Interviews

“You have to know the rules to break the rules”

Trevor Robinson OBE, Founder and Creative Director at Quiet Storm on the latest iteration of Create Not Hate, the importance of stubbornness and creating ads that make him laugh.

Izzy Ashton

Deputy Editor, BITE

Share


Trevor Robinson is finding lockdown difficult. As the Founder and Creative Director of Quiet Storm, Robinson is missing face-to-face interaction and the creative sparring he finds so integral to the development of new ideas. He calls the cycle of endless Zoom conversations “dehumanising” and talks of the experience of giving a  45 minute speech about himself earlier in the year; “I found it one of the most agonising things to do because you’re just hearing your voice”, he says.

Robinson, who was awarded an OBE in 2009 for his services to advertising, is frequently praised for his philanthropy, his passionate desire to create an industry in which everyone feels welcome and his constant support of the next generation. But it is his energy and desire for change that shines through the screen, existing harmoniously alongside his love of an industry he has worked in for the last thirty years.

It’s the Create Not Hate venture that Robinson is back focusing his time on this year. First launched in 2007, Create Not Hate is an initiative designed to help young diverse talent get into the creative industries. In 2007 the focus was on knife and gun crime but the question at the heart of the 2020 Create Not Hate initiative is, “how would you tackle racism?” Because, “nothing happened,” after the first Create Not Hate initiative, Robinson explains.

I’m more foolhardy and stubborn. I’m not more talented, I just didn’t take no for an answer.

Trevor Robinson

Look away from the mirror image

As the world continues to shift in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of armed white police in America, a spotlight has been shone on the lack of diversity still so painfully obvious within the creative industries. The leadership teams across agencies and brands remain predominantly homogeneous because, says Robinson, people “buy into a mirror image of themselves.” “Advertising people looking for their protégé are looking for a younger version of themselves,” says Robinson; not that it is a conscious decision to do so; but nonetheless it is a cycle that maintains the status quo

Robinson spends time working with students in schools, something he says he loves doing because it is an insight into the minds of kids like him. “I was just like these kids,” he says, the ones who look you up and down, pretend not to be interested when you walk into the classroom, who talk to their friends but with one eye on what’s happening at the front of the room, just in case it might be of interest. It’s a rewarding process for him, as well as being creatively stimulating as he watches kids come up with ideas that he’d never have got to himself.

He talks of his own childhood spent in an inner city school, surrounded by friends of his who he felt were more talented than him but who simply didn’t have the opportunity to even consider a career in the creative industries. When Robinson went to his teacher to ask about becoming a creative, they had no idea how to help and instead suggested he look at joining London Transport.

“I’m more foolhardy and stubborn. I’m not more talented, I just didn’t take no for an answer,” Robinson says, a headstrong nature that saw Robinson study Art at the Chelsea College of Art and then enter the ad world. “I didn’t have a choice; I have to do something in the creative field because I didn’t see a happy me unless I did something creative,” he explains. It is this stubbornness that has carried him through the course of his career, first at HHCL & Partners and then into the creation of his own agency Quiet Storm in 1995. Because if someone ever doubted him or said no, it pushed him forwards; he wanted to prove the naysayers wrong.

He believes that he has had the best luck in advertising, leading him into a life which he describes as “paradise.” But that has also meant that he has become acutely aware of the need to create opportunities for those from backgrounds like his. As he says, “you have to know the rules to break the rules.”

Create Not Hate 2020

Robinson reveals that for many years he felt intimidated in creative spaces, as “the only black guy in there.” “Everybody looks like each other,” he explains. But he smiles as he says that that feeling didn’t last long because he realised that he “was probably closer to the target audience” than many of his white colleagues from more privileged backgrounds. “I don’t do advertising for my peers or people in the ad industry. I do it for my mum, my brother and those people out there,” he says.

He believes there is a lot of fear in advertising about doing or saying the wrong thing but that the global Black Lives Matter protests and the ongoing lockdown have resulted in a shift. He explains: “I always think of London as this analogy of being on a rammed tube. We all manage, and it’s amazing, not to have eye contact.” Floyd’s death, Robinson says, “has made us all see each other.”

While admitting that the first time he launched Create Not Hate he could’ve asked for more support but didn’t –“I just went in myself” - for the 2020 initiative, Robinson reached out to people across the industry and asked them to be involved. “I thought I was going to have to really beg people to help me,” he says. But people just kept saying yes. Mentors on the programme now include agency leaders like Vicky Maguire, CCO of Havas London, Jo Wallace, Creative Director at WundermanThompson, who was part of the original Create Not Hate team and Matt Davis, Co-Owner of Red Brick Road amongst others.

As part of the initiative, Quiet Storm have also partnered with Debate Mate, a social business that recruits university students to teach debating skills to students in the most deprived schools around the UK. The partnership will see Debate Mate provide communication training and peer-to-peer mentorship for those participating in Create Not Hate.

Advertising people looking for their protégé are looking for a younger version of themselves.

Trevor Robinson

Creativity for social good

Robinson is a firm believer in the power of creativity for social good, but that doesn’t automatically equate to being serious about every aspect of the industry all of the time. For him, advertising execs always want to complicate the industry more than they need to; “we are not trying to find a cure for coronavirus,” he says. He strongly believes that advertising should be, and is, fun; coming up with ideas is a liberating process. “We did ads that made us laugh, that made us think, that made us feel emotional,” he reveals of his early days of creative partnership. He’s spent his entire career amazed at the fact that “they pay me to come up with ideas!”

Robinson talks animatedly about an upcoming campaign by a pair of creatives Marley Muirhead and Chris Medford from the School of Communication Arts. The campaign centres around the Notting Hill Carnival, which was cancelled this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Robinson says the team wants to use the void left in its absence to remind people of where the carnival came from, how its roots originated not in “getting drunk and dancing with a policeman,” but in the race riots of the 1950s. “It was all about celebrating diversity and trying to work on equality,” and that’s the brief that the young creatives received.

The project will see young people work on the creation of an anti-racist campaign, a project that is an example of the power of creative collaboration, of diversifying the minds behind the campaigns to create something that better reflects the audience it’s trying to reach. Robinson cites the Nike ‘Nothing Beats a Londoner’ campaign from Wieden+Kennedy as a prime example of an ad that truly captures the nuance and heartbeat of a city and its young people. It was, he reveals, an ad that he was “envious” of.

Attracting diverse young talent

While the aim of Create Not Hate is to help young people achieve their potential, Robinson also wants to see the systems currently used for hiring dismantled. “We’ve got to be clever about how we get the talent in,” he says. To boost diversity and inclusion in the creative industries, Robinson believes the marketing industry, “really needs to throw the net out.”

“It’s just not clever that the advertising industry only takes from a small pool of talented people,” Robinson says. “And that small pool is meant to represent and reflect the whole of our society?”

“I really don’t think we’ve got the best talented people out there in the world in our industry,” Robinson believes. The best people are out there doing other things, unable or unwilling to enter into a world in which they see no one who looks like them. “I’m frustrated as well because I want to see the best people walk in the door,” he adds.

For him, what’s most important is that people are prepared to “stand up and be counted and have those uncomfortable conversations”. Ultimately, to change the system, you need to get buy in from those who have benefitted from it. Robinson reveals that he has spent much of his life not talking about the micro and macro racial aggressions he has experienced, something he realises is “unhealthy.” All of those pent-up memories came pouring out of him in the wake of Floyd’s death, changing his perspective of what should and shouldn’t be spoken about.

He explains: “It’s definitely really healthy for all of us to talk about it, if we really want change and to smash these systemic horrors that we’ve built up through centuries. We have to start with us.” Robinson believes in the power of communications, not only the industry in which he works but also in the conversational form; “you have to talk”, he says.

Because that is the only way to challenge yourself and escalate your creative ability; allow yourself to be bettered by someone else, says Robinson, by an idea or thought that “you didn’t even see coming.” His is a lesson in open-minded and empathetic leadership, an example to the industry that there is no longer space for the attitudes of old. “We’ve got to change it now.”

 

Create Not Hate needs agencies, media owners, brand owners, production companies and people in all facets of the creative sector to sign up and offer either their time, creativity, donations or resources. Any person or company that wants to get involved is asked to contact: info@createnothate.org