Rahul Sachitanand
Aug 13, 2020

Men on black: ADNA's leadership picture ignites blacklash

Former BBH Chair Cindy Gallop has led the censure of the agency's imagery.

Men on black: ADNA's leadership picture ignites blacklash

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but in the case of quantative data agency ADNA, these words seem to have turned into razor-sharp barbs. While the agency does have a highly experienced top-rung (including former Ogilvy veteran David Mayo and Arcade co-founder Gary Tranter) along with a strong client list to boast of, it also has a handout image for the appointment Matt Cullen as the firm's CCO, of three male white leaders (with the fourth man in the picture being CEO Henry Gomez, who is Chinese, pictured smoking) that has earned the ire of social media users and our readers. 

Users on Twitter, led by Cindy Gallop, the outspoken ad industry veteran, former chair of BBH in the US and founder of digital ventures Makelovenotporn and Ifwerantheworld, has already teed off. In a series of Tweets overnight, Gallop criticised not only the lack of women in the photo, but also questioned its undertones that allow men to pose as heroes, while women rarely, if ever are pictured in these shots.

Asked about the denim-drenched imagery and the reaction it sparked, David Mayo, COO of ADNA, told Campaign Asia-Pacific, "We agree with all of this. Cindy makes good, valid points. We agree with every single one of them."

Despite his agreement, Mayo did not outline any plans or strategy yet for the agency to appear more balanced and equitable in its approach, starting with its agency leadership photo. "Like everyone, we are all working towards a common goal," he added. 

Several netizens also expressed shock and disappointment over the sight of Gomez smoking in the shot, with one sarcastically noting it was "a nice touch in 2020."

As Gallop pointed out on Twitter, ADNA is hardly the first agency—and is unlikely to be the last—to go to market with these seemingly cool visuals, only to be called out for their tone deafness. In 2015, she had called out the industry for not changing fast enough. "Because when you change the optics, you have to change the content," she asserted in this keynote, five years ago. 

Campaign Asia-Pacific has reached out to Gallop for further feedback. 


In a post on LinkedIn, Gary Tranter, chief creative officer at ADNA Global, has offered an explanation for the imagery.

"Naturally as an Art Director, one tries to create something people will like, so I’m very sorry to have offended some with my insensitivity. And in the spirit of atonement I offer this explanation as to how the image was conceived and brought to life," he noted in his post. "I initially presented a load of ideas to my very reluctant three partners. Thankfully in hindsight they were pretty much impossible to pull off because of the lock down / Circuit Breaker here in Singapore. (I shudder to think what the backlash might’ve been if they’d approved my original 'Ageing Superheroes' idea)."

With the pandemic shuttering studios and making elaborate shoots impossible, the four executives instead pivoted to shooting this picture in their office, with a black background. "I told em to grab any version of dark shirt they had on hand and their favourite pair of old jeans. We aren’t the suit & tie types and don’t believe in ‘environment-killing-fast-fashion’, so it was old clothes that were, as Lego Batman says, either black or very dark grey," Tranter added. 

Despite this set up, the CCO also argued that some of the ire against this image was misplaced. "As far as the many “four white guys” comments go, I can only hope we, as an industry, opt out of this culture of labelling, quick-to-judge, marginalising assumptions, in the future. Even the most cursory glance at the shot will reveal two white guys (in the traditional sense of the word) one Asian and one Eurasian, featured. The irony of course, is the acceptance of these generalisations actually advance that exact culture these same trolls are rallying against," his post read. 

The next task, according to him, was to get photo-shy CEO Henry Gomez photographed. His way of easing his nerves? An "anxiety-busting cigarette" that allowed a few pictures to be taken. "We are simply four guys trying to do something good in a very tough time," he contended. " We’ve all created businesses in the past that have promoted women within our industry, helped young graduates male and female alike, created a great number of jobs in beleaguered economies and launched many careers."

Tranter focused less on the hyper-masculinity in the image and instead focussed on how the foursome hoped to help an industry in distress. "Perhaps we should forgo the petty pot-shots and smug tweets in favour of support for each other during these difficult times. Perhaps we should come together as an industry and direct our energy to trying to help, rather than hurt each other."

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