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Why the industry needs more diverse voices – With Sachini Imbuldeniya

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"No one makes a difference in the world by playing it safe."

Sachini Imbuldeniya didn't exactly have an easy or calm childhood. Growing up in one of the "roughest" council estates in London, she learned to look after herself quite quickly, with her mother acting as the pillar to sustain the entire family.

Sachini certainly grew up to be a strong and decisive leader. She is the Creative Director at the Bridge Studios, but also the Founder and Managing Director of Studio Pi. A woman who values the strength of creative diversity and trusts in what fostering diverse voices can mean for the industry.

And though she may not believe it, we can see the strength of her much beloved mum deeply rooted in her personal career, dreams and ambitions.

Today we are Getting to Know a driven creative professional, with a personal story just as compelling as her professional background.

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Tell us a bit about your current role and how you got there.

I am currently the Creative Director for Bridge Studio, the multi-award-winning content agency at News UK. I am also the Founder and Managing Director of Studio PI: A new photography and illustration agency whose mission is to promote equality and celebrate diversity in the creative industry.

I got here after successfully dodging a career in science, 15 years of making awesome teas and hard graft, and a viral video that I made during a global pandemic.

What is your personal background and what role did it play in your career?

My mum is an amazing woman – she left Sri Lanka and her seven younger siblings in the 60’s after her father passed away. She came to the UK to join the NHS in response to an appeal from the health service as it was suffering from acute shortages of staff and desperately needed migrant workers to help rescue it. 

I grew up on one of the roughest council estates in London and my dad passed away when I was 10, but my mum was the rock that kept our family together. She worked endless hours to keep myself and my siblings clothed and fed whilst also sending money to her mother and siblings in Sri Lanka. 

She’s incredibly generous, driven, strong, selfless, kind and hard working, and all of these attributes have (hopefully) contributed to the woman I am today. 

I think the greatest lesson she ever taught me, was to be brave and bold in my decisions. No one makes a difference in the world by playing it safe. 

Can you tell us a little about Studio Pi? A mission statement, if you will?

Studio PI is a fresh new photography and illustration agency whose mission is to promote equality and celebrate diversity in the creative industry.

The UK Government’s All-Party Parliamentary Group for Creative Diversity reported in June 2020 that women, people of colour, people living with disabilities and people from working-class backgrounds have been greatly underrepresented in this industry.

Studio PI exists to redress this balance and champion those artists whose voices are not heard enough and whose talent is not seen enough.

I wanted to set up a creative space that helps our industry embrace a better and more diverse future providing our nation with balanced visual content that is a true reflection of the society we live in.

Studio PI currently has 9 photographers and 10 illustrators on its roster. They were selected by a panel of 50 industry experts via a blind judging process and assessed solely on the quality of their work – all names and biographies were removed to avoid any unconscious bias. 

The final roster of talent includes: Kofi Paintsil, Philipp Raheem, Martina Lang, Ejatu Shaw, Brunel Johnson, Jameela Elfaki, Ming Tang-Evans, Chantel King, Eddie Blagbrough, Selman Hoşgör, Ngadi Smart, Janice Chang, Harriet Noble, Sinem Erkas, Daryl Rainbow, Sneha Shanker, Gem D’Souza, Frieda Ruh and Ana Yael.

What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far in your career?

Launching Studio PI whilst juggling my day job has been a pretty big one! It’s an initiative that’s very close to my heart and I’ve been giving it my all because I want to ensure that all of the talented artists on our roster are given the exposure they deserve. 

We all know the cliché of the ‘struggling artist’, but during the pandemic creatives have had an especially hard time due to the lack of work, cancelled graduate shows, limited budgets and shoot restrictions. I hope that Studio PI can help our amazing talent to break through these barriers and turn their passion for their craft into a successful career. 

Starting a new business from scratch has been a very steep learning curve, but it gives me great joy to watch an idea that I felt so passionately about turn into a reality. It has been a huge achievement and one that I’m incredibly proud of.

It was especially rewarding to see industry experts from across the globe join our judging panel to support this initiative. They recognised that this is a problem that needed to be addressed and the best way to solve it was to work together and be a part of the change. 

Do you think the BLM movement has exposed an underlying problem in the creative industry?

That’s an interesting question. As a woman of colour my experience has been that the creative industries can be blighted by nepotism and unfairness. I have experienced discrimination throughout my career because of my sex and the colour of my skin, and I am by no means alone. 

And it is not just our industry that’s facing a tipping point: it wasn’t so long ago we were talking about #OscarsSoWhite and the Harvey Weinstein scandal; about Colin Kaepernick kneeling for the US National Anthem.

What the Black Lives Matter movement has done, I think, is to shine a light on just how deep that injustice goes. We have seen George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and the hundreds of others across the world become victims of racial injustice. We can see, and rage, at the unfairness of it. I salute those that stand in protest, often at great risk to their own lives. I think seeing their courage makes it easier for us to examine those smaller injustices that hold marginalised groups back and show how they need to be changed. 

I, and many others, have spoken out in every creative industry about the unfairness and injustice that many individuals face on a daily basis. It’s sad that it took these global movements, these history-making events, to get those industries to actually listen. 

After the huge shift in focus towards diversity – following the Windrush Scandal, the Black Lives Matter protests, even things like reading how the coronavirus disproportionately affects people from different ethnic groups - the world is now waking up to the fact that we all need to collectively do more to make this a fair and equable industry to work in. 

Backed by News UK, Studio PI is my small contribution to redress this imbalance, and help provide our nation with balanced visual content that is a true reflection of the society we live in.

But this isn’t just about promoting diversity of people working in our industry: it’s about creative diversity too. I think brands will also benefit from a wider range of fresh voices bringing with them a new perspective to the content we produce. It isn’t just the right thing to do in terms of supporting people in our industry; it makes our work better too. 

If you weren’t in your current industry, what would you be doing?

I’m one of those weird individuals that loves their jobs so much - so I’ve strangely never really given another industry much thought! When I was a kid I went from wanting to be a vet, to an author to a fashion designer to an interior designer and then an architect.

I have an obsession with the ocean - so I think having a creative space on a tropical beach in Sri Lanka would be the dream - and I guess with remote working becoming more of a reality that might be something that’s actually achievable in the near future. 

What’s the work achievement you’re most proud of?

My colleague Darren Smith wrote a poem during lockdown called ‘You Clap For Me Now’. It was inspired by an interview that he had done with my mum a few years prior where she talked about the ‘welcoming’ Britain that she had arrived in during the 60’s. A stark contrast from the events of the past decade with the rise in hate-crimes, Theresa Mays hostile environment policy, the sudden popularity of people like Katie Hopkins and Nigel Farage, the Windrush Scandal and of course Brexit.

The poem was a reminder to everyone to not only clap at that moment in time, but to ensure we remembered the sacrifices of all of our key workers - a lot of whom are first-, second- and third-generation immigrants - and how vital these jobs that were once deemed as ‘unskilled’ actually are. 

I decided to turn this powerful poem into a film as a response to an open brief from the United Nations as I felt that it was a message that needed to be seen as well as heard. The response from key workers to participate was phenomenal because they all believed in the message and as a result gave up their valuable time to record themselves reading out the poem line by line.

The video went viral within 24 hours reaching an astonishing 308 million views worldwide.  Using creativity as a powerful tool to make a difference is something I am incredibly proud of and something that we should all try to achieve.

What’s your one big dream for the future of marketing?

I’m hopeful that we will come full circle and start to pay much more attention to the lived experience of artists and creatives. Of course, encouraging greater diversity is a huge part of that – but also, it’s about getting the balance right between creativity and data. 

For a long time we have been guided by an awe and fascination with ‘big data’, and all that we think we might learn from it. But this has been at the expense of real creativity. Data analysis is finite and tends to come back to the same answers, and it ties the hands of creative people trying to find new ways of telling stories that help audiences see, understand and fall in love with brands. 

I think we are approaching an ‘uncanny valley’ of data collection and analysis, and when it goes wrong it really goes wrong – for example programmatic ads on social media selling nappies and baby clothes to mothers who have lost their children during pregnancy. The data is good enough to pick up when someone might be pregnant, but insensitive to what emotional state they may be in. 

I hope that we will return once more to having a creative industry that is guided by data, but not dictated to by it, and that more freedom of expression will be given to creatives to find human ways of connecting with audiences and customers. Brilliant work is always a blend of science and art; too much of one or the other means creatives suffer, marketers suffer, brands and clients suffer, and ultimately audiences suffer too. 

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