Next Creative Leaders 2021:
Tahirah Edwards Byfield
By Laurel Stark on Nov 02, 2021
She / Her / Hers
Hometown and country:
Peckham, London, UK
Current employer, city and role:
72andSunny, Los Angeles, CA, Creative Director
How did your upbringing, family or hometown shape you as a creative?
I was a precocious child, and I referred to myself as a writer from when I was about 4 years old. I was sure I was going to grow up to be a novelist. My family nurtured my creativity; my dad’s family are all different kinds of artists (when I was growing up, my dad even ran an independent reggae label), and my mum was an avid reader who encouraged me to pursue my love of literature.
Just as formative as my family was my neighborhood. Growing up in working class, inner-city South London, there’s an ingrained hustle and ingenuity that moves through much of the community. Innovation is the default in people who find abundance despite being systemically disenfranchized. Some of the most creative people I’ve known come from neighborhoods like the one I grew up in.
What’s your “breaking into advertising” story?
I didn’t know advertising was even a viable industry, let alone consider a career path in it.
I was a broke grad who was a freelance music journalist, radio producer and lifestyle blogger. A close friend started at an agency as a junior strategist, and he put me forward for a job. He said, “they’re looking for a copywriter. I think you could do this.”
I had no idea what I was doing, but he told me what clients the agency worked on, so I researched their ads, made a powerpoint (with what I now know is spec work) mimicking the tone of their brands in lieu of having a portfolio, and sent that in along with some editorial writing samples from my published pieces.
When the ECD interviewed me, I told him I had no clue what advertising was, but I’d write my ass off until I figured it out. He took a chance, and the rest is history.
What’s the piece of NCL winning work you’re most proud of and why?
Adobe - When I See Black. We invited Black artists and creatives to explore identity in their own words and art. We didn’t stop with the artists we spotlighted in our tentpole :60 spot; the campaign extended to a print partnership with New York Times, a collaboration with Complex, placements on Adobe.com and elsewhere.
Through giving voice to over 20 artists around the world, and through our varied mediums and placements, we were able to anchor down in our position: Blackness is not a monolith, and Black creativity can’t be painted in a single stroke.
As a Black British woman, I was able to lead the work from a lens of lived experience. As a leader, leadership took on different forms — sometimes my role was that of translator; communicating creative themes and language to clients who were newly experiencing the Black diaspora through the lens of creativity. Other times I acted as a facilitator; ensuring my team brought diverse, representative and empathetic perspectives into the project. One of my most crucial roles was that of advocate — helping ensure our artists were in control of their narrative and their words were true to their personal relationship with their art and identity.
I’m also proud of the project’s legacy. It provided a blueprint for how to approach DEI briefs with empathy, insight and curiosity, while centering the voices of the communities being highlighted.
What’s the lesson another creative can take away from that successful creative experience?
At a time when diversity work is all the rage, find a way to take your storytelling deeper. There’s great responsibility when creating work that centers historically underrepresented communities or social groups.
It is incumbent on creatives to uncover interesting stories that add to the broadening of narrow, binary or stereotypical depictions of different communities. Dig deep, be okay with being challenged, and pass the mic to folk so your work is reflective of their authentic truth.
What does being named a Next Creative Leader mean to you?
I’m honored, and a little bashful! I feel quite humbled to be in the company of stunningly brilliant leaders who are all carving a leadership path that feels unique to them. This industry is going through a renaissance and my peers being recognized as Next Creative Leaders are amongst the folk who will make change a lasting one.
Who has most influenced you in your career so far?
I don’t have a singular influence, and find constant inspiration in disrupters and path-makers. It so happens that most of them are women; I have a revolving and ever-expanding list of professional muses at any given time.
What is your secret (or not-so-secret) creative superpower and how do you flex it?
I’m like a gardener, I’m good at taking the seedling of an idea of nurturing it until it grows; while being aware that I can only do what I can do, and that I’m not in control of all the elements. Nurturing often looks like empowering my creatives in whatever form that may take. Also, creatively I’m driven by my gut, and it’s yet to steer me wrong.
What do you feel is the biggest challenge facing the creative industry right now and how would you solve it?
There’s a clear dichotomy right now between those who want this industry to stay the same, and hold onto archaic relics of the past, Don Draper style—and those who want to make change.
If I had a magic wand, I’d burn it all down (proverbially) and have the new, equitable, dynamic and fluid version of the industry rise from the ashes, phoenix style. But I don’t, so instead I’ll do everything in my power to challenge systems that aren’t serving us, one at a time.
How has the pandemic changed your creative process or the way you work?
Being in forced stillness while everything around us is rapidly changing or uncertain led me to reimagine my creative process. Now I’m less frustrated when cracking a concept isn’t a linear process. I hold space for creative development to be more expansive. This time has reminded me that I’m not in control of everything; and I don’t need to be. I lay the foundations I can, then give space for creativity to happen.
Our jobs can be exhausting even in “precedented times.” How are you caring for yourself right now?
Boundaries are my primary form of self-care. I don’t schedule meetings after 5pm unless there’s something really, really urgent, I hit schedule-send on late-night emails, and am pretty strict about my team having a lunch hour break, and I don’t have our office’s group chat app on my cell phone so I’m not being blown up with pings when I’m away from the laptop.
I encourage my team to find their version of that too. Being remote makes it more challenging to fully gut check how people are balancing the blur between work and home, but I check in often and try to insist they take time for themselves.
I often tell my team, “the work will always be there tomorrow.” Not the most motivational thought, ha! But to me there’s no point in overworking, it’s almost impossible to get “ahead” of the to-do list by working late. As a Brit, I have a European sensibility around work and the American overwork culture will never quite sit right with me, so I’m always trying to challenge it.
It’s active practice though. As I type this amidst a month of very long days and routine disruption due to multiple productions, I can see burn out on the horizon if I don’t reassert my boundaries quickly.
How are you working to celebrate, support, or elevate other marginalized voices and experiences?
Equity is at the core of every single thing I do, even before I had language to understand that I was constantly in pursuit of it in my work.
In every brief I take on, I work with my team to find opportunities to tell a unique story that amplifies a less-told POV. Whether telling stories of bad-ass Paralympians without leaning into “inspiration tropes” for Team USA, honoring the diversity of the creative community with Adobe, or creating the most multicultural, multi-disciplined work Pinterest had done to date.
Beyond client work, I co-run an independent publication called Plantain Papers. It’s mission is to connect audiences to rich heritage-based stories, using plantains (a tropical fruit often cooked by descendants of Sub-Saharan Africa, Central & South America, the Caribbean and South/SE Asia) as a conduit for cultural storytelling and conversations around global communities of color. We say we’re about “people with a side of plantain.” Through Plantain Papers, we commission work from people who exist at the intersection of many identities beyond Blackness or non-whiteness — first-generation, queer, parents, children, artists, and many many more.
Creativity can save the world. What real-world problem would you want to tackle with creativity, if time, budget, and logistics were not an issue?
I’d create a campaign designed to usher in a consciousness shift around the narrative on unhoused people so societally we could all pivot to understanding homelessness as a systemic and governmental failure rather than a personal one.
Where do you turn when you need to spark your creativity?
I’m very tactile, so it includes getting offline, going to be around people who inspire me, going to art shows and galleries, or putting on a podcast and going on a long walk.
How are you leaving work, the workplace, or the world a better place than you found it?
Hopefully I’m doing that through having an empathetic and curious approach to the work, and by caring about people more than I care about work. Another way I’m attempting to make our workplaces better is by promoting more diversity at the top of the industry. That’s the focus of In For 13, an initiative I helped start where we’ve challenged the advertising industry to get to at least 13% Black leadership by 2023.
What is a story you feel uniquely set up to tell?
The one of the second generation Jamaican-British girl who now lives in LA, doing an amazing job she didn’t know existed a decade ago.
Who is inspiring you right now and why?
Per answer 9, I have a revolving long-list of women who are carving their own path, unapologetically, in the creative space. A just a few from my current long-list include Issa Rae, 72andSunny GCD Sherina Florence, R/GA’s global ECD and trailblazer Shannon Washington, my former creative partner and badass visual artist Claiborne Colombo, W+K ACD Jordan Dinwiddie, film critic Rosie Knight, and my cousin - filmmaker and social activist Kelly Fyffe-Marshall.
If you could go back in time, what pivotal advice would you give yourself before your first day as a professional creative?
“Get ready, you’re going to shake some tables.”
Be sure to check out all the winning work for the Next Creative Leaders of 2021!