Our message to media bosses: invest immediately in culture
Sabrina Clarke uses her column about media transformation to interview youth culture agency The Advantage Group’s Tumisha Balogun and Alvin Owusu about the future of media.
One of the contributing factors to the media industry’s sustainability is the introduction of new voices and insights.
For this month’s column, I had the pleasure of interviewing the masterminds behind The Advantage Group (TAG) Agency, Tumisha Balogun and Alvin Owusu. This interview is in their words and how they speak authentically.
Why was TAG created?
Alvin: I’m from Hackney and Tumisha is from Southwark. These are obviously low-income communities in London, disproportionally lived in by people of colour and ethnic minorities, global majorities. I think being from those communities and experiencing these inequalities, but knowing you’re the best person to do the work, like, that kind of just makes that really natural. You just found out ‘I could do something. I could fix this.’
What we found was that because being Black, obviously being from that working class, people would often label us “disadvantaged”. We weren’t really feeling like we identified with that. Because there is a lot of creativity about us, about our swag about our flare and decided, no, we are the best people to do this work. We can flip it on its head and make it asset-based.
So, like, what do we have in the community? Look at all the culture we’re creating, how do we make the change? So initially we started off as a youth and community organisation. What that meant is we were delivering workshops in schools. We did a tour and we went around schools across the UK and spoke to over 2,000 young people. We held academies in partnership with Facebook and Google. There was a slight shift in 2020 when we became an agency, because it’s still the same mission but a different way to achieve that goal.
Looking at your mission statement, it is clear that the voice of our youth is important to you. Why do you think we need to create space for young voices?
Alvin: I think it’s important for young people to have a voice because young people are a little bit less jaded, and maybe still have that fundamental belief that it can be different to the way that it is now. They haven’t existed in this for that long. And then if you add a layer of marginalisation to that, then there’s all these young people who the world hasn’t really worked that well for them and they’re just, literally in school, on their block, on their estate, at church really thinking about, how can the world be better? “I think it should work like this, I think it can.” Do you know what I mean? Like, just dreaming up new and imaginative, like radical, innovative things, things that agencies and brands have paid thousands to do. These are just things that are off the cuff for the young people in our communities. So its just really important that they have a voice because we believe in their power and potential to change the world.
What is your ideal brief from the client?
Tumisha: I think this is a difficult one. Like being completely transparent, and we’ve always said that young people can make something amazing out of nothing, especially marginalised young people, because we’ve always been taught to do that. Alvin gives this great example of him and his brothers creating a wrestling rink with chalk and literally creating an experience from wrestling. So, we like a lot of our briefs to be centred around young people and especially those from marginalised groups.
However, that doesn’t mean we’re limited to that because we believe young people are trailblazers. They lead in most things. If young people do it, other ages will start to follow. And we feel like there is space for young people to give their opinion on everything because they are the future. Whatever decisions are made whether it’s Tesco, the NHS, etc., it’s only going to trickle down and affect them in the long run. So, when we do get a brief, even if it’s not specifically targeted at young people, or young marginalised people, we still believe that there is a part that they play.
How do you clients find you, if people want to work with you, how do they discover TAG?
Tumisha: A lot of things are referrals or networks, people that know. We know that we are really good at what we do if people give us a chance. A lot of people that we worked with on a personal level offer us work. We are still in the process of figuring it out and we are in the process of this is the strategy of new business, this is the way we are moving forward. Everything that has come so far has been through our personal network. Which isn’t a bad thing because people know we are good at what we do. Now, I guess its for us reaching the masses.
Alvin: We are also going to start offering a new set of workshops to brands and agencies. For those who may not have a live brief but want to engage with young people and understand how to work in culture. Maybe have some young people look at their strategy and give them insights. That is going to be available from October.
Which part of the creative process do you both enjoy the most?
Tumisha: I like ideation and producing. I have the wildest imagination. I always had it from young. I would be one of the people washing up knives and forks and acting as though they were people. I just really had a wild imagination. In terms of producing, I have a marketing background. I’ve worked with the likes of Google and Red Bull to deliver and produce events. Its sort of where I am going to.
Alvin: Definitely more strategy and I think it’s because I’m not particularly interested in, if you take a step back and you look at the bigger picture like, if you take a step back with The Advantage Group for example, what do we need more of, like how do we position ourselves and with our ideas, how does this work for both the brand, but also the communities. It’s the strategy and insights before the beautiful, good idea. I can vouch that Tumisha is really good at the weird and wonderful. I am the person that is like, yeah but we have to ground it in this sort of thinking. This is what the world needs more of.
TAG is diverse. However, large agencies typically aren’t diverse and struggle to find or retain diverse talent. What can large agencies learn from The Advantage Group?
Tumisha: We’ve done the groundwork. We’ve created safe spaces for diverse talent to feel comfortable that we’re not just going to exploit them, and they trust us to know everything we’re doing is to tell their story. It’s not a story that we are going to fabricate or change or make into something that it isn’t.
I feel like often large agencies, and we say this a lot, it’s like, it’s very stereotypical. There’s no joy in any of the stories that they’re telling. It’s like romanticising this regal thing (that Alvin hates) that every Black person is regal or it’s like every black person is a criminal. There is no in-between, you can’t just exist and be a normal black person that likes real things. We create a place where Black people can do that, can tell that story. We have all been in agencies before, we felt it wasn’t the right move.
We spent a lot of time doing the groundwork and we just allow people to tell their story through us so we can tell it to the world. I feel that is where agencies go wrong. They do this process in reverse. They try and tell their story and then bring young people on to backfill the story that they have created.
How do you find being entrepreneurs?
Alvin: It’s interesting. I look to examples like Kelchi Okafor [of the Say Your Mind podcast] and what she has done.
I think I struggled with the title initially. My traditional bread and butter was social impact. People from that background traditionally go to charities or first sector. They don’t tend to start businesses, so I initially struggled with that title. I got comfortable. I remember someone said that I owe it to the community I am trying to support to really broker good deals. To really advocate where budgets are involved. Do you know what I mean? Like, the business case really makes sense to run an agency that creates social impact. So that’s when I got really comfortable with the title.
In terms of what it means, I don’t know if it means that much or that it’s different to working a nine-to-five. You are responsible for a lot more things. You actually become an expert. We’ve had run-ins with people. I don’t know if it is because we are young, because we are black, or because our business is new, but we aren’t seen as entrepreneurs or bosses. Whatever the reason, we are seen as more inherently risky. The title doesn’t add too much value. I could be nine-to-five, it’s just about getting the work done.
Tumisha: I find it awkward and scary to tell people that I run my own business because they tend to ask a lot of questions and respectfully leave me alone. That’s just my opinion. Like, leave me alone. And I feel like everyone thinks, like running your own business, you can live like in your own time and do whatever you want. Its not like that, like you’re always serving other people and you’re always, even if it’s not young people, we’re always serving our employees. You have to learn to be a good manager and learn to run a business and be an accountant. There is no handbook that really teaches you.
But, damn, have we made mistakes — it’s continuous. There is always an issue, especially with the type of work we do. We’re never shut off, its not like we’re just running an agency. With everything we do, we have to keep the young people that we work with in mind. That means one of them might call you at 11pm and you feel obliged to answer the phone. I feel like it then becomes, as much as you are an entrepreneur, you’re also a big sister or big brother. You then become a friend. So there is a lot involved. I don’t think the word means anything. It’s difficult because many things fly around like ‘Top 10 entrepreneurs’ but, it’s like, what does that actually mean?
What is the one thing you think the CEOs of the top media agencies in the UK should do differently?
Tumisha: My advice would be to listen. I think there is a difference between listening and hearing. You can tell them something but if they don’t want to do it, like they’ve just heard what you said. They haven’t listened, taken it on board and seen what they can do with that. For me it’s for them to understand that you cannot recreate someone else’s lived experience. You can’t try and put yourself in somewhere you haven’t experienced. Not contradicting myself, but no document or insight is going to beat someone speaking to you and saying this is how I think and this is how it feels
Alvin: Invest immediately in culture. Tumisha talked about it. We have a ton of problems, but the problem we will never have is finding diverse talent. It’s because we invested in that community and culture; until these CEOs actually decide to allocate good amounts of resources to the culture— it could be programmes or workshops, hiring black candidates, etc — all these things people talk about but don’t actually put the spend behind. I don’t think you can meaningfully do this work.
What are the questions you want media leaders to answer at the Future of Media event?
- How much money went to young creative agencies?
- Out of all of the profit you made extracting from the culture, how much profit have you invested in it?
Alvin: In order to answer this question, you need to first acknowledge that you have extracted and then the investment has to be proportionate.
Tumisha: Exactly, if they said they invested £1m but their profit was £10bn, then £1m is actually a mustard seed to them.
What do you think the future of media is?
Tumisha: That’s so funny, because I still feel like really so far away from a reality where marginalised communities are appreciated in like media. Even when you look at Disney announcing [the new Ariel in the live-action The Little Mermaid], the backlash was so negative. I feel like we follow the same routine for such a long time. There are people that are trying to make a change. I feel like one big change isn’t enough for all of the small mistakes that you’re still making. Like how do you teach or unlearn with everything else and all the damage that you have done. So I still find, like, I might sound like a pessimist, and I hate that, but it is why we exist, right? To change it.
Do you think the future is where marginalised groups are appreciated?
Alvin: The future of media is the ability of the people with lived experience to tell their stories. I think that is what a good future looks like for media. I think Tumisha and I and Black Ballad, we’re still relatively early, but I do see us becoming black powerhouses. So you know, we’ve had Wieden + Kennedy and Ogilvy for ages and they have been able to maintain that dominance without really and truly transferring ownership to the communities whose stories are being told. I think the future, and honestly a little distant future because there is still a lot of work to do, but the future is ownership goes to the communities. They get to tell their own stories and shape their own narrative.
What is the future of TAG?
Alvin: We want to be the go-to agency when brands want to understand, connect, and engage with young people and do social good at the same.
Tumisha: From an internal part, it’s a safe space to work. We want to diminish the agency culture of long hours and difficult to work in.
Sabrina Clarke is the managing partner of Build Global, a boutique strategy consultancy. She specialises in consultancy around strategy, transformation and sustainability.