The chance to make the world more progressive.
Earlier this year, D&AD announced Pentagram partner Naresh Ramchandani as its President for 2020/21. Reason enough for Michael Weinzettl to revisit the highly respected senior creative. The D&AD President is chosen annually by its board of trustees to “champion the organisation’s mission and shape the conversations for the year ahead”. The design and advertising body says that Ramchandani’s “commitment to creativity, diversity and environmental activism” aligns closely with its overall mission.
Lürzer’s Archive last talked to you in an interview back in 2011. Any thoughts on what the future might bring for creative advertising?
First of all, thanks for asking me back. It might simply be a factor of the work I’ve done or the organisations and conversations I’ve been part of, but I feel like a lot’s changed in the last ten years. It seems as though the world’s difficulties have never been more challenging, or clearer.It’s been a decade in which nationalism and identity politics have raged like I would never have believed, and in which widespread intolerance and injustice has made social inequality worse in almost every respect. The climate crisis is here, we’re less than ten years away from making it irreversibly harmful and it’s fuelled by ideas of consumption, status and growth which are frustratingly hard to change. Our old are experiencing a loneliness epidemic, and our young are facing an age of anxiety, hooked into ad feeds by big technology and uncertain of the prospects of the world they’re inheriting.
And if that wasn’t enough, along came a pandemic, bringing wide scale suffering especially to those already struggling.
On the plus side, Trump was beaten in the US election so the free world’s no longer “led” by a racist misogynist burger-eating billionaire with the ego of a coke addict and the concentration span of a child. At least that’s something to be grateful for.
With all these issues, it feels like the context for the creative industry is very different to what it was a decade ago – or at least it does to me. With every decision we make – who we hire, which clients and projects we take on, what sort of work we put out into the world – we have the chance to make the world more progressive or less so, and that perspective needs to be part of our training, thinking and decision-making.
I know that all feels very responsible and responsibility can feel like a heavy idea, particularly for an industry that specialises in making things simpler, lighter, more entertaining, more stylish, more beautiful, more delightful. All those skills are very much needed, but they need to be used judiciously – less for the wrong things and more for the right things.
To me, this feels like the principal challenge for the creative sector right now. And I feel fortunate to be in the position of a Partner at Pentagram, Co-Founder of Do The Green Thing and Trustee and President of D&AD – all places where this subject is live and answers are being worked through.
Now, you’ve been President of D&AD since fall this year and this presidency has occurred under the most challenging of circumstances with COVID-19. How did D&AD handle the pandemic?
Like many organisations, D&AD struggled at first but then found ways to adapt – and in some cases the adaptations are better than what went before. Obviously D&AD couldn’t run an IRL festival and that was a big disruption to its year. And it had to change the way it ran many of its programmes. But it continued to support the creative community as much as possible in the circumstances.
With D&AD’s hand forced by Coronavirus, the Awards took place virtually with a strong digital attendance and President Kate Stanners turning into a compère beyond compare. And in a move that some people objected to but many more embraced, the D&AD Annual was published in a digital-only format, making it a resource for anyone anywhere to be inspired by. Traditionalists won’t like me saying this but the change was long overdue. To my mind, the digital annual makes the printed annuals feel utterly archaic.
As well as the Awards and Annual, the Festivals went online, and there were experiments with some terrific formats. At the New Blood festival I found myself in an online debate with illustrator Cat O’Neill about the value of generalism vs specialism – one of many philosophical and practical debates young creatives were able to hear and take part in.
Encouraged by the successes of some of those experiments, D&AD will be taking a digital-first approach to the New Blood Festival and New Blood Academy going forwards. These programmes succeed when the widest and most diverse audiences can access the inspiration. Though the new approach was created through adversity, it makes utter sense.
COVID-19 must have had quite an effect on the 2020 awards and submissions or do you think that this will only become apparent in next year’s D&AD awards perhaps, because less work will be submitted?
Entries for the 2020 Awards closed ahead of the global lockdowns, so the pandemic didn’t affect submissions last year. 2021’s likely to be different. Many sectors have shrunk and with them their branding and marketing budgets, which have passed financial pressures onto studios and agencies of all sizes. Given all that, it’s hard to imagine submissions staying at the same level this coming year. But it’s in D&AD’s interest to keep the submissions coming. The income helps to fund the all-important educational programmes, and the Awards and resulting Annual are exercises in the art of the possible which attract more young creatives to the industry and inspire them to do the best work they can.So the submissions process is changing, with bigger early entry discounts, bigger discounts for freelancers and small businesses, and new E-commerce and Gaming categories. And there’s one change that especially excites me – the introduction of low budget subcategories across all disciplines to show that creativity doesn’t need to be constrained by budget and to celebrate all the great work created during the pandemic with limited funds.
The awards are of course only part of what D&AD does. How have the other D&AD programmes such as education suffered as a result of the pandemic?
D&AD is an educational charity so you could say – and I will – that its educational programmes are everything. In all my recent involvements with D&AD, my experiences with the educational programmes have always felt the most meaningful – whether helping to run a Shift session, speaking at the New Blood Academy or being on hand to answer questions from Returners looking to re-engage with the industry.Because they’re so core to D&AD’s purpose, the educational programmes have remained a primary focus throughout the pandemic with the help of some quick and important moves to ensure they stay strong and relevant. Although the educational programmes equip creatives across all stages of their development, D&AD’s doubled down on the programmes that support emerging talent. They’ve been among the hardest-hit by the pandemic across the last year.
For 40 years, New Blood has nurtured young talent globally. This year the New Blood Academy with WPP was redesigned to run virtually, becoming a digital bootcamp that put emerging talent from around the world in front of industry professionals. By taking the Academy online, D&AD offered the experience to a much wider group of emerging creatives at a time they needed it the most.
A core part of D&AD’s mission is also to support more individuals from more diverse backgrounds into jobs in the creative industry. To that end, New Blood Shift has run for four years as a free industry-led night school for outstanding but undiscovered creatives.
This year, Shift is being delivered online, starting with industry experts from New York’s top brands and agencies delivering two night school sessions a week from October to February. As ever with Shift, I’m excited to see what comes out of it.
What were some of the aims you set out to reach when you first knew that your D&AD presidency was imminent (I guess you know that a year in advance, right?)
Actually I only knew a few weeks beforehand. In August I was elected the next deputy president and I was due to take the reins in autumn 2021. But then the incoming president Ben Terrett decided it wasn’t the right year for another white man to take another honorary position and stood down – and that bumped me up.Ben did a very principled thing. One downside was that he didn’t get to be the excellent president he undoubtedly would have been and use the position to lead the change. Another was that I didn’t have a year to track him to understand the role, so I had to jump straight in and improvise – but that’s ok because some of my focuses were already clear.
I joined the trustee board a year back to help develop the climate crisis conversation within D&AD, so that was clearly going to be a focus. I’ve also become president in a year when the Black Lives Matter movement and murder of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd have focused our sector squarely on the DEI imperative, so that had to be a focus too. Whether looking at climate action or social justice, my position was always going to be the same. D&AD stands for creative excellence, and at this point in time creative excellence must be defined as work that’s good for the world as well for the brief.
But across the year, another issue came into focus too. Challenges like sustainability and diversity were always going to take huge amounts of fresh imagination to address, and that was always going to be by a younger generation of creatives embracing ideas like kinder capitalism, forging their own values and aesthetics. But as the pandemic took hold and job opportunities for younger creatives became more scarce, it felt like new creative talent needed special attention this year – space for their much-needed idealism and imagination to develop, and support to help them get jobs.
So after talking to the other trustees, I decided to make next-gen talent my primary focus this year. Sustainability and diversity will remain big themes of course, but we’ll be looking at them through the eyes of the next generation who’ll be leading the charge for social justice and climate action.
How much of that did you have to write off as a result of the pandemic?
Well, none of it really. A great friend of mine and master strategist Adam Morgan co-authored a book a few years back called “A Beautiful Constraint” in which he explored the imagination that can flow from restrictions. By the time I started as President in October, the restrictions due Covid were such a big part of our lives that it was pretty easy to take them as a given and make the best of them.Because the creative industry needs re-inspiring after a bruising year and needs to explore questions about its own responsibility and agency, it felt like a good year to reinstate an old format, the President’s Lectures. Obviously they can’t be in person like they used to be, but the advantages of doing them on Zoom is that we can invite speakers from all over the world, and anyone anywhere in the world can attend, free of charge. It’s President’s Lectures but remixed for new times and democratised for next-generation talent.
Similarly, Zoom doesn’t deter D&AD from staging roundtable discussions on important subjects for next generation creativity and actually enables a greater number of people to take part, so we’re planning three of those in 2021. Zoom also makes it very easy to go “see” a college to talk to students and answer any questions, so I’m doing those monthly.
Next year’s President will be Rebecca Wright of CSM, and it’s been great to get her insight into the sorts of activities that will be interesting and valuable to younger creatives. Together we’ve devised an idea that lets younger voices in by asking questions on social, staging online discussions and surfacing the best contributions back through social media. None of that’s hampered by the pandemic, and if the idea works then it’s something she can continue.
Lastly, the pandemic doesn’t stop me sitting in the corner bashing out an opinion piece on an industry topic or issue when the moment feels right. I wrote one last month about the awful racist response to Sainsbury’s Christmas commercial, and I’m looking forward to writing some more.
How do you feel about the British government’s handling of the crisis?
I studied drama at college and I remember reading a book about stories that explained how an enemy drags the best out of a hero. The enemy presents a threat, and the hero does the least they need to do to stop that threat. But the enemy won’t be beaten and presents a bigger threat, so the hero has to do a little more to stop that threat. And so things escalate, and eventually the enemy forces the hero to be truly heroic. In the story of the pandemic, the enemy is COVID-19 and the so-called hero is the Johnson Government, under-responding with appallingly misjudged libertarian principles, doing the least it needs to do at every turn, giving us a case study of vacillation rather than heroism.We needed the simplicity and clarity of a quick and total lockdown, the insistence of facemasks in public, the unconditional support of struggling businesses and workers, and closed borders. Instead we got the fatal subtlety of tiers, the messy juggling of livelihoods and lives, the label of “plague island” and the protracted tragedy of 70,000 deaths and growing.
Hats off to the scientists who worked quickly and collaboratively to deliver their vaccines at near-miraculous speed. They’ll not only end this pandemic but also end the most hapless, embarrassing and negligent period of government I can remember this country ever enduring.
How is Pentagram weathering all this?
I know a lot of agencies, studios and creative practitioners who’ve suffered from the pandemic this year. Many sectors have been hit and their budgets have shrunk – for branding as well as campaigns and comms. It’s been a tough time for everyone.In that context – and touching every bit of wood around me right now – Pentagram’s doing ok. As a business we were fearing a torrid 2020 but we managed to work hard and keep everyone employed and avoid all but a small number of furloughs – and do some great work in the process. Without too much evidence, I feel the Pentagram structure of small teams led by experienced partners who work closely with clients has really helped us. It’s an idea that makes us a good bet for good design outcomes, and maybe that’s appealed to clients in an uncertain year.
Having said that, it’s hard to know how long this recession is going to last and how deep it’s going to bite – and the remarkably poor Brexit deal isn’t going to help the London studio one bit either. We have to be prepared for an even tougher year, and if it’s any better than that, fine.
That’s the business side, but the culture side has been equally challenging. I know it’s been harder for newer partners and colleagues to connect to the Pentagram spirit when we’re not all sharing a space. Some of the more experienced partners and colleagues have struggled as well. Also, it’s not just any year – it’s a year when issues just as big as the pandemic have come to the fore, and it would have been simpler to respond to their importance and complexity if we were all together, being more IRL accountable to each other.
Although different people at Pentagram have differing views about how wedded we need to be to a physical workplace going forward, there’s something about governance shared by 24 equal partners that needs us to be more together than we are right now.
How is the non-profit Do the GreenThing which you’ve co-founded doing?
In the last five years I think the Do The Green Thing team has done its best work. Do The Green Thing v1 was about inspiring citizens with world class creativity to take everyday action. After Paris, when it became obvious that the 1.5 degree target could not be met by the citizens alone, we switched tack and started to take issue with the industries, institutions and traditions that made it so hard for citizens to be sustainable.
With great thinking, writing and campaigning, we’ve taken issue with wasteful gifts given at holiday season, meat served at sustainably-minded festivals, the carbon cost of enormous weddings, the carbon cost of cocaine habits, the consumption assault of Instagram, the unsustainable nature of the make-up industry, the harm done to the planet by the patriarchy, and more.
We’ve done it fearlessly and charmingly, and because we’re hopeful not critical, we’ve always brought sustainable alternatives alive in partnership with world class creative talents from around the world. Warning labels to put on the advertising of unsustainable products. A coke-o-graphic that helps you understand the carbon consequence of your level of coke usage. A moral tale about a couple who defy the pressure of their relatives and ditch a big wedding for a small one. A campaign to help promote vegan food at festivals. A holiday season gifting platform where you give each other delightful surprises rather than unwanted stuff. A fabulous exhibition about the planet-harming effect of the patriarchy by 32 international women and non-binary artists. Do The Green Thing v2 has resulted in the best run of work I’ve ever been part of, by a long stretch.
And we’re far from done. In January, The Colour of The Climate Crisis will explore how climate change is disproportionately harmful to people of colour. Although many people know this already, many people don’t, and it’s going to be fascinating to see how the issue goes down.
All of that we do as Do The Green Thing, but we’re often asked to bring Do The Green Thing’s creativity to other climate action organisations which is just as important. We’ve worked with Greenpeace, Global Action Plan, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, C&A Foundation and Laudes Foundation – and this summer we created the Green Party’s first ever campaign outside a general election, producing the “Better is Possible” campaign that helped set out their green recovery plan.
We’re happy to lend our creativity to organisations in the space because we all want the same thing, and credit matters much less than impact.
Many agencies had to switch to working remotely. What has been your experience with that? Are there benefits to it – apart from the health-related ones? Has it given rise to a new kind of working, that might be useful beyond the pandemic? Might it change the way we work, the way we do business in the future?
Before I answer that, I should acknowledge that I’m luckier than most. I have regular employment and I have space at home, having bought a house when houses were affordable many years back. I’m also part of a terrific team at Pentagram and Do The Green Thing that invests a lot of time and energy in supporting each other as colleagues and friends. With those privileges, I’ve found remote working bearable, and sometimes really helpful.
Of course there can be a huge value in being together face to face. When you’re focussing on something intense, like a proposal or pitch. Or making decisions about the future of the brand, or the business. Or working alongside other teams at Pentagram, and wandering around the studio and being inspired by the great things they’re creating. All that has value, but I don’t know if that value requires us to be tied to a workplace 100% of the time. The digital revolution enabled us to work more flexibly, but it took the pandemic to help me see the physical workplace as a legacy idea – and one that doesn’t always suit everyone.For people physically unable to go to work, for people economically unable to travel to work and for parents and guardians of young children or older relatives, some version of remote working is an incredibly good idea. Across the last 10 months, working from home helped me support my youngest daughter who’s in her final year of school and whose life is on hold until the pandemic is over. And it helped me support my elderly mother, working from her flat when the isolation was too much for her.It also helped to make me fitter, running three times a week instead of commuting ten times a week. And it was great for my carbon footprint since I worked or spoke in seven different countries without needing to take a single flight. If I was setting up a company today, I’d be looking at a blend of remote and workplace-based working, with enough physical contact to keep everyone’s spirit and standards high, and enough flexibility to allow people to work from home when it helps them to.
Was there any work among this year’s D&AD winners that you were particularly impressed with?
I was impressed by lots of the work, but I’ll pick out two projects that really stood out in two categories I helped to judge.
From the New Blood winners, I loved Inside Stories by Jay Parekh and Alex Morris, a proposed scheme to lend prisoners your newly-bought Penguin books to help underfunded prisons and help the reading skills of young offenders. Since prisons will only accept new books, it’s such a clever idea – as well as a sustainable and human idea. And the lo-fi animated explainer video with its gently rapped voiceover is effortlessly articulate and moving. Judging by the empathy, imagination and taste they’ve shown with this project, Jay and Alex have a tremendous future.
From the Collaboration category, I fell head over heels for Dentsu’s nine-year-long “Get Back Tohoku” campaign for the East Japan Railway Company. It was a campaign born from the 2011 earthquake that devastated the Tohoku region, and through outdoor executions displayed at stations and in carriages, it showed how trains could remake connections and reinvigorate spirits. But to say those words is to do insufficient justice to the campaign’s visual audacity and beauty, swinging through daring graphics, dynamic typography, line illustration and nature-loving photography, all linked by the “Get Back Tohoku” line, as constant and reliable as the train itself.
Although one is a new project by two students and the other a long-term campaign from one of the world’s most creative agencies, both brought so much humanity and hope to difficult circumstances, and they both felt so right for this year.
Has any work come out since the start of the pandemic you thought extraordinary?
If you’re happy for me to look more broadly at the world of creativity, I’d pick out Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology that ran on BBC1 a couple of months back. The anthology consisted of five films that documented the Black British experience from the 1960s to the 1980s, and in a reparative exercise told real stories of real people in an era of gross institutional racism for the very first time in broadcast media.Three of the films were based on real characters including restaurant owner Frank Crichlow, activist Darcus Howe, British Black Panther Altheia Jones-LeCointe, policeman Leroy Logan and author Alex Wheatle. These films were both sufficiently televisual in format (courtroom dramas, policemen on the beat) and fittingly brutal in confrontation (such as a scene in which Alex Wheatle is thrown into custody and a camera slowly tracks in on his defeated eyes as he lies on the floor) to convey their shocking histories to a wide audience.
But for me the centrepiece was the fictional story of a house party set in Ladbroke Grove in the 1970s. Part-television drama, part-film and part-play, and set in an all-Black safe space largely free of the racist context of the other films, Lovers Rock celebrated British Carribean culture with some deft characterisation and some avant garde filmmaking, including the most extraordinary dance sequence I’ve ever seen. It was my favourite piece of creativity of the year.
It was producer Samuel Goldwyn – the G of MGM – who reputedly railed against filmmaking with a social purpose, saying: “All I want is a story. If you have a message, send it by Western Union.” For anyone creating brands or campaigns who’s inclined to think the same, the success of Small Axe may help you think otherwise.
It may be difficult to say at this point but how do you see the future of D&AD?
In a board meeting back in March when it became obvious that the festival wasn’t happening and D&AD would have to make some quick and difficult changes, one of the trustees – the brilliant can-do designer Jack Renwick – said a really interesting thing. She commented that the pandemic was a chance for D&AD to refocus on its purpose and to emerge from the pandemic leaner but stronger.In many ways, I agree. D&AD has emerged from a tough 2020 with a talented workforce, a strong management team, a terrific group of trustees, the perfect next President in Rebecca Wright, and an engaged global community.
And as an educational charity, it’s got a clear direction. A strong focus on next-gen talent, democratic tools such as the online Festivals, Annual and handbook, educational pushes like New Blood and Shift and, most importantly, a willingness to explore and address some of the most difficult questions the industry faces going forwards – including the question of what creative excellence looks like in 2021 and beyond.
With all this in place, D&AD’s got every chance of making a positive contribution to the creative industry’s future. That’s a pretty good position to be in right now.