Neil Davidson of Hey Human: the nation’s at a low ebb and it’s time we did something about it

After Grenfell Tower, things will never be the same again. Its charred skeleton stands as a breath-taking symbol of how we treat the most vulnerable members of our society, and of the true impact of ill-considered cost-cutting. It’s time for some deep and uncomfortable soul-searching and meaningful action.

If my time working in government taught me anything, it was that there’s little chance of effective and agile change coming from those quarters. The portrayal of misguided civil servants and ministers in Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of it, more focused on spin than change, was bang on the money.

All of this got me thinking about the role that business, including the ad industry, can play to bring about change. But what sort of change? Grenfell tells us a lot about social mobility, or rather the lack of it – the UK has one of the worst records in the developed world. As employers we play around the edges, talking about equal opportunities and diversity, but there’s a much bigger job to be done.

With this in mind, I have set myself and the agency to thinking about what we can do to make a difference. I started by spending time on the ground at Grenfell Tower just when I’d normally be attending Cannes. While I love my annual trip to the Festival, it didn’t feel right to go when the mood of the nation is at such a low ebb. So I spent my time there and donated what I would have spent at Cannes to the Red Cross instead.

The volunteers I spoke to were united by a desire to bring about change in the longer term. We all understood the immediate urgent need – the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid – but then what?

That key question continues to ring in my ears. I don’t have the answer, but what I do know is that action needs to be as close to the coalface as possible, tackling real issues head on, rather than a veneer. I also know that we often approach these big issues in completely the wrong way.

Let me give you an example of positive change in the eye of the storm, using the sort of thinking we as agency people can relate to.

Take Glasgow. The city’s gang and knife crime epidemic reached such a critical stage in 2005, Strathclyde police had to actually set up a taskforce called the Violence Reduction Unit. At the time, Glasgow was Western Europe’s murder capital; fast-forward a decade and the murder rate more than halved, with similar drops recorded for attempted murder, serious assault and possession of an offensive weapon.

The tides only changed when police acknowledged that the sole way to reduce crime was to tackle the culture creating it. Young men growing up in unstable homes were obviously more likely to become seduced by gang life. It’s that old nature vs nurture argument at its most extreme, which the VRU took on board.

Creative thinking was married with old-fashioned enforcement, enlisting doctors, nurses, dentists and even vets (pets are often at the receiving end of a well-aimed kick) to watch for signs of violence – counselling was also offered to victims. The VRU worked because, at its core, it was about helping people. It took something as ugly as knife crime and gave it a face, a body, a soul. It took these young men and listened to them, interacting with them as human beings rather than numbers on a spreadsheet.

But back to where we find ourselves. I believe and hope we have reached a tipping point. Grenfell is the catalyst, one of Thatcher’s legacies (the great council housing sell-off that is part of the reason that social housing is in such a mess) coming back to haunt us. After all, it can take decades to understand the impact of wholesale change. But it’s more than that.

It’s almost as if, as a nation, we’ve collectively re-discovered a conscience, realising that the division between rich and poor has gone too far. No wonder Corbyn is doing as well as he is. And the creative industry is playing its part. Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, was not only a poignant social commentary, it got people talking. It demanded action.

So what can our industry actually do to help? At HeyHuman we want to try to move from treating the symptoms to go deep into the root cause. We need to go beyond standard tactics such as fund-raising, giving up our time for a good cause or positioning ourselves as a diverse employer, although we know that there’s nothing wrong with all of those things.

We’re not pretending we are even close to a solution, but let’s have a debate, shall we? Let’s think about the really gritty issues that are part of the social mobility challenge – housing and education for starters – and how we can help effect change.

We’ve set up an internal taskforce charged with thinking about things differently and bringing meaningful initiatives to the table. We’re not going to let this one drop. It’s too important.

And since writing on LinkedIn that I would be putting the time and money I’d have spent at Cannes into good causes here at home, I’ve had over 25,000 views and over 200 likes. That’s quite enough evidence to know that we’re onto something.

Neil Davidson is managing partner of HeyHuman. In a previous life he was a senior information officer at the UK’s Department of Health.

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