Kwame Taylor-Hayford: “You Can't Make Perfect the Enemy of Good”
When the pandemic swept through the world, grinding an industry reliant on movement to a halt, conversations around climate and sustainability became impossible to ignore. In an effort to keep this positive momentum going, UK production company Presence has partnered with LBB to support a brand new Sustainability Channel for essential discussion around green practices and knowledge sharing.
LBB continues this pressing conversation with Kwame Taylor-Hayford, the co-founder of Kin, a creative company that’s unleashing business as a force of good in business and beyond. We dive into Kwame’s personal attitudes to sustainability and how the pandemic has reshaped ideas around ‘normality’. He also shares his thoughts on which behaviours he’d like to see the industry adopt more of, why greenwashing remains an issue, and how a change in the news cycle should never affect brands and industry’s focus on the issues that really matter.
LBB> Tell us a little bit about your personal relationship and journey with sustainability.
Kwame> I think my personal relationship is a complicated one, only because it’s still very difficult to live a sustainable life. The conveniences of modern life are often directly at odds with what's best for the planet, what's best for our future. As a human, I try to do as much as I can to reduce my reliance on plastics and cars, to eat local, but it's really hard to do that consistently in most aspects of life… So it's complicated. I do my very best, but often fall short. For me, making progress is key. I think of it as a journey.
LBB> What are some of the biggest sustainability issues to tackle within the industry?
Kwame> One of the biggest in my mind is something I'm very close to: waste. I think it's really tough from an advertising standpoint, because so much of what we do is temporary or ephemeral. And because of that, all the resources that we pour in ultimately dissipate or get discarded, and there's very little thought given to what happens to things after we use them.
LBB> Do you think that the industry could utilise CGI more to reduce waste and to tackle the issue of sustainability?
Kwame> Good question. Well, sometimes it’s a lot more expensive, and I don't think the outcome is always as believable. I think CGI has come a long way, but it's still quite tough to get to real world results - unless you've got multiple millions of dollars to spend on creating those assets. I don't know if it’s that much more sustainable, because all the effort you're going to put into doing something digitally still requires server space and render farms, and all that infrastructure uses a lot of electricity. And so, it's hard to say that it is much better.
LBB> What solutions are there so far to help tackle sustainability?
Kwame> I think there are a few things popping up. One that jumps to mind for me is an incredible organisation called Green The Bid, which helps raise awareness. And I guarantee 90% of agencies or people that invest in production haven't given a thought to this over the last few years. But finally someone's elevating the right topic. The second thing is, from a quantifying perspective, power in numbers, and power in data, and this entity is helping to bring visibility to that. Thirdly, it actually starts to get at real changes, providing a perspective on how things might be different, allowing people to understand what they could be doing to mitigate some of these impacts. What are the strategies? What are resources they can tap into to help them rethink how they're deploying their capital, their spend? It's key to get past the awareness point quickly and get to the actual real change that you're hoping to create.
LBB> Do you still think that there’s a lack of awareness and education across the board, or maybe a slight carelessness?
Kwame> I'm a very optimistic person, so I'm going to go with a lack of awareness versus carelessness. I really think that if people knew more, they would do more. We have to be hopeful, right? If we’re not, then I guess we’re all doomed. I also think it’s about knowing the incremental steps to take. It's really hard to boil the ocean, but you can take out a glass at a time and boil that. There are ways that we can make this easier for ourselves by giving those little bits of knowledge, those daily actions that we hope people can take, that will add up to quite a large impact, because everyone's doing them.
LBB> How is technology shaping and making the industry greener and more sustainable?
Kwame> So, to my point earlier, it's a bit of a double edged sword, but overall I think it's a net positive. I think it is making the world greener. When I think about this past year and how little I've travelled, for example, that’s a huge leap forward in terms of sustainability. I still remember years ago, when I worked on a Korean electronics company, I would literally fly over to Korea for two hour meetings. I'd be on the plane longer than I was on the ground, and it felt so essential to do that back then because of how much progress we'd unlock being on the ground.
But I think that post-Covid it will never be the case again. We're in a totally different world now - a much better world - because we are being more thoughtful and considerate about how we deploy our time and our resources, against some of the ambitions that we have. So to answer your question, I really feel like a lot will shift and has shifted relative to this conversation about sustainability.
LBB> It seems that in pre-production there are far fewer in-person meetings and a lot less travel, but it's production itself and on-location work that's more difficult to shift. Would you agree with that?
Kwame> I totally agree with that. I think a big part of that is the collaboration that's needed real-time to make things happen. A Zoom shoot pales in comparison to being there. There’s nothing fun about watching eight hours of a monitor, with no craft services. But in all seriousness, I really do think there's an essential, important part of what we all do, which is to make creativity and make it real and tangible. To be unable to do that in-person together can be a step back. So whilst I agree that overall, things need to feel a lot more efficient and we need to be more thoughtful about how we deploy ourselves and our resources, I do think there's an element of being in-person and together that will be positive for creativity, which we can't lose.
LBB> Do you feel that people in the industry are in a rush to ‘get back to normal’ after everything that’s happened in the last two years?
Kwame> I do, but I think it's a bit misplaced. We're in the new abnormal, and I don't know if we're ever going back to how things were. We're experiencing something that's new, and you can fight it but that's not going to bring back what used to be the case.
LBB> Is there a misconception that collaborating remotely is stifling?
Kwame> It's very personal. I was recently at a conference upstate and I met a bunch of really incredible creative people. One woman was a user experience researcher for Apple, and during the pandemic she’d moved to a really small cabin in upstate New York, basically living solo for seven months - and she was living her best life. She just loved it! For her, and for the work that she did, that situation was a bit of a dream. I know other people who would hear that story and feel like they're on the set of a horror movie. And like I said before, overall, just being in the business of creativity, I feel people are probably more on the end of being collaborative and being together than not. But yeah, I think it's a personal choice.
LBB> And what about for you, personally, is that set-up a horror film or paradise?
Kwame> I wouldn't say it's a horror film, but it definitely wouldn't be my preference. I'm more of a people person and I really enjoy being able to interact and communicate with lots of different people. I grew up in a very dynamic way: I was born in New York, but I grew up mostly in Africa - Egypt and Ghana - as well as South Africa and the UK. So we bounced around a lot, and it gave me a real appreciation for different people and cultures. I think that's a benefit to the work I do.
LBB> Did you adopt any sustainable habits during the pandemic?
Kwame> Yes, definitely. Using a lot less plastic and disposable objects, eating at home more, eating less meat - that was a big one, because I grew up a massive carnivore. But it's been nice to make that pivot, you really don't miss it much if you eat the right stuff. I’ve also travelled less. I used to be on a plane three weeks out of the month. But it's been nice to take a break from that, and I don't anticipate going back to that frequency of travel.
LBB> What is Kin’s approach to sustainability? What initiatives or actions have you undertaken as a company in recent times?
Kwame> Kin is a creative company I co-founded two and a half years ago with my partner, Sophie, and our mission is focused on how we can use creativity, innovation, and purpose to do some good in the world. We've been really fortunate that we've been able to engage with some incredible brands, and really help them with their narrative around social impact, sustainability, and racism.
We also work quite a bit with the Nature Conservancy, and with Conservation International, so we're doing a lot of work when it comes to climate. Our approach is to really manifest it through the creative work that we do. It's partly about awareness, but it's also about how we build platforms for these brands and organisations that we’re lucky enough to work with.
We helped MailChimp develop its corporate citizenship strategy and point of view, and we launched it with an amazing campaign earlier this year, called ‘Big Change Starts Small’. That's still live, and it's still being activated. We're actually in the process of developing a follow-up, which will hopefully inspire more people to adopt MailChimp’s mindset. It's work like that which gets us really excited, and allows us to have an impact from a sustainability standpoint.
LBB> Do you look for projects that have this angle?
Kwame> 100%. When we started the company, we made a pact with ourselves that we wouldn't work on anything that didn't help advance our perspective on how the world needs to change or needs to improve, and so far, so good. We've been very, very lucky, and we've built an amazing client list that includes the companies I mentioned earlier, but also Netflix, REI, and Uber.
LBB> What advice do you have for brands when it comes to creating briefs with sustainability in mind? Do you think that the brief is the right stage at which to think about sustainability?
Kwame> Well, ideally, you think about it before the brief - you think about it as part of your business, as the way that you operate. It's so important that businesses don't see sustainability and their contribution to the world as separate from the way that they make money. I think this idea of ‘conscious capitalism’ is very much back, and it's something that we want to make sure more companies get on board with.
LBB> Would you say that brands need to angle their whole business practice towards sustainability, not just look at it on a project-by-project basis?
Kwame> In my opinion, the way to do this work really well is to think about how we can be better creatives. Maybe what inspired a little bit of this thinking is my time at Chobani - Chobani’s point of view on the world, sustainability, and purpose very much what fuels the actual company. A big part of the company's ambition is to help refugees, and they do that not just through initiatives that they've created to help address some of the more complex issues on refugees, but through hiring refugees to work at the factory to make the actual products. So it's part and parcel of the business. To me, it’s about figuring out how your purpose and your values can manifest themselves in day-to-day business. Through that, you're able to create a long-term sustained impact, and it's not a CSR initiative that you're going to walk away from a few months from now, because it's very much how you run and build the company.
LBB> When it comes to tackling such a huge topic as sustainability, what advice do you have for the ad industry on where to start and how to keep up momentum?
Kwame> Progress is key. You can't make perfect the enemy of good. You just have to get on the road and start, and if you start from the perspective of fully understanding who you are, and what positive impact you want to create in the world, then it's very easy for you to design these practices or principles into your business model to act on them. And through that continued investment, you'll start to see the real shift in the issue that you've chosen to tackle.
A lot of brands and businesses are thinking about how to generate positive headlines and goodwill with consumers, and I think they'll be well-served if they focus on how to actually impact the issues and get some of that goodwill and consumer love as a result. In my opinion, if you flip that equation, it's just a recipe for disaster.
As we talk about sustainability it’s really important that we start to embrace “regeneration” as essential. It’s not just about doing no harm. It’s about actively doing good, making the choices to positively change ourselves and the world, to restore things and improve things through the incremental steps we take. This mindset is critical because conservation at this point is simply not enough and brands / industry have a big role to play.
LBB> So do you think there's some greenwashing going on in the industry?
Kwame> I'll tell you this, and it's just an example that I think is indicative of where we're all at: last year post-George Floyd, there were so many brands that came out and were so supportive of communities of colour and wanted to do all these amazing things that I think really could have changed the world.
A little more than a year later, and there are very few receipts. I think it's part of what happens, everyone is well-intentioned but it's easy to lose focus when the news cycle changes over. It's important to just do the small, incremental things. Do the hard work in the dark so that one day you can have your moment in the sun. It's easy to make proclamations; it's harder to just do the work and follow through.