Thought Leadership

Responsible representation drives creativity

At Focus London industry leaders explored the importance of widening the lens and authenticity in creativity

Georgie Moreton

Deputy Editor, BITE Creativebrief


Authentic, responsible representation both on and off screen within advertising has never been more important. With recent data from LGBTQIA+ advocacy group, Outvertising, showing that more than half of LGBTQIA+ people claim that advertising affects how they perceive their body image. While according to the Heat Test Report finding that 68% of brands with representative ads saw a stock gain of 44% in a seven-quarter period, brands have both a social responsibility and a business-critical challenge.

Agencies and producers are facing pressure from clients to tell more authentic stories that connect with audiences and this takes more than just diverse casting. To consider how to widen the lens and build to more authentic representation, at Focus 2023, Nicola Kemp, Editorial Director at Creativebrief sat down with Vanessa Graf, PR Manager Running EMEA at ASICS, Grant Hunter, CCO at Iris and Helen James, CEO Europe at CPB London. 

Shunning stereotypes and shifting the narrative 

The advertising industry has long been guilty of leaning on stereotypes and tick-boxing when it comes to inclusion. Yet stereotypes play a large part in preventing people from reaching their potential, leaving many left unseen.

Asics’ ‘When she moves she breathes’ campaign created with the help of CPB was all about perception and shifting the narrative around women and movement. Vanessa Graf, PR Manager Running EMEA at ASICS shared that the inspiration for the campaign came from a feeling of tiredness around the current perception of sport. The team looked to the brand’s conception, founder story and connection to wellbeing to think differently and move away from the idea of sporting achievement toward the way sport can make people feel. “Kihachiro Onitsuka recognised the power of movement to unite,” says Graf, giving the brand an entry point and a real permission to play in the space from the off.

We don’t know everything. Learn together to drive change.

Helen James, CEO Europe at CPB London

Where many campaigns focus on achieving physical goals, with stress and anxiety at an all-time high, the team wanted to shift the focus and demonstrate the power that movement can have on the mind.

In order to do this authentically, Helen James, CEO Europe at CPB London shared how the team honed in on women, who are typically not the focus of sporting campaigns. By narrowing down the brief they were able to uncover that many women have a sense of guilt associated with sport and feel they should be doing other things with their time. The campaign aimed to help women feel they had permission to exercise. “We spoke with women and checked in throughout the process,” says James. A female team helped to keep this message in check from production to shoot and by being passionate about the cause they were able to help reflect the lived experience on screen. By leaning away from stereotypes the campaign not only makes people feel seen but also makes work stand out in a sea of sameness.

This importance of reflection and consultation throughout the whole creative process was echoed by Grant Hunter, CCO at Iris who shared that during his work on Starbucks’ #WhatsYourName active listening and learning was crucial.

The #WhatsYourName campaign was born from the insight that many trans+ people feel comfortable to share their true names and identities at Starbucks when the barista asks for the customer's name for the drink. At the time the campaign was made only 0.3% of TV adverts feature a transgender person, despite the community making up an estimated 1% of the population.

To authentically represent trans+ people, Hunter and the team engaged with gender-diverse youth charity, Mermaids, from the off and the organisation helped with casting, insight and consultation throughout. Hunter shared that the team felt a duty of care to the community and a responsibility beyond the campaign. Hunter urges brands not to just ‘show up and disappear’ and therefore worked with Starbucks to help support trans+ people long term, raising money for Mermaids by selling a cookie in-store and offering the coffee shops as a safe space to meet up. 

By waiting to speak we forget to listen 

A ‘go woke, go broke’ narrative may be preventing brands from taking the leap to supporting meaningful causes due to a fear of backlash but Creativebrief’s recent Diversity Drives Creativity report underlines the business case for representation.

By standing for something there will always be nay-sayers and backlash is inevitable, but both James and Grant advocate for learning and seeking community partners to ensure that brands are educated on issues and confident to stand strong in the face of push back. “We don’t know everything” says James, “learn together to drive change.”

Graf points to Acis’ founder story and strong alignment with movement for wellbeing from inception. By having a strong brand purpose, the brand has permission to play in the space and say something with the confidence of senior buy in. Ensuring that everyone in the business is aligned with purpose can make employees brand advocated. “I’m proud to work for a brand with purpose from the beginning,” says Graf.

James stresses the importance of purpose within an agency business and creating work that aligns with internal values. “Have values and live up to, live by them. Engage with initiatives to change the industry” says James, “Outside of that think about how you show up every day in how you engage with partners and the work you make. Make work that lives and breathes your values.”

We also have a duty of care to talent. They need to be comfortable and confident.

Vanessa Graf, PR Manager Running EMEA at ASICS

Creating work that aligns with internal values can be demonstrated in Hunter’s work with Purpose Disruptors. Recently Iris worked with Purpose Disruptors to create ‘The Good Advert' on Channel 4. The ad held a mirror up to the industry and asked how we can create better and more sustainable ways to combat the advertising industry's negative contribution to the climate crisis. “The industry reaction was split,” says Hunter, “we wanted to put a mirror up to the industry and inspire positive change.” By using the power of creativity to insight conversation and as a tool to help combat the climate crisis, the work authentically represents the agency's ethos and attitude for positive change. 

Collaborate and create with care 

Beyond a brand or agency's own values, responsible representation relies on a collaborative approach with input from people from diverse walks of life and those from every level. “In the lead-up to set we make sure to take the most collaborative approach possible” says Graf, “We also have a duty of care to talent. They need to be comfortable and confident.”

Ensuring that on-screen talent is as comfortable as possible allows for those off, candid moments that sometimes end up being in the campaign. For when talent can be their authentic self on set, the emotion and enjoyment they feel to be a part of a campaign can in turn be captured.

On set James underlines the importance of creating an open, friendly atmosphere. She places the onus on senior leadership to create the space for people to speak up and take it upon themselves to be that voice if others don’t feel comfortable. In future, she imagines an authenticity coordinator similar to that of Hollywood intimacy coordinators, pointing to the importance of third parties who do not have the commercial interest of speed and can focus on telling stories right.

By listening to others, doing the research and collaborating radically, the importance of having fresh perspective to commit to representation beyond stereotypes is proven by the boundary-pushing work created when authenticity and storytelling are at the fore.

FOCUS 2023.jpg