Purpose Incorporated: A primer for brands in APAC

This article is part of a special series on how brands in APAC can go beyond profit to do good and do better for themselves and others. Read more.

Non-WARC subscribers can read this series in its entirety by accessing the articles via the landing page.

Why it matters

VMLY&R’s partnership with Monash University in building diversity and inclusivity into the creative development process has shown it the importance, challenges and results of opening its work and processes to a higher DEI standard, leading to client-agency partnerships having a real impact on the industry’s work.


  • Monash University treats DEI as a core aspect of operations, not a box to tick, and there’s a steep learning curve for those involved in creating work that strives to be genuinely inclusive.
  • Telling someone’s story is a privilege and as agencies seek to be more inclusive in their work, they need to be aware of the line between representation and appropriation.
  • To balance policy and personal accountability, training is important but can fall short is when individuals conflate it with lived experience.
  • If agencies want to embrace DEI in their creative work more meaningfully, they have to accept the necessary ways it will inconvenience their business in order to get there.
  • For agencies, the creative points of inspiration now extend beyond competitors and their work is increasingly measured against a cultural yardstick that transcends rational categories.

Brand accountability and action

In Australia, it’s easy for brands to not think beyond our borders. Sure we might have a nod to New Zealand on the odd occasion, but to be honest if Tasmania or Western Australia struggle to get a mention at the best of times, don’t hold your breath for anything extending to the rest of APAC.

Working in advertising, marketing and communications in Australia is a funny beast. Traditionally, one could make their way through the majority of their career without being overtly challenged to communicate to an audience that extends beyond “middle Australia”. But, as some old white guy once famously sang, “the times, they are a-changin”.

As outlined in Chapter 1 of this series, the groundswell of consumer demand for brand accountability and action when it comes to DEI issues is not something that is only resulting in top-down initiatives and policies – it’s reverberating up from the coalface of where the work is done.

Increasingly, we are seeing briefs mandating that the creative strategy consider a “culturally and linguistically diverse” (CALD) audience. Granted, some of this is no more than a cursory “box-ticking” exercise – agencies are finding clients’ desire for inclusive creative work is growing in a real and genuine manner. While this can often slow down the well-oiled advertising machine – for a person of colour like me: it’s a not-insignificant cause for celebration.

Furthermore, when you find yourself working with a client like Monash University, who treat DEI as a core aspect of their operations – and not a cursory box to tick – there’s a steep learning curve (or un-learning) for those on the agency side creating the work that strives to be genuinely inclusive.

As the lead creative partner for Monash University since 2016, VMLY&R has been on a journey with the Monash team in challenging “the way things are usually done”. With award-winning campaigns such as “If you don’t like it, change it.” and “Future without change” – we have seen first hand the importance, challenges and benefits of opening our work and processes to our client’s higher standard for diversity and inclusion. Whether that is ensuring the work is representative of Monash’s diverse cohort in Australian, or that a campaign is built on a creative truth that resonates across their campuses in Indonesia, Prato, India, Malaysia or China… or any number of partnerships around the world.

It’s by no means perfect and we’re far from having it all figured out – but it’s been a step in the right direction for what client-agency partnerships need to be if we are to see DEI have a real impact on our industry’s work.

In a recent conversation with Chief Marketing Officer (CMO), Fabian Marrone – I discussed this partnership between Monash and VMLY&R in building diversity and inclusivity into the creative development process, and some of the lessons that have arisen from working together.

Why diversify? The “value” of international students for Australian universities.

Before getting into those lessons, it’s important to address the (international) elephant in the room, as doing so helps contextualise why I’ve focussed on Monash University as a partner relationship to highlight.

For Australian universities, a significant cohort is represented by full-fee paying international students. In 2019, there were more than 758,000 international students enrolled in Australian universities, making Australia the world’s second-most popular destination for international students after the United States. 

The debate of whether universities were becoming over-reliant on international students as a revenue stream has always existed to some degree. However with the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact has been felt swiftly and suddenly. The Mitchell Institute is predicting that as a result of continued border closures, international students’ contribution to Australian economy could almost halve “from a high of more than AUS$40 billion in 2019 to an estimated AUS$22 billion by the end of this year”. While it’d be foolish to dismiss the economic implications staring universities in the face – this pandemic has been an opportunity to reflect on what else has been lost from the absence of global diversity in our universities.

A diverse community is vital to the commercial health of Australian universities, but for Monash the value extends far deeper. According to Marrone, the attracting and nurturing of a globally-diverse cohort is so much more than fees and revenue streams – it is fundamental to the quality of the university experience.

“A diverse student population makes for a better student experience and makes for better student outcomes. You need diversity to have greater fulfillment for your cohort. So it's not about numbers. It's about diversity... because a diverse experience actually favours all. There is a cross-pollination and growth in intercultural competency that they may not get elsewhere.”

Taking this perspective on DEI, it’s interesting to see that something brands are only starting to catch onto has been inherently necessary for universities all this time. By virtue of their “product experience and quality” being inherently impacted by DEI – globally-focussed universities such as Monash have been wrestling with the reality of inclusion long before it was fashionable (and now expected) of brands.

“It's really important to us that we don't ‘do’ diversity and inclusion in a tokenistic way”, says Marrone. “When our university’s mission is to attract the brightest minds to change and solve the challenges of our age – it’s vital we have people from all walks of life bringing their uniquely-diverse experiences.”

And this is true of Monash’s “Change It”  brand campaign platform. Since its launch, it has been translated not only in language, but in execution across major countries around the world – China, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and other locations – bringing to life the issues and realities that affect lives at a local level. 

This approach is something that Australian brand campaigns don't typically have to do (or even consider). Usually, an Australian organisation will come up with the concept and then push that out to market. But if the creative idea hasn’t considered cultural nuance and variances in lived experiences – it could mean something very different across these markets.

So for Monash in particular,  the translation of their “Change It” campaign concept not only had to consider the right terminology to evoke the right reaction, it also needed to be respectful of what a specific community's going through – their challenges as a society, culture or even demographically was really important to the client and the campaign. Going through this level of rigour was refreshing and eye-opening to what was needed to shift the dial on “how things are usually done”.

What follows are some takeaways that have come out of the constant state of learning between VMLY&R and Monash University.

1. Telling someone’s story is a privilege

In her 1989 essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”, Peggy McIntosh wrote, “I realized that I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but also had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, White privilege, which puts me at an advantage.”

As agencies, we create work that adopts a brand’s voice all the time. It’s standard operating procedure to take on the thinking, voices and personas of the intended target audiences in answering the brief. But as we seek to be more inclusive in our work, we need to be highly aware of the line between representation and appropriation.

When telling stories on behalf of others, you need to maintain the integrity of that story and understand that you're telling it from a very different perspective than the individual or group’s lived experience – and the challenge for us creative folk is that we need to steer as close as possible to the lived experience, even if it inhibits our ‘creative license’. 

“Sometimes the challenge for us as marketers and creatives is that we want to change certain things because we have a different take or a different tension or a different reaction we want to explore”, says Marrone. “But actually staying true to what the narrative is to be respectful to a culture or tradition, a minority group or a represented community – you need to stay closer to those lines, and you need to seek and accept appropriate guidance.”

The reality is that “the lives we lead affect what we are able to see and hear in the world around us.” To a certain degree, we all have some element of privilege in our identity. For instance, I personally know the challenges of being a person of colour working in Australia, however I also acknowledge that I’ve benefitted from a system that privileges heterosexual males too. If we are to move the needle on DEI in creative work in a meaningful way, we need to recognise that creating inclusive work must be a collective effort. This begins with having a baseline awareness of our own blindspots and areas of ignorance – and a recognition that we need to seek insight from those with lived experience, wherever possible.

2. Balancing policy and personal accountability

Fostering an environment where inclusive work can thrive requires change organisationally as well as individually. If it only exists as a formalised policy in the domain of HR, DEI considerations in the creative work will be cursory at best and the inauthenticity will be apparent to all. However, if individuals are merely encouraged to “think inclusively” without any formal support, it will be akin to fighting against the tide.

As an industry, ad agencies can take some lessons from Monash’s approach to balancing this tension.

“There are programmes and strategies at the highest part of Monash leadership, but it filters down practically in terms of how we think and act in market”, says Marrone. “From a marketing standpoint, there is a real responsibility we feel to implement sustainable and ethical marketing. Monash goes to great lengths to make sure that all those charged with marketing on behalf of the university understand the cultural competencies and nuances too. While this by no means makes us experts, this baseline education provides a common standard of expectations when we are communicating – making sure we are inclusive in language and activity.’”

Training is really important. But where training can fall short is when individuals substitute it for lived experiences. For agencies, we need to provide organisational infrastructure as well as individual support. Training is essential in providing employees with the tools to engage in constructive DEI conversations while crafting inclusive work – and understanding when, where and who to consult for informing the lived experiences of the audience you seek to address or represent.

It’s about addressing the systemic forces at play while empowering each individual to table DEI considerations and concerns as they arise. To borrow from the words of Kathleen Ebbitt at Global Citizen, “Each of us is able to undermine the system of oppression by refusing to live with unchecked or unacknowledged privilege. Simply by reflecting and challenging our privileges, and working to change the system of discrimination through direct discussion, we can help to shift the status quo.”

As agencies, we need to establish training that raises the collective DEI competencies of our staff, then empower them individually to raise, engage and address DEI considerations in the work. Anything less, and you’re just playing for PR points.

3. Inconvenience is the cost of entry

The uncomfortable truth is that no one’s really “figured out” DEI for brands yet. And that’s because it’s not really something static to solve. It’s a cycle of knowing better, then doing better. So the notion that brands and agencies can remain complacent in addressing DEI in creative work until there’s a “consensus on how to best do so” is becoming less of an option.

But making space for these conversations, processes and policies – while noble and necessary – needs to address the uneasy fact that this takes up time (and by extension, money). To be compelled to “do something” to address DEI issues in our industry and work is difficult. It’s disruptive to our workflows. It’s uncomfortable for our ideation. It’s inconvenient to our timelines. Which all means that it’s unprofitable to our bottom line.

Change has that effect on established ways of working. Integrating inclusive thinking and practices into the “advertising machine” adds time to already-tight turnarounds. But inconvenience is simply the ticket to play in this space in a real and authentic way.

“But there's always pieces that we can be doing better”, says Marrone. “And so I don't think the job's done, nor do I think we do it perfectly. But I think we're mindful of raising and having these conversations and considerations with every piece that we put out.”

In an ideal world, someone would’ve figured all this out for everyone else to simply fall in line and implement in their businesses. But the nature of DEI is that it is an evolving and layered conversation. If agencies are to embrace DEI in our creative work more meaningfully, we need to accept the necessary ways it will inconvenience our business to get to that place.

But I truly believe this will result in better creative work. Because at our heart, we are creative problem solvers who are always on the hunt for better problems to solve.

According to the Coin Model of privilege and critical allyship, “The framing of a problem sets the universe of possible solutions that will follow. [For example] if inequity is framed exclusively as a problem facing people who are marginalized, then responses will only attempt to address the needs of these groups, without redressing the social structures causing this disadvantage, or the complicity of the corollary groups who receive unearned (and unfair) advantage from these same structures.”

By allowing the time to dig into and explore the nuances of our audiences’ lived experiences, we can find better problems to solve that result in sharper insights and creative truths that will resonate much deeper.

4. The bar is not your competitors

I began by acknowledging the reality that Australian advertising generally has traditionally lived contently in its “middle Australian” bubble. But for brands, that’s increasingly becoming harder to do. Depending on the category, some may feel the push from direct competitors who are answering the call for genuine DEI action, while others may see their category are united in their complacency. Regardless of which way direct market forces are blowing – the reality is that DEI considerations have moved from the margins to the mainstream.

Basically, it doesn’t matter what your competitors are doing because that isn’t where consumers have set the benchmark. It’s everything else surrounding your brand. It’s everything from Netflix to politics. It’s what the local restaurant is doing about sustainable fishing. It’s the climate change children's book that your daughter brought home from school. It’s the sprawling expanse of culture that’s making DEI issues something we can no longer ignore (or only address when convenient).

“The community we serve are the same communities who are watching things on Netflix – absorbing content and having it inform their context”, says Marrone. “So by sheer virtue of having major content streaming services be more reflective of DEI encourages people to want to see themselves in the content that's being represented. So I think that move in popular culture - while catching up - is actually informing a lot of how people want to see themselves represented in the university category.”

The bottom line is that your brand advertising is being weighed up against brands and organisations that are out of category and even out of industry. Consumers are expecting brands across the board to not just be conversant in inclusive communications, but proficient.

It doesn’t matter if your direct competitor or category isn’t doing it, the fact that some other brand out there is doing it means you are now beholden in some part to that expectation from a hyper-connected audience. And if you’re still tackling the question of “if it’s the right thing to do”, then you’re further behind than you realise.

For agencies, the creative points of inspiration now extend beyond our stablemates and award show shortlists. Our work is increasingly measured against a cultural yardstick that transcends rational categories and logical competitors.

Is that fair? Probably not. But that’s not really the point. DEI is no longer something brands should do for “extra credit”. The rules are changing, and we all need to accept that we are very much students in this evolving game. We may not get it right every time, but complacency is no longer an acceptable option.

About the author

Ken is the head of strategy for VMLY&R Melbourne, Australia. He ended up there by taking the scenic route to strategy – having been a journalist, copywriter, writer, management consultant and client-side marcomms specialist.

Throughout his career, he has spearheaded branding, customer experience and digital transformation projects for some of Australia’s leading brands.

This breadth of experience gained from all sides of the agency/client/consultancy divide makes Ken adept at understanding challenges from various perspectives and he’s able to bring this empathy to uniquely inform the creative process.