Abraham Asefaw photographed by Lauren Maccabee for Intern ©
– 19th May 2021

Why I’m calling out Cannes Lions

When Abraham Asefaw was removed from his Deanship at Cannes Lions, the "most diverse" place at the festival yet again had an all-white leadership

Words by Abraham Asefaw

Photography by Lauren Maccabee

After three months of silence from Cannes Lions since my last, constructive effort to hold them accountable as an organisation seemingly committed to diversity, equality and inclusion I have now decided to share my experiences publicly. I do this because no one, and especially one of the leading platforms in the creative industry, should be able to profile themselves championing diversity and then not honour that commitment in their actions. I hope that my community and the industry as a whole will come together to demand that Cannes Lions immediately — and moving forward — act in line with their long-standing promises rather than simply being performative.

In 2019 Cannes Media Lions launched what they called their ‘Most Ambitious Diversity and Inclusion Program to Date’ as a response to the stunning fact that ‘less than 2% of attendees are people of colour or from underrepresented communities. There was a massive media push and POC speakers, including myself, became poster children of this ‘change’.

As co-Dean of the Roger Hatchuel Academy (RHA) at Cannes, I had spent years prior to this big, public realisation, doing the groundwork in creating at least one space within the organization where representation mattered. Through my network, I brought in POC industry leaders from all over the world to teach and inspire the 40 students in this classroom. Those efforts were noted and Cannes Lions saw, in connection to their 2019 diversity push an opportunity to market the RHA as “the most diverse place at Cannes Lions.

I have now been removed as a Dean at the Cannes Lions School. Making the list of Deans all white. Yes, even the Roger Hatchuel Academy, the most diverse place at Cannes Lions.

“He must have done something” you must be thinking. I did.

My former co-Dean and I had ended our partnership and I informed the management team at Cannes and suggested they choose just one Dean for the programme, instead of having two, and for that person to be a POC. I volunteered a shortlist in the event it wouldn’t be me. It was communicated that they’d consider their options and like any other professional, I awaited their next steps. Eight months passed before I received the news that I am no longer a Dean.

Here’s Cannes reply to my outrage that they removed the only POC Dean the organisation has ever had without a proper hiring process nor the willingness to even consider a POC as his replacement:

“With regards to RHA, my decision was selfish and not thought through and for that I apologise. I was presented with a quick fix solution during a stressful time but in hindsight I would handle this differently.”

Steve Latham – Head of Talent & Training at Cannes Lions

I can handle not continuing as Dean regardless of my decade long commitment to the organisation and being their ‘go-to’ during any type of diversity initiative they’ve explored. But what I cannot handle, is that a decision that contributes to the next generation of creatives lacking true representation at one of the creative industry’s biggest platforms and events being passed off and justified as a quick fix.

You can add all the POC leaders and celebs to your roster of speakers that you want, but if you are not committed at the core, you are not helping.

We are tired of getting apologies, of being promised new opportunities for POC in the future, of our frustrations being brushed off. Be committed to the cause you that you are so at ease with using as a PR move.

It appears that public pressure is the only actual tool POC have to create (read: force) change. I wish it was different, but as I am reminded over and over and over again, it is not. Here’s what I have asked of Cannes Lions in my response to the ‘quick fix’ email. Let me be clear, this is the minimum I expect from an industry leader with the power, reach and responsibility to educate and uplift the creatives of tomorrow:

  • Change the hiring process by providing transparency now and in the future, which is the very minimum to allow fairness and more opportunities for POC’s.
  • Rethink your conclusion for this year by aligning your hire for this role with your messaging around diversity for the programme overall. This means the final selection must allow for fair and open competition, considering all candidates and their experiences whilst ensuring it fits with the purpose of the programme.

The email has gone unanswered for three months now. I ask that you help me to hold Cannes Lions responsible for creating change not only in their content but deep within the organisation.

If you want to support Abraham in putting pressure on Cannes Lions then you can like, share and comment on his thread on Twitter, his post on Instagram and his post on LinkedIn. Diversity isn’t just a buzzword that you can include in some promotional copy, it’s a vital sea change that industry leaders have to take responsibility on. Throughout the creative industries, smaller organisations and companies are making change, but their efforts are quickly undermined by these kinds of performative, out of touch actions from those who have the privilege of power and influence. We stand unequivocally with Abraham on this matter having worked with him as part of his role at the RHA. In the interest of full transparency, he has also been an irreplaceable mentor to us over the past six years. Our support for him on this issue is unwavering and is centred on the issue itself, which we’ve been discussing for a number of weeks prior to the release of these statements.

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