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Mediablaze meets: Cordell Burke

Suzanne Scott
19th October 2020

In recognition of this year’s Black History Month we’re speaking to Cordell Burke, a seasoned creative director at Up There Everywhere, about his experiences as a person of colour and the steps we still need to take as an industry to ensure everyone is represented fairly.

“Respect comes when people of colour are represented at every level, from junior positions up to the board.”

Cordell Burke

“This is my fortieth year in the industry and there have been a lot of changes in that time. I was very fortunate with the start I got; I graduated from art college on the Friday and started my first job on the Monday. I know how rare that is and to this day I still can’t believe that happened. I worked as a designer for a couple of guys who set up their own consultancy and it really helped me learn the business from the ground up; I was drawing up layouts and running around picking up and dropping off artwork. I was so lucky during the early days of my career that I had some great mentors to guide me along my path. Don’t get me wrong, I made mistakes, some cringy ones, but I can honestly say that I learned from them.

“Over the years I held numerous roles and eventually became an Executive Creative Director and from there onwards, I was in the mentor position and now people come to me for advice and support. It’s humbling. But, it’s definitely not a one way thing. I get just as much out of those conversations as the person I’m helping. It gives me new ideas. I have a strong attachment to young talent and these are very trying times for young creatives starting out in their careers. Some talents, like illustrators and photographers, are already used to working on their own, but for everyone else, this new way of working remotely and online is new and quite challenging. If you’re a youngster just coming into the business, and you didn’t get a chance to work in an office with others, and just went straight into working on your own, without the interactions with colleagues, without people to ask questions, it can be hard to be creative.

“As a creative director I feel quite strongly that to have a successful team you need a really good combination of older and younger talent. Older talent knows how to get the job done, they bring stability and educate the younger lot, while the younger talent tend to do unpredictable things (that will hopefully pay off) and challenge and inspire the older lot. Clearly, we all have a lot to learn from one another.

“This year has been a mighty catalyst, so many little bonfires have been lit around the world and it’s having a bigger impact.”

Cordell Burke

“The same is true when it comes to diversity. By having a combination of people, with different backgrounds and experiences, you can create something that really speaks to the diverse society we live in. People are sometimes shocked when I tell them that throughout my career, in nearly every agency I have ever worked at, including where I am now, I am the only black person. But, there is a weird dynamic at play because even though I have mostly been the only black person, I have also been the one to hold a lot of power because my roles are senior.

“When it comes to diversity, I sometimes think of progress in terms of a 24-hour clock. We’re only at 1 o’clock, women are probably at 1.30. That means although there have been some changes for the better, there is still a long way to go. Black people tend to get lost in the midst of it all and, unfortunately, tend to be quite far down the food chain. In my own experience, I have always tried to win people over by working hard and, yes, in some instances I have worked really hard just to prove I’m as good as anyone else.

“Respect will come when people of colour are represented at every level, from junior positions up to the board. People need to see people of colour in those roles so they know they can get there too.

“This year has been a mighty catalyst and this Black History Month feels weightier, without a doubt. There is a broader awareness so it’s not just for the black community anymore. So many little bonfires have been lit around the world and now businesses and people of all colours are really taking notice. I hope this leads to better representation and respect for people of colour because that’s where everything starts. You want people to see people of colour in senior positions and know they have reached that level because they are bloody good, not because they meet some quota. I’m hopeful that because of everything that has happened this year, people will really continue to move forward with the changes they have put in place.

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Credit: Reuben Armstrong

I would hate for anyone to get to 2021 and think, ‘OK, let’s move on.’

We need to think about how we can build upon this.

After the talking, there must be action.”

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