Q&A | Rachel Turner on leaving commercial work, in pursuit of Ayni

Rachel Turner is General Manager at Curative, a New Zealand-based creative agency that works solely on projects geared towards a positive social or environmental outcome. Her and her husband Bill Bycroft are also good friends of the Impolitikal family, and have supported us behind the scenes since we launched, including through creating video content for the site.

Sarah spoke to Rach about what motivated her to explore opportunities outside the commercial advertising world, how her communal upbringing has affected her adult perspective, and her thoughts on some trends driving consumer decision-making right now.

We chatted earlier this year about Pepsi co-opting protest for *that* ad. Can you explain if and why you had a problem with the campaign?
Advertising draws a lot of insight from everyday life, because to motivate people to act you have to first understand what motivates them. I believe that the best ideas then come when that insight inspires an entirely new idea, a story you’ve never seen or heard before. That’s typically a story that doesn’t mirror your life, or an event you already know. It’s a story that entertains you and treats you with the intelligence you deserve.

And then we have the Pepsi ad. I think the meme that best summed that up was “protests are so hot right now”!

With the ad they released earlier this year, Pepsi attempted to leverage a real life issue that is highly political and sensitive. Black Lives Matter is not a kitten frolicking in the backyard before it eats Whiskas. It’s a highly contentious and personal issue for indigenous people all over the world. I believe that trying to mirror that in an ad to sell beverages was straight-up rude and insensitive. And to think it wasn’t going to be either of those things when it went live is hard to believe.

“Whichever way you look at it, a group of people were responsible for creating that situation and it was offensive.”

It’s quite possible that the agency behind the ad didn’t want it to be executed the way it was. And it’s also possible that those cliché moments and token appearances were asked for by Pepsi. But whichever way you look at it, a group of people were responsible for creating that situation and it was offensive. And whilst it was probably intended to be a supportive gesture, it was always a highly contentious ad to make, so gambling millions of production dollars and hoping it would fly seems irresponsible to begin with.

You lost your dad to cancer recently. How did that affect you, and your decision to leave agency ad work?
The agency I worked for were incredibly supportive and 100% backed me to work flexible hours, to help Dad. I will always be hugely grateful to the people who made that possible. But a strange thing happened when I returned to work full time. It was like all of my senses were heightened and my tolerance for dealing with any bullshit dropped to zero. I’d find myself in these circular conversations, or trying to arrange an important meeting, and just kept feeling like the stress wasn’t worth it. Like there was something else I should be doing.

Rach having her head shaved in support of Shave for a Cure

At this point it felt like two things converged. I was just physically exhausted after the cancer battle and on top of that the guilty feelings I’d been fighting for years, around the role advertising plays in society, finally got the better of me. I think that both my body and my brain needed a rest, and my body helpfully prompted me by getting RSI, so I listened.

Then when I tried to return to a contract role at another agency six months later I got shingles a few months in! I think my body was still trying to tell me something.

So the last two years have been about trying to adapt and refine the skills I learnt in communications and advertising, and channel those into the brands and causes that matter most to me. It doesn’t mean I won’t work in creative agencies anymore, it just means I’m now more protective of my boundaries and the brands and organisations I want to work with.

A lot in the world is in flux at the moment. What does your insight into consumer demand tell you about the future? What are people responding to, and rejecting right now?
I know that everyone will have a different view on this, but when I break it down I think about two basic forces going on. The rise and rise of consumerism, fuelling desire faster than ever, and cheaper than ever. You simply Google the pair of shoes you want and find the site that will sell it to you for the cheapest. Then they’re delivered to your door, and all you did was was punch in your credit card number.

We’re seeing a lot more personalisation, and the big so-called saviour “data” creating slicker retail and service experiences, making the no strings attached purchase easier than ever. And of course, amidst all of that, the interesting thing is that the power of a strong brand still stands – and I don’t believe that will ever change. You might be looking for the cheapest price on those shoes – and often those shoes start following you around the internet – but those shoes are still Adidas, Nike or New Balance.

“You might be looking for the cheapest price on those shoes – and often those shoes start following you around the internet – but those shoes are still Adidas, Nike or New Balance.”

Then in the other corner we have what I believe might be the gamechanger: the millennial backlash. Some say it’s middle class privilege and some say that the incidence is too small to make a dent but I believe in this generation, and their power to vote with their wallet. Their decisions come from a place of values, and are deliberate. When they say they want their work to be meaningful, they mean it. When they say they won’t buy clothes that have been made with child labour, they mean it. When they choose they make conscious choices and these choices help to define who they are.

You can see brands and retailers tapping into this, and some of the biggest manufacturers in the world are getting involved. The recent H&M example caught my eye, with their new “Conscious” line of clothing. It costs more because it’s more traceable and ethical. The irony is that everything else is the store is what? Not Conscious? But people buy the Conscious range because it says something about them. That they’re willing to stand up for what they believe in.

It all starts with small actions, so if this conscious decisionmaking continues to get bigger and bigger – then look out! The milennials are a force to be reckoned with and with their purchasing power we might actually be able to build an economy that is driven by conscious decisionmaking. Label me an idealist but I do believe it’s possible.

You and your husband Bill Bycroft have produced a few videos for Impolitikal. What was the experience of making those clips like for you?
Making those kinds of pieces is always about trying to use our skills to help. We figure if we’re visiting a place then we want to try and contribute to the community, and the way we know how is through storytelling and film.

Read our Q&A with Bill

Making the Impolitikal pieces were some of my favourite times travelling with Bill. We had a real sense of shared purpose when we were on the road. We met some exceptional people in both Cambodia and Vietnam and we really enjoyed the process of working with you to tell the stories.

You grew up in a family that was and is all about cooperative, community living. How has that influenced or conflicted with working in the commercial – and less commercial – world?
I think that growing up in a communal living situation has influenced me more than I previously realised. There have been small signs, like as a tertiary student I always felt most comfortable in a busy house full of people. Then, most recently I’ve learnt more about how that’s impacting on my adult life.

About to pop

Travel has been the biggest teacher, because I’ve seen the power of communal living over and over in different places, and how a tight-knit community makes for a more supportive environment. Indigenous cultures know this well, but for a bunch of reasons our British heritage has made New Zealand a land of segregation and high fences. I’m not a fan of the high fence.

The biggest lesson for me was in Peru. We learnt about the Quechuan concept of Ayni, a form of private and mutual reciprocity. The law of Ayni states that everything in the world is connected, and it’s the only commandment that rules daily life in many communities through Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. Ayni is the cooperation between the members of a community – when one member gives to another, he or she is entitled to receive something back. This cultivates a community of ongoing support and reminded me of the communal environment I grew up in, and the way we were taught to live.

“The law of Ayni states that everything in the world is connected, and it’s the only commandment that rules daily life in many communities through Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador.”

When it comes to the commercial world I feel like I always had a slightly different perspective, a different angle to other people. I seemed to see things from other people’s perspectives, which really helped in advertising. I do wonder if the communal living trained me to consider other people more, from a young age.

I’d like to think that all my influences and experiences have forced me to evaluate where I fit and how I can operate within the communications world. I don’t think my time in it is over, it’s more about how I can evolve to a practice that genuinely helps people and brings about change. I’m not at all opposed to profit but I believe it’s what you do with that profit that ultimately matters. Satisfying shareholders with pumped up bottom lines is not going to help us solve some of humanity’s biggest challenges.

There are some wonderful opportunities for us to do more good with our work and I like the idea of working from the inside out. It’s one thing to sit on the outside and throw stones but it’s another to go inside for a cup of tea and find out what’s really going on. I think that breaking down barriers and listening leads us to better understanding. And then hopefully we can be a positive influence for change, within those environments.

“It’s one thing to sit on the outside and throw stones but it’s another to go inside for a cup of tea and find out what’s really going on.”

I believe that everything we do in the communications and creative industries has an effect on other people and that we have a responsibility to demand that we are a good influence, on people and the planet.

Rachel is General Manager at Curative, an NZ-based creative agency that works solely on projects geared towards a positive social or environmental outcome. Visit their site.

Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.