In the US in 2016, Verizon, HP and General Mills made waves when they insisted on only working with creative agencies that had a diverse workforce.
Clients and agencies are starting to challenge the lack of diversity in their creative work. The tide is turning. But it’s still proving difficult to find diverse talent when for so long the creative industries have been mostly dominated by older white men.
Studio PI, a new photography and illustration agency, is hoping to change that.
Its mission is simple: promote equality and celebrate diversity across photography and illustration, with particular focus on women, people of colour, people living with disabilities and people from working-class backgrounds.
“Diversity makes content better,” says Studio PI’s founder and managing director, Sachini Imbuldeniya. “We want to create content that actually reflects the society we live in. From a business perspective, it’s also proven that diversity helps grow businesses.”
The stats don’t lie – research by McKinsey & Co in 2019 found that companies in the top 25% for gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns that are above their national industry medians.
Imbuldeniya is also creative director of Bridge Studio, News UK’s multi-award-winning content agency. She believes Studio PI benefits from growing under the wing of a large media company as it unlocks commissioning opportunities from the stable of in-house publications, and gives talent access to studio facilities and equipment to hone their skills. It is the first agency of its kind to be launched by a large media publishing company.
With years of experience as an art director and creative director across various publications and agencies, Imbuldeniya knows that when commissioners are under pressure, it can be tempting to fall back on the default option. “Deadlines are tight, so you end up commissioning the same people you know and trust because it’s easier,” she shrugs. “You don’t always have the time and space to think outside the box and try people who might bring a new perspective to the content you create.”
We want to create content that actually reflects the society we live in. From a business perspective, it’s also proven that diversity helps grow businesses
Studio PI solves that problem, providing commissioners with fresh, innovative and, most importantly, diverse work all in one place. “I wanted to find artists whose work I’d never seen before,” explains Imbuldeniya.
To curate the right selection to launch the agency, Imbuldeniya spent months “scouring every creative space known to man” for exceptional yet underrecognised work, and also put open callouts on social media. “We were inundated with portfolios,” she says.
After scheduling hundreds of video calls to get to know the applicants better, Studio PI compiled a diverse list of around 250 talented artists from underrepresented backgrounds.
Next, a stellar panel of 50 commissioning art directors, creative directors and picture editors helped curate the final roster of talent via a blind judging process: all names and biographies were removed to avoid any unconscious bias, leaving the candidates to be assessed solely on the quality of their work.
BUILDING A RICH AND VARIED ROSTER
The result of that rigorous process is that Studio PI now represents nine photographers and ten illustrators, the maximum number that Imbuldeniya felt she could do proper justice to with the agency’s current team, although she’s keen to expand in the future.
One of those who made the cut is Brunel Johnson, a documentary photographer based in north-west London. He also works in the fields of commercial sports and lifestyle, with clients including adidas and Timberland.
It’s about time things got shaken up, and it’s exciting that there are genuine people within the industry effectively bringing about change
Johnson documented the recent BLM protests, bringing his own lived experience as a Black man in inner-city London to bear on the subject matter and captured, as Imbuldeniya puts it, “hope and solidarity, not just the justifiable anger of the situation”.
“When you look across the news cycle at the time, so much coverage portrayed the BLM protests in a negative light, labelling them as ‘riots’, focusing on damage to property or violent clashes,” she adds. “That’s not the story behind the Black Lives Matter movement, and it’s important to recognise the difference between those perspectives.”
Johnson also has an ongoing personal project called It’s My Hair, focused on the skill and effort required to maintain Afro hair, and the prejudices that Afro-Caribbean people experience.
“In an environment thriving on nepotism and elite networking, initiatives like Studio PI make the impossible possible,” he says. “It’s about time things got shaken up, and it’s exciting that there are genuine people within the industry effectively bringing about change.”
Another of Studio PI’s talented photographers is Chantel King, whose focus is on beauty and fashion. From a working-class, single-parent family, King didn’t attend university straight after school but put herself through an art foundation and graphic design degree later.
Her portfolio includes beauty shoots for Stylist, Dreamingless, Schön! and Flawless, and fashion work for titles such as HUF, Pride and Institute. A recent project for Revolution Beauty featured an all-Black, all-female crew, and was shot in a Black-owned studio to authentically support the Black beauty community.
“Promoting equality and celebrating diversity should be normal working practice, but sadly it is not,” observes King. “In my ten-year experience, I’ve seen a lack of representation of people who look like me, both in front of the camera and behind it.”
Diversity should not be a buzzword: it is the reality of life, and should be championed to every degree, within every space
“For so long, Black creatives have felt ignored and sidelined,” she continues. “We live in a mixed-culture society, yet there is a clear lack of diversity within the creative industry. Representation matters at all levels.”
A third example is Kofi Paintsil, a multidisciplinary photographer whose clients include the BBC, Channel 4, Chanel, Nike and Kensington Palace. He has exhibited in London, Paris, Ghana and Art Basel Miami.
Whether working in fashion or portraiture, capturing the movement of dance or exploring the nude form, Paintsil has developed a visual language that embraces his many disciplines and focuses on space, shape and light.
“Not only is it necessary and relevant for a new agency like Studio PI to exist, but it is also long overdue,” he believes. “Diversity should not be a buzz‑word: it is the reality of life, and should be championed to every degree, within every space.”
DRAWING ON THE WISDOM OF EXPERIENCE
Representing all four of the underrepresented criteria herself, Imbuldeniya’s personal journey in the creative industry has given her valuable lived experience of the hurdles faced by talent from diverse backgrounds.
She recalls how her working-class Sri Lankan background initially steered her away from the arts altogether; her science-orientated family never regarded it as a viable career path. “Guaranteed income was the main thing,” she explains.
Imbuldeniya enrolled to study biology, but it was clear that the route wasn’t for her. She dropped out after a week and begged an art foundation course to take her on, despite having no portfolio to speak of. “They took a massive risk on me,” she admits. “I had to work twice as hard to catch up.”
I’ve had so many meetings where I’ve been the only female, or the only person of colour. It’s intimidating; you’re expected to ‘fit in’
The effort paid off, however, and Imbuldeniya progressed to study graphic design at Middlesex University as part of an impressively diverse 80-strong course intake. However, just a handful got jobs in the industry and many ended up retraining as they didn’t know the right people to get a foot in the door.
Imbuldeniya admits she was fortunate in landing a junior position at the Sunday Times Magazine soon after graduating. The senior designer was a Middlesex alumnus and emailed the tutor asking for recommendations.
“I was the only person of colour working on the magazine at that time,” she recalls. “At one point I was told we couldn’t put a Black person on the cover because of what Middle England might think. I was surrounded by people who didn’t look, think or speak like me.”
Imbuldeniya has faced discrimination throughout her career, for both her gender and her race. “I’ve had so many meetings where I’ve been the only female, or the only person of colour,” she explains. “It’s intimidating; you’re expected to ‘fit in’ rather than bring a different perspective.”
In the long-term, I hope there’ll be no need for Studio PI. But for now, we’re here to get our diverse roster commissioned
As a junior, Imbuldeniya didn’t raise her head above the parapet to call out what she was seeing for fear of losing her job. Having climbed through the ranks, she now wants to make sure no junior creatives have to live though the same experiences. She has found her voice – and people are listening.
“In the long-term, I hope there’ll be no need for Studio PI,” she reflects. The ultimate goal, after all, is that all such agencies will be equally committed to diversity. “But for now, we’re here to get our diverse roster commissioned, raise their profile and champion their work.”