Voices

Combating neurodiverse under-representation

Matt Davis, Executive Creative Director at Red Brick Road on how analysing neurodiversity, with autism as its centre of gravity, can adapt actions in creative ways that are meaningful for both the business and its culture.

Matt Davis, Red Brick Road

Executive Creative Director & Co-Owner

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When you’re fully independent, you bring your whole self to work. And you encourage your employees to feel they can do the same. Freedom from meddling bigwigs breeds a family environment if done correctly. Our culture has that blueprint and always colouring it in brightly, however gloomy the times, is a mission we adhere to.

So, when my son, Isaac, was diagnosed with autism a decade ago, hiding the bewildering world I was flung into wasn’t an option. My close-knit crew of partners, including Dickie, my art director of too many years to quantify, knew the ins and outs, made space, and lent ears.

They absorbed autism as I did. Isaac’s chit-chat can be as here-there-and-everywhere as the bounciest of balls, and Dickie can keep a hold of it like few people I know. In the virtual cheek by jowl Microsoft Teams world, Dickie’s skills in stemming the wacky world of Isaac when work gets in the way supersede mine.

A never-ending learning curve

The agency, therefore, has always been a willing student to my never-ending learning curve. Producing work and raising money for Ambitious about Autism (AaA) and Autistica has been a boon for us and the charities. With some brilliant and award-winning campaigns, including creating a children’s book about how the world turned upside down during lockdown, smashing fundraising targets and making educational tools for challenged families.

But in line with Isaac growing up, we’ve delved on a deeper level, analysing how neurodiversity, with autism as its centre of gravity, can adapt our actions in creative ways that are meaningful for the business and the culture. These have resulted in actively employing an autistic man for a proper role with the help of AaA’s employment team and partnering with Islington’s Courtyard School for young people with special needs to run work experience programmes.

Again, it was a melding of my personal and professional self that was a contributory factor.

As a parent, your child’s future is never far from front of mind, and not too long into Isaac’s journey, I was stung by statistics that only 16% of autistic people are in full time work, yet 77% of them want to work. This is, and remains, a human rights issue.

My gratitude to my colleagues therefore who made a commitment to employing an autistic adult will never wane. Taking it upon themselves to tailor make a role that has subsequently reaped rewards for both employee, agency and awareness.

Only 16% of autistic people are in full time work, yet 77% of them want to work. This is, and remains, a human rights issue.

Matt Davis

The agency’s social glue

And it’s not simple territory we’re in here. The definition of what autism is comes loaded up with caveats, questions and conundrums. If there’s one certainty, it’s that autistic people are individuals with different identities and abilities and if there’s another, it’s that discrimination through ignorance exists, as borne out by those dreadful stats.

We actually had a couple of real needs at the time, for a finance and office assistant and for a creative thinker who could add a sprinkle of pick-me-up to our internal communications. Whilst carving one role out of two seemingly separate ones, it demonstrates the unexpected hybrid nature an autistic person can bring.

And when we met Chris Cooper, we knew we had our person. Interviewing in a relaxed and unorthodox way, he demonstrated aptitude at both and was enthusiastic. He showed an amazing honesty by asking for ways to sharpen his social skills; his third role as Manager of Cooper’s Bar, the agency’s Friday social hub, was born. In many ways, this, complemented by his cross-department presence, is a social glue for the agency.

He’s been with us for five years and continues to prosper. Chris himself is a blogger and campaigner, talking and speaking about life at Red Brick Road. He always knows when I write articles like these and vice versa.

His employment, personality and our awareness of autism radiates wellbeing into the agency. It’s helped the development of a compassionate streak, influencing critical initiatives like our mental health first aid team.

Combatting under-representation

It has also reinforced our commitment to combatting under-representation. Breaking down barriers is the heart and soul of our Diversity and Inclusion policy. Mentoring, the Industry club apprenticeship programme and being a partner in Trevor Robinson’s Create not Hate programme are projects we are dedicated to.

As is thinking about next generation of autistic talent. That led to the school partnership and a quite brilliant lockdown-induced virtual work experience programme authored by two of our account managers, Angel and Darina. So much so that it’s being adopted by Islington Council and taken to other colleges, helping reach other marginalised young people.

Over six weeks, the students worked through the thorough process of creating a campaign. They learnt about all disciplines and were given specific tasks and goals. Ultimately, they created a wonderfully insightful and empathetic out of home campaign about the benefits of neurodiversity. They helped collate the brief too. In a parallel analogue world, I’d clamber up a ladder and paste this cut through, colourful and celebratory piece of greatness myself.

They felt for themselves the rigours, vagaries and authenticities of advertising. A world’s been prised open and they’re gunning for more.

Elena Vidal, the Head of Sixth Form, has been glowing, saying how enriching and successful it has been, which is all the endorsement I seek. She’s talked about breaking down objectives clearly, working beautifully as a team, the students growing in confidence, learning about employment and landing on a career they’re hugely enthusiastic about.

I’m proud of everyone at Red Brick Road who’ve embraced autism and its strengths and differences. I’m proud of Isaac too for his part too, but what parent wouldn’t say that.

Guest Author

Matt Davis, Red Brick Road

Executive Creative Director & Co-Owner,

About

Matt Davis is co-owner and executive creative director of Red Brick Road, whose clients include Ginsters, Shpock, Hillarys, Yorkshire Building Society and Hilton Hotels. He blogs about his son Isaac who has autism at mysonisaac.net, and is also a parent patron of Ambitious about Autism and on the communications board of Autistica. Most recently, Matt has been a mentor for Create not Hate, an initiative set up by Trevor Robinson OBE to bring more diverse talent to the industry.