The closed loop: advertising titan Trevor Robinson on shaking up a homogenous industry

“A lot has changed in advertising since I started my career but one thing still holds true; to get a foot in the door, it’s still about who you know.”

Date
26 August 2020
Reading Time
6 minute read

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Starting out, I knew no one in advertising and there were many times when people advised me to go into other careers that might be easier for me to succeed in. I got plenty of knockbacks, but I was determined to make it as a creative, and it was that resilience and sheer bloody-mindedness that got me here today. I don’t really know where I drew my self-belief from back then, but I had plenty of it and I’m so lucky I did. This year, the agency I founded, Quiet Storm, turns 25, and as I look back over what we have achieved in that quarter century I’m immensely proud. Trusting in yourself is critical because that is what will propel you through your career and spur you on to great things.

In a bid to get our work seen in our early careers, I remember my former creative partner, Al Young, and I gatecrashing an industry party and summoning up the courage to approach some of the powerful people there. I’ll never forget watching poor Al trying and failing to ingratiate himself with a very non-plussed looking John Hegarty. In the end, our bold move paid off and Dave Buonaguidi, who was also there, decided he liked us and he gave us a chance to prove ourselves at HHCL.

Even now, agencies are populated with sons, daughters and friends of industry people and it’s a closed off world. If the senior bods are not from a diverse background (and let’s face it, most aren’t) you end up with an agency full of middle class, Oxbridge-educated white people and the industry misses out on talent from lots of different demographics and communities. That’s why my agency Quiet Storm has launched Create Not Hate, to bring in under-represented young people of colour from inner cites who would never otherwise get access to opportunities in the ad world.

Create Not Hate is designed to be an ongoing programme providing mentorship from creative and ad industry leaders and will, ultimately, create a gateway for young marginalised talent into a career in the industry. The aim behind it is to deliver ongoing support and training in all aspects of the advertising creative process.

It offers an education in lots of different disciplines, from debating to filmmaking, and inspires talented kids to get involved through open briefs where they can submit their ideas and work on creative projects.

Trevor Robinson OBE: A Mother's Tears for Create Not Hate 2007

“We need to stop this cycle of the same old work getting created by the same old people which is limiting and crippling the industry.”

Trevor Robinson OBE

Our first round of Create Not Hate work will be showcased over the August Bank Holiday weekend, when the Notting Hill Carnival is usually filling West London streets with a celebration of Black culture – an event that is famous for its parade and sound systems but has its roots in the tradition of protest, anti-racism and fellowship.

Two short films, Racism is Ridiculous and That’s Not Me will be premiered, both made by Create Not Hate participants with help from participating agencies. We will also be putting up billboard posters across the capital and distributing T-shirts with anti-racism messages, in solidarity with Black Lives Matter.

This is the second iteration of the original Create Not Hate mentorship and training initiative I launched in 2007 to help marginalised youth from similar backgrounds to my own to get into the creative industries. For Create Not Hate 2020, we are involving many more young talented people from a wide range of schools and lots more mentors from across the creative services sector. We want to secure proper ongoing funding to make this programme sustainable and self-funding.

To get this project up and running we have invited agencies, media owners, brand owners, production companies and people in all facets of the creative sector to sign up and offer their time, creativity, donations and resources.

We need to stop this cycle of the same old work getting created by the same old people which is limiting and crippling the industry. We also urgently need to get adlanders in touch with the outside world.

As an illustration of just how removed from reality many people in advertising can be, I was told that one agency person contacted in regards to Create Not Hate was too nervous to allow the kids into their building in case, and I quote, “someone would get stabbed”. This is an industry in desperate need of a shake-up. People should be forced outside their comfort zones and new avenues must be opened up to allow the best and most diverse talent in.

The Black Lives Matter movement has empowered people to open up about race in a way that I’d never seen before. I rarely brought up the subject of race in conversation in my early career because I could see that it made people uncomfortable. Since the murder of George Floyd and the video of a white woman in Central Park calling the police on an innocent Black man, I now have people regularly phoning me up to talk about racism. I have a diverse group of friends and, prior to BLM, we didn’t really talk together about how the colour of our skin impacts how we get treated. Now we’re having those conversations down the pub. The lockdown has given people more time to take stock and get a perspective on the abuse, terror and threat to life people of colour have to deal with on a daily basis.

I know there is a huge appetite for change across the industry because so many agency leaders, from companies including Red Brick Road, Ridley Scott Creative Group, Engine Group, Havas London, Mother, Creature, Cheil Worldwide, Wunderman Thompson, Fold7, Persuasion, Total Media and Lively Agency are volunteering their time and effort to support Create Not Hate. We’re united through the need to change up this industry. But, crucially, this is a great way for agencies and creative companies to meet and connect with these talented kids.

“As a young Black creative presenting my ideas to white senior creatives, I would inevitably have to dilute or modify my work in order to appeal to their sensibilities.”

Trevor Robinson

Agency leaders know that homogenous creative teams produce homogenous, one-dimensional work. As a young Black creative presenting my ideas to white senior creatives, I would inevitably have to dilute or modify my work in order to appeal to their sensibilities. I had to suppress my personality and change my creative approach because I knew the insights that I had that were derived from my life experience, my upbringing and my culture would be lost on them. Had they been Black they would have been able to instantly identify with what I was wanting to say.

I know how to communicate with white audiences because I was brought up with so many influences from the white world. But white creatives would not understand how to connect with or communicate with Black audiences in the same way. They simply haven’t been exposed to our world to the same degree.

Since the Black Lives Matter protests, many marketers have gotten in touch with me to get advice on how to promote diversity with integrity. Brands and big corporates are terrified that by talking about the issue, they invite the exposure of their own internal failings and lack of inclusion. But no one said change was easy. Confronting and tackling your own failings is a necessary part of advancing and improving. Brands and agencies must scrutinise everything they do, from casting for commercials to recruitment, and actively seek out ways to get diverse people in. Don’t just settle for who the headhunter, the board, the senior team or the casting agent suggests – go out of your way to find diverse talented people who will advance your company and its output.

Business leaders in this industry like myself are the old guard but we must also safeguard the future. We need to make the effort to push ourselves out of our comfort zone to get people who don’t look, think or act like us to expand our knowledge and perspective on the world. It isn’t the moral thing to do, it is simply what is required to protect the future of our industry.

GalleryTrevor Robinson / Quiet Storm

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You've Been Tango'd Orange Slap by Trevor Robinson OBE and Al Young (1992)

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You've Been Tango'd Orange Slap by Trevor Robinson OBE and Al Young (1992)

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You've Been Tango'd Orange Slap by Trevor Robinson OBE and Al Young (1992)

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Quiet Storm: Haribo Kids' Voices campaign, Boardroom (2014)

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Quiet Storm: I See The Vimto In You (2018)

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Quiet Storm Trevor Robinson OBE & Neal Colyer: Pretty Little Liars UK campaign (2010)

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Trevor Robinson OBE: Women's Equality Party Pestminster campaign (2019)

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Trevor Robinson OBE: Women's Equality Party Pestminster campaign (2019)

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Trevor Robinson OBE: Women's Equality Party Pestminster campaign (2019)

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Trevor Robinson OBE

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About the Author

Trevor Robinson

Trevor Robinson OBE is the founder of creative agency and production company Quiet Storm, responsible for some of the most talked-about advertising in recent times, from You’ve Been Tango-ed to the more recent Haribo Kids’ Voices. A vocal advocate for diversifying the industry, he chaired the IPA’s Ethnic Diversity Forum and set up Create Not Hate, an initiative to coach marginalised young people of colour in skills for a career in advertising.

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