Advertising is going out of fashion and the gatekeepers are locking themselves out
Following her decision to walk away from a commercial job using unethical practices, Deepa Keshvala discusses the power in observing and coming to realise that your lived experience is priceless.
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Last month I walked away from a three-day beauty commercial, the day before the shoot, due to the lack of understanding and good conscience from the director, as well as complicity from the agency and production around them. This was the first time I had walked, but not the first time I had questioned a high-profile client-agency-company triangle on its ethos, process and intentions. On this occasion, it was a debate about why we shouldn’t be giving a homeless man £500 to be handed an umbrella on camera, and a storyboard of a white woman doing the Black power fist, which shouted: “You should not shoot this.”
Posting my experience on Instagram, I wanted artists (filmmakers and cast), workers and communities to know that I stand in solidarity with them and encourage them, if they are in a position to, to walk away from creative jobs that are operating with unethical, physically and mentally unsafe conditions, or exploitative intention. I was glad to see that it had soon gone viral, being liked and shared thousands of times globally. I realised it had resonated, both with freelancers and workers on the receiving end of a paycheck in TV, film, advertising and fashion. If a moment could define how archaic and problematic these industries are, and how much they have angered those working in and around them, this was it.
I’ve been present across these interconnected industries for nine years now, starting as an intern at a well-known commercial production company. I’ve come to learn the inner workings of these industries from many, many perspectives – office, agency, artist and crew alike. These creative experiences are dreamy, full of opportunity and new experience. They combine travel and community, evoke collaboration, experimentation and imagination, and make room for positive influence, empathy and humanity. Of course, they can also be lucrative. But it’s important to note that they can also be damaging, not only to an individual’s self-esteem but the planet. They can be unethical, inconsiderate, exploitative and oppressive, but also greed-driven, egotistical and sinister. It’s almost pot luck which experience you’ll have and I have swung between – and been complicit in – the two sides my whole career. Advertising and fashion are undeniably worse, and are my main focus here, as industries where anti-Blackness is hidden in supposedly PC terms like “Asia safe”.
I have been a cinematographer for four years now, and came in as a storyteller and lover of community. This is what keeps me sane and motivates me through thick and thin. I landed in advertising and fashion accidentally, when an opportunity arose after graduation which allowed me to make a living and network simultaneously. I immediately fell in with an amazing community of filmmakers who each made with purpose, empathy and humanity. But as I moved through the industry, the underbelly of these worlds presented themselves: glimpses of corruption, abuse, fear, bullying and exploitation, each intertwined with the culture of “making”.
The unspoken code of “you’re lucky to be here” silences most good people from speaking out against problematic practices at every stage of production. Being “other” silences those “others” from speaking out in white and macho spaces – the idea being that you keep your head down, make it to the top, and then you’re “sorted”.
The issue is that if you are not “in fashion” but an introvert or an individual with any hint of low confidence you will be overlooked at best, and at worst crushed and discarded. It is in its tunnel-visioned judgement of character and personality that the industry’s insidious and elitist culture rears its ugly head. It’s a grave error to make when you consider some of the greatest minds might be right under your nose; humble and with a great work ethic, going unnoticed as is often the case with young people. I was lucky to get through as a bold young woman of colour because I fell into the nurturing hands of film producer Lee Groombridge, director Daniel Wolfe and cinematographer Robbie Ryan. This is rare.
But this elitist approach has worked for decades, churning through the masses who are wanting steady and well-paid work or recognition, and who are upholding this power structure. I am also guilty on all accounts of getting sucked in, and upholding the system. However, finally, it is beginning to implode.
Rusty gatekeepers are suddenly flinging themselves at communities that they do not understand, care for or relate to, in an attempt to remain “current” and “diverse”, all creating a palpable tension with one obvious destination – a tense and divided industry. These same gatekeepers have begun to lock themselves out of the archaic system they built by often exploiting their own talent (often snap-signing as “commodities”, or to deflect), self-inflicted ignorance, and general avoidance of doing the right thing. The welfare and self-esteem of many people in these industries is a laughing matter. And it’s no secret that Black communities, in their entirety, are an eternal source of culture and imagery to appropriate and sell. This extends to POC, LGBTQIA+ and the forgotten white working class. It seems the gatekeepers made the assumption that everyone would – both gratefully and divided – continue to work at the mercy of a greedy, unchecked, unregulated system forever. This “system”, or lack thereof, is officially dated.
There is power in observing the environment you work in, and coming to realise that your lived experience is priceless. Multiply this with Black, and you will see that advertising and fashion teams have found themselves in knots, attempting to self-congratulate on late, reactive and empty anti-racist “policy”, both to remain popular and avoid being cancelled themselves. What these industries don’t realise is that their target audience is a highly self-educated generation able to outwit them. Cleaning up the houses of those who have historically swept them under the rug is catching up. Deeply uncomfortable on-screen and off-screen representation speaks volumes for the systematic issues our industry is incapable of fixing, should it insist on keeping its current “board of directors”.
It’s no secret that those of us leading with ethics – middle-aged white men through to young Black women – are changing the landscape of the industry, a process that is well underway and began long before 2020. We are operating under a new system and we transcend box-ticking and quotas entirely. We have found power, unity and success in our collective conscience. We work directly with institutions, brands, agencies, companies and artists that are collaborative, engaged, generous and fearless. We work together, not “for” or “under”. We have zero tolerance for bullies, hierarchies and elitism, for co-opting political movements to sell products which mislead, appropriate and gaslight communities or individuals.
Our ethics standards are high and our gut feeling is strong and an unregulated industry means that there is nothing to stop us walking away if we can afford to. We live in a world where having good ethics and integrity have become a currency that our communities – filmmakers and otherwise – value above all else. We don’t lose work when we walk, we simply filter out the work we want from the work we want to see gone. It is uncomfortable at that moment but is an investment in a lifelong career and community who will treat you with loyalty and appreciation. This is where the best work is made.
The world has changed and the proof is in the rising reality around us. New companies, agencies and artists are forming communities and policies that lead with an ethos of education, inclusion, investment, engagement and generosity. Everyone wants a clean supply chain, from mental health through to sustainability. Interrogation isn’t profitable, it is now essential. We will see to it that this culture is rewritten, regulated and upheld as industry standard.
Finally, a message for all workers: employees and crew; communities: non-industry and marginalised; artists: filmmakers and talent – observe these environments, know your value and stand your ground. It is priceless and essential, and we are actively changing these environments to protect and mobilise everyone. I am collecting stories and experiences of unethical practices from every corner of advertising, so that we can look at the truth of this industry objectively, to create a new system and culture, because the world has changed, the tables have turned.
The system doesn’t function without our cooperation together for everyone. The real ones are welcome to join forces. Talk to us.
To reach out to Deepa with your story or experience in advertising or fashion, please get in contact via email@example.com. You are able to give as little or as much identity as you feel comfortable with. Agencies and companies are also welcome to open a conversation. All stories will live in an encrypted account and all data is protected as per GDPR laws.
About the Author
Deepa Keshvala entered the industry as an intern after graduating from LCC before workinng with commercial directors as an assistant. Subsequently, she worked as a trainee in camera department on feature films, followed by a period of shooting 2nd Unit on commercials. Since 2016 she has been shooting short form across advertising, fashion, music and narrative.