As a Black man working in the ad world, I spend a fair amount of time discussing the foibles of being Black in advertising. What needs fixing? What’s changing? And, most importantly, what recent work represents actual progress? I recently had a thought on my mind that spoke to all three of those questions: Why is every ad from any brand that wants to hero diversity and develop cultural adjacency to Black Britishness have the same aesthetic as Nothing Beats a Londoner?
In 2018, Nothing Beats a Londoner was an instant hit that immediately shook up culture, and for good reason. It was (and still is) a great distillation of London’s spirit and energy. An incredible achievement from Nike, Wieden + Kennedy, On Road and Megaforce. The ensemble cast featured some of the best and the burgeoning voices of Black British talent – Skepta, Giggs, J Hus, Jorja Smith, Michael Dappah, Little Simz, Dave, the list goes on. Even Gareth Southgate got a spot.
The excellently rendered soundtrack started with Skepta’s then still relatively new-but-insta classic Shutdown, into OG bangers with Kano’s Typical Me, before Dizzee Rascal closed things out. It featured young, Black, inner-city kids speaking naturally, as they would with friends. We can credit the ad’s courage to embrace this wholeheartedly as a key moment in how the industry began its attempts to authentically represent the Black British experience.
By now, most brands have all had a crack at making their version, and the clones have only helped to prop up the brilliance of the original
The ad felt fresh, it felt new, and it felt celebratory. Celebratory because it was an acceptance and recognition that Black British culture and London’s youth are the creative engines behind the world’s premier creative hub. 2018 also saw Skepta and A$AP Rocky’s Praise Da Lord become the biggest song of the year, a symbolic passing of the zeitgeist’s torch from NYC to LDN. Virgil Abloh and Off-White took over the capital to release the designer’s legendary The Ten’ remix of Nike classics. Then there was the emergence of England’s incredible new crop of young players at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, many of which were Londoners. You couldn’t see past London as the place, and Nike’s ad was the cherry on the cake.
Now, looking back, Nothing Beats a Londoner feels like the unofficial, first part of Nike’s collaboration with Corteiz. Like the first chip falling to make that collaboration feel natural. As with all great works, the ad has spawned clones. Many, many, many of them. By now, most brands have all had a crack at making their version, and the clones have only helped to prop up the brilliance of the original.
But the high proliferation of this style has also made it feel a bit reductive. Five years ago, the use of aesthetic-as-narrative felt like a real shift. The whip pans. The mixed perspectives. The crash zooms. The frenetic, kinetic cutting. A comic book panel in motion. The visual verbiage felt like a real understanding of how to create work that authentically represented the big, bright, and charismatically unique energy of Black British London.
Five years on, the same aesthetic-as-narrative device has begun to feel platitudinal. A bit like having token Black/brown people in the frame to hint at comfort with diversity, rather than engaging with the layers of their experience to tell stories from. The culture has evolved, and the consumers have matured. It’s time for some fresh, new takes on storytelling in advertising if brands want to keep attracting and convert new black and brown customers. For example, Ikea’s recent ad under the Wonderful Everyday platform from Mother is a good example of fusing said aesthetic with some very subtle, but well-considered world-building.
Film has always led the way with the macro cultural beats, then advertising follows. Take Raine Allen Miller’s debut feature Rye Lane, a Black British romcom featuring two African twenty-somethings from Peckham. It has loads of stylistic flair, it’s funny, acerbic and cleverly written, it has substance and style. Of course, a two-hour feature is going to give you more story than a two-minute ad. But Rye Lane represents progress, because it begins to widen the aperture of the lived experience within Black British media and storytelling beyond the well-worn tropes of road life depictions as the only Black British films that get commissioned.
Advertising in a cultural context needs to follow suit, moving on from just cool aesthetics to also building stories around some funny, honest, irreverent, cultural insights. Let’s have more than just the Black presence, a few witty zingers, some whip pans, and crash zooms, and drill-inspired sound design. We need the swagger and the layered stories too.
Brands, advertisers, agencies need to start playing bigger and braver, embracing and highlighting the wealth of stories and insights from within these cultures
Progress is not a linear thing. Especially when progress is contingent on defeating structural blockers within an inherently biased industry. Nothing Beats a Londoner was a moment of progress, and the huge adoption of its style by brands and advertisers is obvious proof of that. It solved a problem for brands at the time, giving them a shorthand opportunity to communicate and leverage culture effectively to shift product (and gain some cultural brownie points).
But now… times up. The idea is knackered. It’s just finished running its 30th consecutive London Marathon in a pair of Air Force 1s. Brands, advertisers, agencies need to start playing bigger and braver, embracing and highlighting the wealth of stories and insights from within these cultures. If advertising still wants to leverage culture and target Black and brown consumers, it’s time to start doing it with more cleverness and ingenuity.
Damola Oladapo is a London-based freelance creative director, copywriter, journalist and founder of new creative studio House Captain. He has worked with brands including Nike, Spotify, FIFA, Campari Group and Gorillas. This article was originally published on his Linkedin