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Brands vs. white saviour complex // So long, hot-desking

08 Jun 2020  |  Dominic Mills 
Brands vs. white saviour complex // So long, hot-desking

Dominic Mills examines the complex matter of corporate support for the Black Lives Matter protests. Plus: adland reimagines post-lockdown office life

When I read that US drugs giant Eli Lilly had stopped advertising for 24 hours in support of Blackout Tuesday last week — “we silenced our big mouth so other people could speak”, explained chief media officer Lina Shields — I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Did anyone notice? Did anyone care? Apart from giving Eli Lilly — whose board has one black person and two minority ethnic people on it — the warm sticky feeling of corporate smugness, what difference did it make?

It was, I would say, a classic example of white saviour complex, which the Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole describes as “a big emotional experience that validates privilege”. The white saviour, Cole tweeted, “supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.” He’s obviously had the Cannes experience.

And, wow, have we seen some examples of white saviour action this last ten days from brands. They’re all over it, sometimes inviting justified opprobrium (Nike, L’Oreal), but mostly completely unnoticed. What you might call conscience wank.

A few have put their money where their mouths are, like P&G setting up its $5m Take on Race fund, and Ben & Jerry’s.

And yet, as this Mediatel News piece makes clear, this issue is deeply complex. A simple binary view of brand activity — speaking out bad/pointless/exploitative, taking action good — doesn’t really cover it.

Idiotic as some brand responses are, there is no denying that brands have the potential to reach many people, people moreover who sometimes hold them in high esteem and who are inclined to listen to them. These people are sufficiently marketing-literate to know when they’re being sold to, but also to know when to disregard the sales message and focus on the political or social messages.

In this case, the brands are acting as radio transmitters, their role being to pass the message on to as many people as possible, some of whom would otherwise be hard to reach. On this occasion, silence could be seen as indifference or, worse, complicity. But as Dino Myers-Lamptey points out, they might be better to use their owned media assets to achieve this, rather than here-today, gone-tomorrow, paid-for media.

Of course it would be better if they matched their words with deeds, the most impactful of which would be to put their own houses in order: BAME representation at the top is one, but better BAME representation throughout, supporting BAME businesses through their supply chains, and being active in their communities are the more granular activities that long-term can make the difference.

Back to the office, but not to hot-desking

We are, at heart, creatures of habit and routine. Or I am: at conferences I am like a homing pigeon, returning after the coffee break to the same seat — and so do my neighbours; when I worked in a large office, I did my best to duck the hot-desking requirement.

As adland prepares itself for limited returns to the office, the question of how best to use the space becomes paramount for many leaders. Many are wrestling with the issues, which raises an existential question: what the hell is the office for?

The consensus is that, however difficult managing a phased return will be, the adland office plays an essential role in promoting creativity, in whatever form that takes.

This comes from those ‘accidental’ or casual conversations and observations, chance encounters that give rise to an idea. When I didn’t work in an office, that was what I really missed. McCann’s Mark Lund calls these the ‘happy accidents’, hard to quantify but invaluable.

Agencies have always placed great emphasis on their offices, spending fortunes to create the right environment and project both to staff and visitors the essence of the agency DNA, a physical manifestation of what the agency stood for and how you might expect its staff to behave.

The best had an almost theatrical quality. It may be a truism, but it seems to me that clients loved visiting their agency offices — so much more stimulating than their own.

The office therefore is an expression of identity, and essential for promoting a sense of togetherness (even if everyone moans about the lifts) and team spirit. Zoom only gets you so far.

But one thing seems guaranteed about new office life. Hot-desking is done. No-one will want to sit at a desk that may be polluted by the presence of another, certainly if — with communal kitchens and sandwich bars as no-go areas — it is also where they consume their soup-and-baguette lunch.

Agency leaders may have mixed feelings about this. Bosses were always more enthusiastic about hot-desking than staff, claiming it promoted one-ness and broke down territorialism, but in reality it was usually a fig-leaf for cutting costs.

Staff, however, will breathe a sigh of relief. Those that still have jobs, anyway.

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01 Jul 2020 

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