CSO Fight: What Is Woke Creativity?
Woke Creativity - can it move issues forward, or does it damage worthy causes? BBH joint CSOs Will Lion and Simon Gregory battle it out
30 November 2023
How do you try and define woke creativity? Never ones to shy away from difficult conversations, BBH joint CSOs Will Lion and Simon Gregory take on the task of defining woke creativity, while exploring how the goals are admirable but the way there and unintended consequences have made things complex.
They argue that at best woke creativity can move issues forward, at moderate it’s probably quite annoying hot air and worst it’s damaging to laudable causes. The duo settle on a model for brands to think about this.
And read on to find how Greg also tries really hard to get Will cancelled.
Will: Alright how about one on ‘woke creativity’.
Gregor: I see where this is heading. You made me the luddite of AI, the champion of purpose and the bastard on workplace culture. I’m not falling for it again.
W: Rumbled. Well how about I take the anti-woke position then? I guess I owe you.
G: Please, take all this rope… Shall we start with some definitions? It feels like people use ‘woke’ as a blind accusation covering everything from vegan burgers to transgender rights debates.
W: Yup, people have been split on whether woke is a compliment or slur for a few years now. I go back to where it started, as a cautionary song in the 1930s by Black men to others travelling through Alabama (“stay woke … Keep your eyes open”). This then grew into a modern project for more awareness and action around diversity, equity, inclusion and sustainability.
G: So ‘woke creativity’ is comms and acts that serve that goal? Sounds uncontroversial. The majority of the UK backs these causes, no?
W: Exactly, the goals are admirable. But the routes to it and the unintended effects seem to have got us a bit tangled up.
G: Like what? I can hear that rope tightening…
W: Well let’s start with just the mildly irritating fact that every ad looks a little paint by numbers - everyone is telegraphing how diverse and inclusive they are in exactly the same way.
G: So when it feels like the ‘woke creativity’ agenda is bigger than the message and point of the comms itself? Less inclusivity, more signalling?
W: Right, it’s become the new smug wallpaper.
G: I thought the plan here was to get you cancelled? This all sounds reasonable.
W: Well I suppose you could argue that we’ve also ended up with an enforced fake kind of representation in every bit of communication.
G: Which only the racists get upset about…
W: …but I also think that may limit genuine progress because the ‘do massive diversity in one go’ misses the more insightful stories about real individuals, families and groups that a brand could offer over time, instead of inauthentically at once. That would be much more progressive - and, I suspect, effective.
G: OK, now we’re cooking on gas. What else?
W: I think the bigger critique is that people started playing status games with it, trying to out-angel each other. New terms and issues appear every week and if you’re a lap behind then you’re a Nazi for not being in touch. It’s become increasingly performative, even intolerant itself. A culture that feels ungenerous, judgmental and risk-averse has descended on us. A touch of ideological arrogance came in - ‘ours is the only way’.
G: But we’re talking about a better way right?
W: The risk is that what started out as a way to improve things becomes a weapon representing all things progressive to hit anything with that’s not 100% aligned. Tim Minchin has a good rant about such infighting and how it became “Bubbles within bubbles…like a fucking Aero bar.”
G: I do like Aeros.
W: Good for you. And a bit like an Aero the critique would be that woke acts looked good but were full of air. The former Chief Sustainability Officer at Blackrock skewered it well: ‘“The Answer to Inconvenient Truths Isn't Convenient Fantasies.” In other words, beware the appearance of doing good outweighing actually doing good.
G: Apple won the most awards at Cannes this year so it wasn’t all about social purpose.
W: They did. And that’s something.
G: And Cannes judges said they were rewarding ideas that had ‘sustainable scale’ versus some small token gestures.
W: Yes, it’s progress. It’s nice that performative acts are being scrutinised and more scalable stuff gets the spotlight.
G: We should do an article on Cannes judging.
W: Let’s see if I survive this first.
G: If you zoom out a bit, you could argue that we’re maturing as an industry and that nature is healing? If we can sell and do good while we’re selling then why wouldn’t we? It’s a chance for businesses to step up.
W: Maybe. I just think we need to be very, very careful we’re not producing enjoyable ‘cover stories’ still. Or, worse, accidentally hampering laudable causes with our work.
G: You’re going to bring up Bud Light aren’t you?
W: Well is the trans movement better off for Bud Light’s arguably misguided inclusion given their audience? They might have caused more confusion and hate for the moment. Could they have moved more slowly and cautiously? Has Dove’s decade-long real beauty campaign changed women’s mental health or body image? No, the case has been made the opposite has happened. Did Gillette’s advertising in 2019 give men a more positive vision of masculinity or just make more men feel attacked?
G: So at worst, ‘woke creativity’ is hypocritical, self-serving and even damaging to moral causes? Wow.
W: Yeah. At worst, maybe ideology has blinded some to just good strategy, stunting both the goals of a brand and a better society. It’s kind of maddening.
G: But at best, it can create progress on a social issue while lifting a brand’s awareness and fortunes.
W: Yeah. Enjoy rolling that dice.
G: Isn’t our job to load the dice in our clients’ favour?
W: You have a look on your face that says you have a model coming.
G: Well I do think brands might benefit from thinking about a few gears to deploying woke creativity.
W: Let’s hear it Wokahontas…
G: How about: Step 1. Do nothing. Be conscious, empathetic and encouraging. But if ‘woke creativity’ is at odds with your strategy and audience, stay in your lane and focus on your brand story. Recognise the problem and focus on fixing it within your business first.
W: What Bud Light should have done.
G: It feels bad saying yes, but yeah. Step 2. If the audience and woke goals align gently, strategically integrate it in. Start with representation but try not to do this in a tokenistic way, do it with depth, realism and insight. Start with inclusion and representation will come.
W: Step 3?
G: Step 3. For strong alignment, actively work with and support a cause to bring it into your strategy in a meaningful way. But for God’s sake get your house in order first. Attach your woke creativity to the business, because unattached wokism is what sets everyone back.
W: Any more steps?
G: Stop calling it woke creativity. The brand is tarnished. I always just liked ‘creativity for good’.
W: I agree. All sorted then. Also, am I cancelled?
G: I’ll take it from here mate…*slides Will’s security card into his pocket*
Greg and Will, if they haven’t been cancelled, will return for a fight about funny work.