Bridget Taylor, one of the only senior Māori women in advertising, tells The Weekend Herald what it feels like to be the odd one out.

Attend any major advertising awards event and you're likely to see a clear divide between the white faces seated at the tables and the multicultural mix serving them.

Bridget Taylor often finds herself sitting on the better-paid side of that divide. As co-owner and executive creative director at advertising agency Contagion, she is one of the few female creative bosses at an agency, and perhaps the only one who identifies as Māori. Hers is one of the few non-Pakeha faces you're likely to see seated alongside the lords of advertising.

Being the odd one out is just something she's had to grow accustomed to in her years in the advertising industry and, even in 2018, that shows little little sign of changing.

Advertisement

"I was at a senior creative directors' meeting recently, and it was me with 18 other middle-age white males — and that represented our industry," Taylor tells the Weekend Herald.

"They said, 'We did invite four other women but they couldn't make it'. I looked around and thought, 'yeah, this is pretty standard'."

These stories are backed by local statistics. In November last year, advertising industry body the Commercial Communications Council released data on the demographic mix of staff working in advertising. The results were unequivocal: the broader communications industry remains firmly clenched in white — predominantly male — hands.

The single most telling statistic was that 87 per cent of industry staff surveyed identified as European, a figure well above the 74 per cent for the national workforce.

Every other demographic group was underrepresented — none more so than Māori, who made up only 4 per cent of the advertising workforce, despite being 13 per cent of the working-age population.

"I think it's really sad," says Taylor, when asked about the lack of Māori representation in advertising.

"I've grown up being so used to being generally the only female at my level, I've never even considered how my race came into it or how I was representative of my race."

Taylor believes the absence of Māori voices at agency level has resulted in a stereotypical depiction of Māori in advertising.

Advertisement

"If you think of advertising at the moment, there's one spectrum of Māori that's represented: it's Māori as less educated; Māori as the worker, not the boss; Māori as the bro," she says.

Bridget Taylor, co-owner and executive creative director at advertising agency Contagion.
Bridget Taylor, co-owner and executive creative director at advertising agency Contagion.

"It's setting a view of what Māori is. And if you're a young person watching television and you think 'ah, that's Māori', and if that's all you see, then you might actually think, 'that's all I'll be'. I think that's detrimental."

Taylor would like to see the "chur bro" representation balanced with stories of the Māori High Court judges, doctors and business executives who are rarely given enough screen time to shift cultural perceptions.

The only way this can happen, she argues, is by introducing voices that offer perspectives beyond the stock caricatures — and that applies to other underrepresented racial groups.

Population projections estimate that Asians, Māori and Pasifika people will account for more than half the Auckland population by 2038. If advertising agencies don't diversify — and quickly — they stand to become disconnected from the audiences they are hoping to reach, says Taylor.

"Life isn't just middle-age white males," says Taylor. "Maybe some would like it to be, but I doubt it. Our life is mixed with all sorts of people: races, cultures, sensibilities, ways of being brought up, points of view. That's fantastic and it's what makes New Zealand what it is today."

Advertisement

When the data from the Commercial Communications Council was released, fewer than a quarter of the agencies surveyed had a diversity policy — in other words, there was no formal plan to shift the status quo.

To fix that, the Comms Council, under the leadership of chairwoman Louise Bond and chief executive Paul Head, set an objective for all members to establish and put into effect a diversity policy by the end of this year.

Head says that while the council had been concerned about diversity for some years, the final catalyst was when Saatchi & Saatchi executive Kevin Roberts was slammed across the world for claiming that the gender debate was over and that women simply don't have "vertical ambition".

"We felt that as an industry, it was time that we did something quite publicly about the need for greater diversity in the industry," says Head.

One of the first steps the council took was to bring together influential women in advertising by forming a diversity council, which has since focused on understanding the extent of the diversity issues in advertising and finding solutions to those problems.

"It is particularly important for this industry to connect with and be representative of New Zealand and we've recognised that we're not," says Head.

Advertisement

"That's the reason for the diversity council and that's why we've put out a very public challenge to all our agencies to have a diversity policy by the end of this year. We've already had a commitment from members to do that, and some have policies in place."

Head won't name agencies that have neglected to incorporate diversity policies so far, but says he will be happy to "name and shame" those that fail to do so by the end of the year.

Shaming agencies may seem extreme, but in an industry built on reputation, it has been effective at encouraging change overseas.

One example is the 3% Movement, formed in response to the statistic that only 3 per cent of US creative directors were women. By pointing out that issue, the initiative has played a major role in increasing that proportion to 11 per cent in only a few years.

Advertising veteran Kate Smith says she joined the diversity council because she became frustrated that the industry was still debating whether diversity is an issue.

"It is," she says, emphatically. "If you look at the Comms Council data, anyone who thinks otherwise is deluding him or herself. The time for talking about it, and paying lip service to it is over, and now there needs to be some action."

Advertisement
As a female creative boss, Bridget Taylor is a rarity in advertising. As a Maori, even more so. Photo /supplied
As a female creative boss, Bridget Taylor is a rarity in advertising. As a Maori, even more so. Photo /supplied

To Smith, diversity is a commercial imperative for an industry that's already facing financial strain.

"Multiple research studies show that organisations and companies with more diverse staff, management teams and boards out-perform those who are less diverse," Smith says.

"The irony is that an industry that prides itself on being creative, radical and rule-breaking is in fact so conservative, so resistant to change and so hidebound".

The numbers

Workers in advertising vs workers in the overall NZ workforce

• European: 87% vs 73%

• Asian: 10% vs 13%

Advertisement

• Pasifika: 3% vs 6%

• Māori: 4% vs 13%

Among advertising CEOs and managing directors, 63% are male and 37% female.

Among creatives, 58% are male and 39% female.

(source: Commercial Communications Council)

Sustaining stereotypes

One byproduct of the lack of diversity in advertising shows itself when brands try to latch on to occasions special to certain ethnic communities, without really understanding them.

Advertisement

Vera Dong, who heads FCB's strategic arm dedicated to understanding new New Zealanders, calls this "lantern washing", and says it's often seen during events such as Chinese New Year, when many brands will run a one-off promotion, simply to ensure they have a presence.

"Just sponsoring something as a tick-box exercise is not authentic," she says. "People see through such marketing attempts and don't feel engaged unless they are done in a creative way that is intrinsically connected with target audiences' life and their emotional world.

"It's the inability, conscious or unconscious, to see consumers as people beyond the colour of their skin, beyond long-standing cultural cliches, and too many assumptions that perpetuate stereotypes in marketing and advertising."

Māori talent is untapped

Taylor says a big issue in attracting young Māori into advertising is that they aren't made aware of the industry as a career path.

"I don't think people outside of a main metropolitan area even know that advertising exists as an opportunity," she says.

She says creatives, in particular, are often lost to other industries because they don't know that their talents are desperately needed in advertising agencies and production companies.

Advertisement

"You don't have to go off and become a hairdresser because you're creative," Taylor says. "There are so many jobs. Cameramen, producers, stylists and various other things you can do."

She urges agencies to visit schools and other institutions to nudge talented storytellers, artists and creative thinkers towards the industry before they go off and study something else.