out and get an Indigenous fella or girl, bring them into a company and say, ‘there’s a computer, there’s your email, good luck’. Then wonder why it doesn’t work.

Here are a few of my observations, based on my own experiences over the last 20 years in the industry.

As a creative I want my voice to get out, I want to be heard, but I don’t know how to do it sometimes because I’m told to put something in the diary or park it for a work in progress meeting.

So, at the time I have that passion and that creative idea and inspiration I can’t do anything. By the time the meeting comes around, it’s gone.

This is the kind of problem many Indigenous people face when they enter the workplace, especially a creative workplace.

Why is that?

We’ve become incredibly insular. That’s because we’ve become exceptionally quiet. The hardest thing I face as Indigenous person in an ad agency is that everyone is on their headphones. We were brought up to talk, to listen, not send email.

We’ve become homogenized and we’ve become incredibly status driven around roles and job titles. I have no idea what half these job titles are. I don’t know what a GAD is. All I know is usually they’re English and wear a nice shirt.

I don’t know why we’ve become so status drive, don’t we all want to do the same work, and do good work? Let the next person be heard, regardless of whether they are senior or junior.

There are a lot of people in the industry who have really good intentions and want to create more diverse workplaces, but they are going about it by trying to fit everyone in the existing mold.

If we want genuine diversity, there is only one way forward: Cultures have to clash.

I use those words deliberately.

There’s no point in opening up the doors to another culture and saying, ‘we welcome you’ and then not having a yarn to them during the day. Not pulling them aside and saying, ‘tell us your story, what makes you, you?’

I’m not saying clash as in an argument, but you must be prepared to have everything you do as creatives confronted and challenged. We will never achieve true diversity by saying ‘we welcome you, have some cake’.

We must be paid to challenge our thoughts our beliefs our way of working, we must be prepared to look within ourselves and make the change.

We must be to be prepared to reverse our assumptions. Unfortunately, we live in a society where much of the media portrays indigenous people as broke or drunk, stupid, uneducated. It’s not the case.

We must be paid to have everything we have valued questioned:
● Do we value our status more than the work?
● Do we value the client more than the work?
● Do we value working as a team and pulling people aside, and saying ‘I want to know who you are’ better than winning an award?

Diversity comes in many shapes and size, but every time we bring in someone from a different background to the majority of a team, we are creating cognitive diversity. That’s when clashes, and great things, really happen.

During the Second World War the British Government knew they needed to break the Enigma Code to get past the German U-Boats which were running amuck and destroying vital supply lines. The Nazi’s thought it couldn’t be broken.

But the Brits brought together chess players, crossword addicts, mathematicians and others. People from all walks of life – highly educated and less educated, rich and poor. They put them together in teams and what happened? They clashed. And then they all learned from each other, and eventually cracked the code.

Without being prepared to clash and have everything questioned it wouldn’t have happened.

The PWC Industry Outlook report in 2018 described the average person working the ad land as 27, living in Bondi or St Kilda, and rides a scooter. There was no way an Indigenous person, no matter what school they’ve been to, no matter what they grown up with, will ever be able to come into this organization and automatically bond.

These two worlds must be forced to work together. And every leader in the industry has a role to play.

For starters, we need to change the way we approach the path into the industry.

A few months ago, I had a call from an agency saying they wanted to take some Indigenous kids on as interns. So, I asked them how much are you paying them? The answer, ‘nothing, it’s an internship’. Is there a job at the end of it? ‘No’. Are you going to feed them, pay for travel? ‘No’. Do you have a Reconciliation Action Plan? ‘No’. Needless to say, I didn’t recommend any kids to them.

It’s not lost on me that it’s a lot easier said than done. We hang out with people that are like us, that we feel comfortable with. That makes life a lot easier. I’m sure we can all name the pubs where the ad agency people drink on a Friday night.

I’ve been there myself. Hiring people that we do not understand leads to trouble, confrontation, confusion and, yes, sometimes arguments. But these arguments are good.

Simply bringing people together from different values is not the same as hiring someone who has a completely different way of life. A completely different way of life will often lead to completely different ideas, and different ideas will create a better product.

A lot of these people come from backgrounds afflicted with suicide, alcoholism, depression, hopelessness. I’m not saying that’s who they are, I’m saying they’ve come from that and know that adversity.

But hang on a second. Isn’t adversity what makes a good artist or storyteller?

This cannot be done in a safe controlled way. It cannot be baby steps. It has to be done in a way that has meaning and demonstrates that you truly want both cultures to clash into each other.

It’s up to you to make a difference, to connect with those Indigenous business units at universities is a Google search away. Do not let your busyness allow cultures to clash.

Only when this happens that I think the industry will really start connecting with Indigenous storytellers.

Peter Kirk is an experienced, senior creative. He has recently helped to set up the first scholarships to assist Indigenous people to participate in creative training program AWARD School. He will be speaking on a panel about Indigenous creativity and participation at Advertising Week APAC 2019.

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