Interviews

Navigating the post-brand purpose world

Tag Warner, CEO of GAY TIMES on industry ageism, funding minority voices and the importance of recognising your privilege.

Izzy Ashton

Deputy Editor, BITE

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For years, the creative industries have fetishized youth, whilst simultaneously stereotyping young people in positions of power. It feels jarring to those who obsess over whether someone is a ‘name’ to be held accountable by someone who isn’t. Yet. 

The barriers of ageism work both ways. Younger people can face daily challenges; the messages, you don’t belong here, you haven’t worked hard enough, you can’t possibly know enough, are a common thread. It's a thread of exclusion which means that far too often youth is not given a seat at the table. A failure to recognise different perspectives ignores the progress that different generations working together to shift the narrative can have on creating a more inclusive, representative industry. 

Recent comments by WPP’s Mark Read underline the continued prevalence of a stereotype across the industry that a young workforce must mean you are at the forefront of development and automatically have your finger on the pulse of consumer trends. But put many industry leaders in a room with a 24-year-old CEO and, says Tag Warner, many still asked if he is simply “the poster boy”. Because how could he possibly be the one in charge when he is so young? 

Warner took over as CEO of GAY TIMES on 1st January 2019 and since then has worked tirelessly to develop the company away from being simply a publication and into a media organisation. It’s been a busy 18 months as GAY TIMES launched a creative agency, built up its social presence, it’s corporate arm and its charitable wing, Amplifund. 

Warner laughs as he recounts a conversation he had with a client in which he was told, good naturedly, that he was “the most influential person in LGBTQ that no one’s ever heard of.” It is, says Warner, a title that he is determined to shift but he has not been without his roadblocks. He reveals that when he first started in the role, he quickly experienced the ageism the industry is so rife with. He wasn’t taken seriously, so he decided to simply get on with things. “The industry was good at intimidating me into thinking I couldn’t do my job,” he says. A stereotype he has steadfastly proved to be baseless. 

I don’t think it’s my job to tell their stories just because we’re the biggest.

Tag Warner

Reframing the narrative around LGBTQ experience

Warner elaborates on the work that Amplifund was set up to do: “Amplifund is about trying to fund and support LGBTQ activists and media organisations in local territories because I do not believe in a world of mass media.” It is designed to fund and support those local organisations. “We wanted to empower them to tell their own stories and to do their own work…I’m not going to patronise you or teach you how to do you,” he adds. 

“We, as in the UK and US, have a very particular view of the world. And of course, we’re taught that that view is factually correct,” he explains, believing that as a result, there is an inclination to speak on behalf of communities in other countries. This is something he’s determined not to do with GAY TIMES. “I don’t think it’s my job to tell their stories just because we’re the biggest,” he adds. 

“I kept noticing that the narrative around LGBTQ experiences outside of the global north was still fairly patronising and condescending,” Warner says. He likens it to the experience of watching Comic Relief every year, where audiences are emotionally moved to donate under the assumption that life ‘over there’ must of course be significantly worse than ours ‘over here’. He wants to hear about LGBTQ lives in various countries told by the people actually living them, a viewpoint he believes this year has helped to accelerate: “We’re seeing different perspectives finally come through.” 

After conversations with Karen Blackett, UK Country Manager at WPP and CEO of GroupM and John Beardsworth, Partner at MediaCom, Warner decided to work alongside the teams at Grey and MediaCom to produce a campaign that would amplify LGBTQ voices of local communities. He wanted the campaign to showcase to a UK audience, just how problematic the narrative is of speaking on behalf of other communities. 

“I wanted to challenge how [the agencies] approached this charitable, pro bono work,” says Warner, who interrogated the way the agencies operated throughout the process. The process of working together to come up with a creative and campaign idea is not as easy as people like to think, explains Warner: “It’s awkward, it’s painful, it’s challenging, it’s full of problems and that’s what got us to the campaign…which I truly believe is exactly what it should be.” 

Post brand purpose

The conversation turns to brand purpose, with Warner believing that we’re going into a “post-brand purpose world.” He feels that the audience has now become almost fatigued by brands continually pushing social issues. He points to the example of Pride, which this year didn’t have the floats or celebrations of previous years behind which many brands would typically hide. Suddenly, Warner explains, “it showcased really how often Pride can be all talk and no action.” 

“At the moment, to be totally blunt, brand purpose is actually a marketing opportunity,” he says. Within some companies, not all Warner is quick to point out, messaging is developed by marketing teams and then trickles down into the company. Purpose is retrofitted into the company’s offering. “We’re seeing brands start to realise that they are damaging their brand equity by doing that,” he adds. 

This is not the way Warner thinks companies should operate because it feels disingenuous. “What we want to hear from organisations and brands is 5% of what they’re doing, and we need to know that 95% of that we don’t ever hear about,” he explains. As people can directly give feedback to businesses and brands online, power is being steadily removed from more egocentric rooms. It is, says Warner, “taking away the smoke and mirrors” of marketing. 

Some influential figures in the industry can really slow down positive change by trying to root us in the idea of what was successful.

Tag Warner

Recognise your privilege

Warner believes that the marketing and creative industries are still beholden to those who were once successful, guilty of indulgently reflecting on the past without thinking about how change will impact the future. “Some of these influential figures that we have in the industry can really slow down positive change by trying to root us in the idea of what was successful,” he says. 

Warner tries to connect with 17, 18 and 19-year-olds everyday “because I want to be thinking about what they’re thinking about,” he explains. He wants to understand the mindset of the younger generations because their attitude is so resistant towards capitalism and growth. They’re a generation that shifts towards prioritising values over growth, towards the power of collaboration over competition. 

“Collaboration was seen as a competitive disadvantage to so many people before,” explains Warner. “Whereas now I think it’s seen as the way that we get ourselves out of a lot of the messes that we’re currently in.” He adds that although his approach to leadership is to be as open and accessible as possible, there are still those looking to take advantage of it, to mine him for information and offer nothing in return. 

What he believes will help to create more openness within the industry is if people within it recognise their privilege, and just how much it led to where they are today. “No matter how much you want to think about it, your role and your position may not have been given to you in a total meritocracy-based environment,” he says. People need to start acknowledging that for many, many people, it’s an exceedingly difficult process trying to enter into the media and advertising industries. Recognise that and you are taking steps to improving how you understand and communicate with those around you. 

Fund minority voices

“One thing I noticed quite quickly was how white media is,” says Warner, citing a 2016 survey from City University London published in the Guardian that revealed that 94% of British journalists are white. “I know it’s not that recent, but it won’t have got much better,” he adds. 

When people say they have a merit system for hiring, says Warner, it’s like saying, “my door’s open but you have to get in the building. Good luck.” It is not the most approachable methodology and ignores the degree of privilege that is afforded someone to enable them to say, my door is open. 

Representation was something that Warner wanted to tackle quite quickly when he started at GAY TIMES, to examine why so many media publications still fall back on the phrase, but there aren’t any non-white journalists to choose from. The problem, believes Warner, lies in the opportunities that are given. 

He decided to create a £100,000 fund dedicated to paying for internships for queer, non-binary and trans voices and queer black voices. He explains that they wanted to, “specifically hire in the two demographics where we’ve found that the talent pool and the hiring pipeline is absolutely non-existent.” The scheme is designed to pay the interns London Living Wage as well as subsidising their travel, after feedback revealed that was vital to many. 

It frustrates him when businesses say they simply don’t have the time, or that it’s a challenging year when failing to take action on inclusion. Because, as he explains, the money is there; it’s just often the will isn’t. “It’s always lip service,” he adds. The reality is that the business case is there for diversifying your organisation; it is not good enough to just talk. “We’ve done it as a small organisation in the middle of an incredibly disruptive year. So, you can,” says Warner. 

Warner believes that while there is an industry-wide nostalgia for people who have done great things, the rate of change is accelerating. He wants to see more people banding together to use their influence to push things forwards, “rather than seeing it as a more competitor-based approach which again I think allows us to exist in silos and it slows down that rate of change.” 

Warner runs GAY TIMES under the ethos that just because your competitor succeeds doesn’t mean you will fail. Two can succeed in tandem, to work together to shift the narrative, increase representation and create a more inclusive landscape. It’s a reminder that collaborative, empathic leadership helps build successful businesses that empower the voices of their communities to speak up for themselves, rather than be spoken for.