This is us: James Mok on New Zealand’s darkest day

Friday 15th March 2019. New Zealand’s Darkest Day.

The country has been in a state of shock. We’ve seen an outpouring of sadness, compassion and questions. And much reflection.

New Zealand is no longer some far-away paradise, immune from the insanity of other nations. We’ve had to confront the shadow of bigotry and racism that does exist within our own communities and ask ourselves whether we’re doing enough to stop it. Casual racism is as insidiously corrosive as overt racism is destructive.

It made me wonder how well our industry is doing.

On Friday afternoon I saw my media team swing into action, working with media owners as they cancelled commercial airtime to respectfully focus on the news. They worked with online platforms to ensure our clients’ comms weren’t insensitively placed next to the tragic coverage. And they were in constant contact with our clients, keeping them informed of ongoing events. It was impressive, just as I assume every other media agency was under these circumstances. Total professionals.

But what about the work we produce? How are we representing the people of New Zealand in 2019? What part do we play in shaping the self-image of modern New Zealand?

Advertising is an uninvited guest in people’s daily lives. Our work is seen by more people, more often, than any other form of popular culture. The impact is enormous, the responsibility arguably even greater. What we do normalises how New Zealanders see themselves.

So, our work should represent New Zealanders with respect. We should tell their stories with pride. We should understand what’s important to them, socially and culturally. We should be able to laugh at ourselves as much as we admire our quirks. We should entertain them and make their time with us worthwhile.

In return they give us their attention and if we do our job well, they connect with our clients’ brands. This is advertising’s value-exchange.

But how important is it to show the diversity of our people – across gender roles, across sexual orientation, across ages, across ethnicities and religions?

New Zealand is changing fast – we are far from the monocultural or even bicultural society often shown in advertising. We’ve welcomed a diverse range of ethnic cultures into our land and we’re richer for it. And as one of the few agency leaders with a minority background, I believe representing the changing face of New Zealand is essential – personally and professionally.

I believe it’s our social responsibility to show our diverse cultures and present them with respect and dignity. In the end, we all share the same human needs to be loved, to be understood, accepted and valued. Our shared stories stem from our humanity. We are more similar than we are different. And isn’t being customer-centric all about understanding and connecting deeply with people?

We see brands doing it well. Toyota broke barriers years ago with its ‘Everyday People‘ campaign. What a revelation to see a Chinese market gardener proudly saying at the end of the commercial, “Every day I think this is a great place”. More recently Spark’s ‘Generation Voice‘ did an outstanding job covering children with a multitude of ethnic backgrounds. Lotto’s ‘Armoured Truck‘ featured a man of Indian ethnicity as a key protagonist. And my agency’s own Countdown campaign, ‘We Can Help With That‘, has a rich range of cultures – never token, never gratuitous. Diverse New Zealanders being acknowledged as a visible part of our society.

Can you imagine how new Kiwis felt seeing their races represented on the big screen? It’s subtle, but if you’re a minority, you notice it.

And for Pakeha Kiwis, it just becomes part of what they see every day. It becomes their normal. Nothing to fear or hate.

Brands who get this win because they show they understand society’s evolving nature. Ethnic customers gravitate to them because they feel included. And open-minded Pakeha customers are drawn to them because they represent the New Zealand they believe in. Successful social marketing campaigns show us that positive role modelling can guide new behaviours.

But we still have a way to go. I’ve been in a casting meeting where there was a question about a particular talent. He was an appealing personality. His performance was terrific. He suited the role. He was good for the brand. But we didn’t go with him. Because he wasn’t Pakeha. It was… awkward.

Is diversity in advertising something to obsess over? We all recommend what we feel is best for the job and the brand. But after last Friday, everything’s changed. We can no longer avoid the responsibility to be diligent about every little choice we make.

There was a rallying call many Kiwis adopted in the aftermath of Friday – “this is not who we are”. The stories we tell and the people we feature in advertising are our chance to show New Zealanders who we really are.

  • James Mok is the managing director of VMLY&R. 

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