Voices

A view from Generation COVID

The industry has adapted quickly to the pandemic, yet, as Bryan Obonyo, Business Development Executive at BLITZWORKS writes, this speed and commitment is lacking when it comes to diversity.

Bryan Obonyo, BLITZWORKS

Business Development Executive

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In the midst of the global pandemic, ideas for brands come in all shapes and sizes, a reflection of the new consumer behaviours and the use of technology we have to hand. At BLITZWORKS, a squad of different talents covering strategy, media, digital design and production, we’re proving that the smallest creative operations can compete with the big network agencies. It’s exciting, challenging and all part of the evolution of an industry. 

However, it pains me to say that I cannot, however, look around me and say that the makeup of the advertising industry is changing as fast as the way we work, certainly not fast enough to be truly inviting for promising Black students. And during the pandemic, when there are almost no informal openings for young grads of any background, this disparity has become even more obvious.

We’re having the right conversations but the imagery and climate in agencies makes people like me question whether I belong.

Bryan Obonyo

I was mentally prepared to lose my job 

I graduated from Middlesex University in Business Management in 2016, working part-time at John Lewis to pay my living costs. Finding a job that blended my interest in business with my creative side was made possible by Creative Access, which helps under-represented communities get into the creative industries.

Through Creative Access, I applied for a job at Eagle London Agency, one of the very few agencies with an intrinsically diverse team and approach, top to bottom. I lost out to someone else but through the recruitment process I met one of their team, Mark Robinson. We kept in touch, and eventually, with Mark’s support, I won a part-time and then full-time role at Mellor & Smith. I was the only Black person on the team, managing and creating newsletters, social feeds, handling new business research, even attending pitches. When the pandemic started, I was initially furloughed but eventually lost my job. I was mentally prepared, updated my CV and was delighted to join BLITZWORKS a few months ago. 

To code-switch or not to code-switch?

When describing my time in advertising I don’t want to list any overtly uncomfortable racially specific challenges. In many cases people have been very welcoming and incredibly helpful. Most of the good companies have had diversity initiatives in place for at least 10 years. What I’ve felt instead is something I talk about a lot with Black friends: the need to ‘code-switch’ when entering white majority spaces, to edit my mannerisms, tone of voice and accent to fit in. 

I also suspect that, in recruitment, questions such as ‘how well would they fit in with the team?’, ‘how much would I enjoy working with them?’ and ‘what are they like dealing with clients?’ could be unfairly impacted by an unconscious bias. The outcome could be that someone like me, comprehensive school, into football not rugby, son of Kenyan immigrant working class parents, simply can’t press the play button. We’re having the right conversations but the imagery and climate in agencies makes people like me question whether I belong. I felt that very strongly in the one interview I had at a big agency. 

Actively educate yourselves on what prejudice looks like so that preconceived and fixed notions of how agency staff have been educated, how they look, sound and talk are always questioned and challenged.

Bryan Obonyo

Lessons from the music industry 

I have a particular interest in raising this issue in advertising because of the contrast with the music industry where I see people from a wider range of backgrounds, many working class. With five others, I’ve created a digital platform called Ubunifu Space. We showcase the diverse sounds coming from young Africans across the African continent as well as those in the diaspora. We have over 270,000 subscribers now and more than 40 million views. We’re proving that African culture is more than Black Panther and Beyoncé. And any employer I work for needs to be comfortable with me working on Ubunifu in my spare time. 

We can all play a part

I want advertising to be my long-lasting career and I believe that the business would be better with more people like me in it, so it’s a true reflection of the society advertising serves. I want to develop and grow myself in new business, and, above all, to be a positive example to other young people like me. The pandemic has definitely changed things, forced us to have a conversation around social inequalities and access to elite establishments and sectors. 

I feel optimistic because now, at 26, I’ve left home, moved in with my girlfriend and found a role within a business that cares about being a good corporate citizen. For other employers my request would be this: actively educate yourselves on what prejudice looks like so that preconceived and fixed notions of how agency staff have been educated, how they look, sound and talk are always questioned and challenged. 

The ultimate message I took from last summer’s anti-racism movement wasn’t about politics; it was that Black career prospects aren’t equal. We can all play a part in ensuring those protests don’t just lead us to another go on the diversity initiative merry-go-round, where we end up back at the start once the ride’s over. 

Guest Author

Bryan Obonyo, BLITZWORKS

Business Development Executive,

About

Bryan Obonyo is a business development executive at BLITZWORKS. Founded in 2019, BLITZWORKS is led by three partners with network and global experience. Its radical approach sees a squad of talent with diverse strengths, intense focus and teamwork respond to client briefs in just three days. Its radical and timely approach, based on ‘working to the deadline of now’, was initially developed to transform multiple brands in Europe and Asia.

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Diversity Representation