Gift of the Gabberer: Ant Melder
3 creative leaders from diverse backgrounds share their views. Ant Melder is Creative Partner at Coffee Cocoa Gunpowder. The world’s only Cockney Bangladeshi, he also runs the podcast Brown Riot featuring candid chats with a range of creative and business leaders from a range of ethnic, cultural and socio-economic backgrounds.
Interview by Siobhan Fitgerald
SF: When and where did you get your start in advertising?
AM: I’m from London. In the mid-90s I was over in Sydney for a few years. I did an internship at McCann Sydney, which was great. I learned a lot from people like Steve Dodds. But my first proper job in advertising was at VCD, working for George Betsis and Siimon Reynolds. That place was like a university of advertising and life. It was packed with so many absolute legends, almost all of whom have gone on to achieve amazing things. I learned so many things there that have stayed with me and still resonate to this day.
SF: What was the culture like then?
AM: George and Siimon were amazing mentors, teachers…and arse-kickers. It was a school of tough love. I was an awkward outsider kid with enough neuroses to make Woody Allen look like a jock. But I had a burning passion that George and Siimon recognised in me. They lit a fire under my ambition that still drives me forward to this day. To temper that ambition and give it focus, Siimon used to say, “Make your future bigger than your past by seeking growth rather than applause.”
SF: Where there many non-white people in the Creative Department?
AM: The co-founder of VCD, George Betsis, was/is a no-nonsense working class Greek ‘wog’. He used his hard-boiled street smarts and extreme work ethic to smash through barrier after barrier in the lily-livered middle class advertising world. To brilliant success. He filled the creative department with rebels, rejects and outsiders. Long before ‘diversity’ was referred to with a hashtag and upper case D, he and Siimon brought in creatives of all genders, backgrounds, ethnicities. Including me – the world’s first and only Cockney-Bangladeshi creative (oh how I’d love to be proved wrong on that). Every Wednesday George’s mum would bring in a Greek feast she’d cooked up and we’d all sit around the boardroom table to tuck in. It was a family environment but also a very rough and ready, competitive, hardcore place to start out. It was only when I moved back to London that I realised VCD was an anomaly.
SF: What about agency leadership?
AM: Aside from VCD I don’t think it’s shocking news to say that back then and still (mainly) now, most ad agencies are run by the Pale Stale Male Brigade. Many of whom are absolute legends, good friends of mine and champions of change. Most completely agree with me that we really need to mix things up a bit. And one of the reasons CK and I started Coffee Cocoa Gunpower is that we thought it was time for a new kind of agency leadership.
SF: Can you tell about ‘Brown Riot’ and how it came about?
AM: The ‘Brown Riot’ podcast has been inspired by so many things and people: White Riot by The Clash. Chuck D describing Public Enemy’s music as “CNN for black people”. The Life and Times of Muhammad Ali by Thomas Hauser. The songs Knowledge of Beauty and Nowhere is Home by Dexys Midnight Runners. Being repeatedly mistaken for another brown ECD in Cannes. The desire to spark debate and “be the change I want to see in the world”.
SF: You’ve talked about feeling like there’s only room for one brown ECD. Has that feeling changed, and can you tell us about that?
AM: Yeah, the feeling has changed a bit. The podcast and the debate it’s part of, has been welcomed with open arms universally. There’s very little pushback. Every conversation I’ve had about wanting the industry to be more diverse, with everyone from junior creatives to CEOs, has been encouraging and positive. It feels as though everyone in the industry recognises the need for change and welcomes it…it’s just a matter of how we go about it and how fast.
SF: There’s that old chestnut: I want to hire inclusively but the talent just isn’t there. What do you say to that?
AM: I want to mix things up both at senior and entry level. I wish there were more people of colour in senior roles but there are definitely some brilliant role models – the guests on the podcast are great examples. And at entry level, I think it’s the industry’s responsibility to fish in a much deeper, wider talent pool. Things like the Award School indigenous scholarship and Rocky Ranallo’s Western Sydney Ad School are starting to do that…and there’s so much more we can do.
SF: You’ve written about having been asked IT and finance related questions in agencies (presumably when you weren’t ECD?!). Do you feel like you’ve had to combat racial stereotypes, and do you think this has affected your behaviour, or your progress?
AM: Yeah, I’ve had my fair share of sometimes frustrating, sometimes hilarious experiences. The kind of thing that still goes on to this day was brilliantly summed up in this scene from The Office. I think the feelings every person of colour has around stuff like that are complicated and individual. Personally, I’ve got to the point where most of the silly stuff just bounces off me. But there’s still the occasional meeting – for example, when someone wonders if a cast suggestion is “Australian enough” – when I feel the red mist start to descend.
SF: Many creative departments in Australia are still made up of white men of a certain age. For those who may not be a minority, can you talk about what it can feel like to be ‘different’?
AM: When you’re different to everyone else in the room, it’s sometimes hard to feel like you fit in, like your contribution will be welcomed and valued. Many years ago, Dave Trott explained to me how to flip this feeling on its head, so your difference becomes your advantage. And the older I’ve got, the more I’ve come to realise that my background gives me an edge. But when you’re starting out or coming into a new environment it can be tough. Which is why I fully subscribe to the ‘see it to be it’ thing.
SF: You’re originally from the UK. Have you noticed a difference in the ethnic make-up of agencies there and in Australia?
AM: Nah. It’s as one dimensional in London as it is here. But both there and here, there’s diverse young talent starting to come through and senior talent starting to get recognised. And exciting new agencies like The Elephant Room starting to make an impact. Things are changing – it’s just a matter of how long it’s going to take.
SF: This year AWARD School has created an Indigenous Scholarship Program; you’ve started Brown Riot; and diversity is a hot topic. Are you feeling positive about the future?
AM: I’m so excited that ‘diversity’ is a conversation we’re all having.
But I am starting to see the occasional pained “aaargh not this again!” looks on some people’s faces when it comes up. We need to focus on the awesome work that comes from the industry being made up of a more diverse set of people.
And by the way, I don’t care if those people are brown, black, white, yellow or whatever. I just want it to be a mix of different perspectives and ways of thinking. I’m a big believer in Ian Brown from The Stone Roses’ dictum – “It ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re at.”
SF: What would your advice be to young creatives entering the industry today who might not fit the conventional mould? How would you encourage them to stay the course?
AM: Firstly, think about whether you really want to do this. Like, really. If you’re not sure, read this poem and ask yourself if you feel the same way about being a creative. If the answer’s “yes”, just know that your passion, desire and energy will be more than equal to all the closed doors, snobbishness, nepotism, unearned privilege and daft assumptions you’ll probably encounter along the way.
Be respectful but also have confidence in your own uniqueness.
Set your goals, make a plan and get on with out-working and out-thinking the competition. It won’t always work out the way you expected or wanted, so be ready for that. Mike Tyson said “Everybody’s got a plan until they get punched in the face.” Your ultimate success will depend on your ability to turn what seem like setbacks into opportunities.