Jan 25, 2023

How to Represent: The Act of Creative Representation

Representation matters in creativity on every level. We all know that. The truth is without true representation, the work suffers. With that in mind, I sat down with my friends Sherri Daye Scott and Fabian Williams during Advertising Week to discuss not just why representation matters, but more importantly, how it matters. We also talked about what it does to not only the creative, but the cultural shift it creates that permeates throughout the creative process from brief to execution.

Sherri is a community leader and marketer, and Fabian is a world-renowned artist. We have collaborated in the past, most recently for Big Facts, Small Acts, a covid PSA effort that spoke directly to Black and Brown communities.

Big Facts, Small Acts was Sherri’s brainchild. She wanted to do something that would speak directly to her community. She knew it needed to be genuine and that timing was critical. As she put it in our session: “I knew that any kind of formal PSA around Black health and COVID was going to take weeks or months, and what was being done wasn’t working because it didn’t come from the community.”

We started by finding a creative way to speak as a community member versus coming from a place of medical expertise or institutional POV. So, we settled on the idea of covering local street art with vinyl masks. We called it Cover our Community. Then, the real work began. Fabian was critical to the success of the entire campaign. His credibility as a leader in the art scene and both Fabian and Sherri’s existing roles as community leaders enabled us to quickly connect with artists all over town and, eventually, the country. I remember we had copywriters come up with maybe 100 lines about mask-wearing that we could put in the campaign, but Fabian nailed it in a meeting with the word: “survive.” That one word made it clear that this was a campaign by the community and for the community, not one of public health experts telling people what to do. And that made all the difference. The message was coming from within the community. This kind of genuine connection cannot happen if you don’t bake diversity into everything you do from the very beginning. This was culturally insightful work rooted in realness, and that’s why it was so successful—we expanded to other cities and the project garnered 117.5 million media impressions since its inception and saved lives. It was also honored in the ad community and by Fast Company as a “World Changing Idea.” But I think the real lessons here apply to team building for brands and agencies to help ensure real representation in all creative work.

1. Have a diverse team. This may be obvious but having a diverse team is crucial to creating work that is truly representative. This doesn’t end with your team. It needs to extend into every aspect, like agency vendors and partners.

2. Trust is earned. Agencies or brands that show up trying to capitalize on a cultural moment will never be trusted. Focus on building relationships over time. Invest time and money, but more importantly, invest in the value of the relationship and how it makes you/your agency, or your brand stronger.

3. Truly collaborate. Artists are often two or three steps ahead of mainstream culture. They have the bravery and boldness that brands say they want, but because it can be scary for corporations to introduce new ideas, the work often gets watered down and loses its meaning. If you’re collaborating, especially with artists coming from the community you’re trying to reach, bring them in early and trust their instincts. You’re not hiring a wrist. You’re tapping into a brain and heart. And talent.

4. Pay them. Everyone understands that money makes the world go round. Again, this goes back to the long-term relationship and value versus a transactional approach. They are adding value and are often a MASSIVE reason your efforts will succeed. Respect their role and pay accordingly.

5. Act with urgency. Inclusivity isn’t a checklist business objective. It’s the only way a brand or agency can exist and be competitive today. This means inclusivity is critical at every level of every organization. So, if your agency or brand values inclusivity, it has to prioritize it in the creative process and every process.

About the Author

Chris Breen is Chief Creative Officer and Partner at independent full-service agency, Chemistry.

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