The rise and rise of te ao Māori

As the cultural landscape of Aotearoa evolves, and with more businesses embracing te ao Māori, we look at the challenges and opportunities adland has to prompt change on a societal level through its overall business operations, brands and marketing.

“There’s all this love and admiration for the culture and there’s so much support and energy around it, yet a lot of the work that’s being made has not been made by Māori. It’s for Māori but it’s not by Māori.”

This sentiment, expressed by John Marshall (Ngāti Maru, Ngāti Maniapoto) General Manager of Special, was echoed time and time again during interviews for this article.

Instead of simply focusing on how businesses can incorporate te ao Māori into their branding and marketing in a culturally appropriate manner, it quickly became clear that a deeper examination of the underrepresentation of Māori in this field altogether is needed first.

According to the Commercial Communications Council Diversity Research Report released in October 2021 there is much work to be done to increase the presence of under-represented groups within the communications industry.

Back then, only seven percent of respondents identified as Māori, and a mere three percent as Pacific Islanders, significantly below the census data figures of that time which were 16 percent and seven percent respectively. Numbers have grown slightly since then nationally with the current census figures putting Māori at 17.4 percent of the national population and Pasifika peoples at just over eight percent.

So how do we fix this?

To help make the pathway into the creative industry a little more accessible, Special Aotea, the Māori led, creative, strategic and business rōpū within Special launched a fully paid scholarship with AUT earlier this year, open for young Māori students.

“We believe we have a responsibility to provide more opportunities for our rangatahi into our industry. We do a lot around mentorships, paid internships, and our biggest one is the scholarship that we did this year with AUT,” John said when the announcement was made.

As an Aotearoa owned and founded organisation, John recognises that it is Special’s responsibility to live up to the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and provide more opportunities for young Māori to enter the industry, ensuring that a variety of voices and perspectives are embedded in the business world.

“I was lucky enough to be given an opportunity in the creative industry at a young age, but believe that there still remains a lack of awareness or pathways for our young people. It is our hope that with the Special Pathways Programme and the scholarship with AUT we can help the next generation of rangatahi discover the amazing opportunities the advertising and marketing industry has to offer.”

With a background in education, Pou Ahurea Māori/cultural director for Māori-owned, independent creative agency Run, Ariana Stone (Ngāti Kahungunu ki Te Wairoa) shares a similar view. Māori need to be embedded within the industry for there to be real meaning in any branding or marketing efforts. And this ultimately begins with getting more rangatahi into the industry.

As a former teacher, she looks at this topic through an education lens and says offering scholarships programmes or internships are an excellent way of creating a pathway for rangatahi into the industry which in turn ensures that te ao Māori is truly built into business brands and the industry. After all, “what’s good for Māori, is good for everybody,” she says.

In line with this idea, Previously Unavailable, a brand and venture studio, recently announced it would be teaming up with Special to offer a second scholarship, aiming to promote diversity and inclusion in the creative industry. This scholarship package supports Māori and Pacific students at Auckland University of Technology, fostering success in design, branding, innovation, and creativity.

Inspired by Special’s earlier initiative for Māori students, Previously Unavailable approached them to add another scholarship, and they encourage other agencies to join their mission for a more inclusive industry.

Creative Strategist at Previously Unavailable, Phoebe Smith, says there are many complex reasons why young Māori and Pasifika students might find it challenging to find a pathway into the industry.

Creative by Run for the Ministry of Health.

“A lot of it comes back to the way our education and work systems are set up. They don’t always value Māori or Pacific cultures, beliefs, values or ways of knowing, which can make it really hard to find a sense of belonging and acceptance in these spaces — to feel that your voice and creativity matters. There can also be the added pressure of juggling family, work or community commitments while trying to focus on succeeding in your studies, let alone your future career.”

She says scholarships that come from the industry specifically are acknowledging that diversity is welcomed and are recognition of the difficulties young Māori and Pacific people face.

“Scholarships are another small step in actively committing to help build more pathways for the next generation.”

Ultimately it comes back to the diversity of voice fostering creativity, and this creativity is directly connected to our experiences of the world she explains.

“Our industries play a key role in influencing culture and designing the future. That’s impossible to do well if the stories, ideas, businesses, innovation and creativity are all coming from one worldview. Making space for diversity in creativity will unlock a better version of our industries. It’s a need not a nice-to-have.”

Previously Unavailable Partner and Head of Design, Phoebe Devine (Te Whānau-ā-Apanui),

says one of the main challenges Māori and Pasifika young people face when entering the industry is simply not seeing themselves represented.

“Who do you look up to? What does a career look like? Who do I align my values with? I don’t want to underestimate how important this is for Māori and Pacific students. 

“Different perspectives in a room (literally a boardroom, studio space, classroom, auditorium) is crucial to creative and business success long term. The world is big and complex and its problems need multiple voices at the table to understand how we live, what we need and what’s at stake. It’s a no-brainer to me.

“My hope is that scholarships (like this, coming from industry) can excite and give licence to more Māori and Pacific students to pursue a career and practice doing the thing they love (and what they excel at). And longer term, my hope is that we have more Māori and Pacific creatives in leadership and prominent roles to add more perspective to our industry (and in turn, create a domino effect within schools and universities).”

While these changes to the industry will take time, businesses such as Run are on a mission to authentically bridge the gap between te ao Māori and the advertising and design world right now.

With a portfolio of work for clients ranging from Auckland Council, Tourism New Zealand, 2Degrees and many more, Run has been weaving indigenous voices through the advertising and design world since its inception.

Co-Founder Raymond Otene McKay (Ngaati Mahuta, Ngāti Rongomaiwahine, Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Pūkeko) says one of the major mistakes that businesses and brands can make when starting their journey towards incorporating te ao Māori is not understanding the processes that things need to go through and the time things take to talk to experts “to acknowledge the tikanga we have to work within”.

“Not everyone knows everything in te ao Māori. There’s this little bit of a myth that you go and get a consultant and the consultant will know everything just because they’re Māori. And that’s just completely untrue.

“It’s about giving people time and resources to make a call or have a hui with someone who may have that knowledge and then that knowledge filters way back through to the lead person in that project and that gets filtered back to the agency. So it does take a bit longer with the mahi we do. But that’s what it takes.”

Ultimately, by rushing the process and working to corporate deadlines, important consultation can get missed, resulting in half-hearted attempts at embracing the culture.

The question of why a business wants to incorporate te ao Māori into its brand and marketing is crucial. If the answer is because it will appeal to a progressive audience, resulting in profit, then a rethink may be necessary.

Arnya Karaitiana, (Rangitāne, Te Arawa) Creative Director and Cultural Lead of Special urges decision makers to ask themselves this question and answer it honestly as well as checking that they are operating in a way that aligns with Te Ao Māori values.

Creative by Mura for Te Matatini. Collaborators: Alex, Darryl, Ngā Tūmanako, Stanley St.

“It’s about tikanga – asking questions like ‘what’s your why?’ or ‘what’s the purpose? can help inform the ongoing process in a considered and respectful way,” Arnya says.

In a move to help provide clients with genuine and impactful Māori engagement strategies and effective actioning, One Plus One Communications, an independent consultancy, joined forces with Shayne Walker (Ngāti Kahungunu) of Māori Growth Partners, the former CEO of Ngāti Porou Holding Company.

Max Burt, General Manager at One Plus One, says ultimately the incorporation of te ao Māori is much more than a marketing or branding conversation and more of an engagement conversation.

“At the heart of any stakeholder engagement programme is how do you connect with somebody and understand them so that you can do something meaningful for them or have a meaningful conversation with them? That always happens before marketing. That’s the strategic piece of it, and it’s where you come in and you think about the right way to meaningfully engage with this audience.”

“The same principle applies to Māori engagement and in a country like ours it’s hugely important. It’s a positive reflection on where we are going as a country, that businesses and organisations are increasingly recognising the need to do this properly. That’s why we saw the need to be working with somebody awesome like Shayne, who could help us navigate that really well as a business.”

Shayne says one thing that’s essential from a Māori perspective is to understand who you are doing business with and to have that value alignment down from the start.

“We can’t do business with someone if we don’t know who they are, and what they value. It’s about value alignment. One Plus One do this really well. It’s about understanding each other, and I think that’s really important.”

Shayne also makes it clear to new clients they should not try to appear to be engaging and incorporating Māori culture if they are not actually putting this into practise.

As consultants Shayne says the One Plus One team are essentially taking clients on an education journey to discover how their businesses values align with te ao Māori, and sometimes what businesses discover is not what they originally had planned in terms of branding.

“What we’ve seen, through some of these conversations, is if you are authentic, then some things might have to happen a little bit differently to what you think, or what you thought they might need to be, in order to be authentic.”

Max stresses that the excitement in this work lies in moving beyond superficial messaging and guiding businesses towards future success. Connecting messages to tangible actions is essential, such as fostering Māori representation, providing employment opportunities, and delivering value to Māori communities through products and services.

He and Shayne urge businesses to go beyond advertising and PR campaigns, focusing on real-world actions that resonate with people.

“There is so much beyond how do we have a good advertising campaign, or a good PR campaign. What can we actually do on the ground, in the real world, that then actually turns into great campaign material. But it’s informed by something real that people can connect with.”

Co-Founder of Māori-owned creative agency Mura, Alex Hirini, says the biggest challenge the Aotearoa ad industry is facing regarding the integration and celebration of te ao Māori is talent.

“We need more Māori representation, but we also need people, Māori or otherwise, who have attained knowledge and experience in the realms of te ao Māori. Proficiency in te reo and its tikanga, but also areas like kapa haka or whakairo, etc.

“All these realms contain knowledge, inspiration, networks, solutions, and are their own sub-cultures. We also need spaces where Māori culture is the status quo, so that we can explore what it looks like to bring advertising practices into te ao Māori, rather than the other way around.

“It’s often said that te reo is the doorway to a Māori worldview. As we normalise te reo, we unlock exciting new ideas and creativity, as we’re seeing in the music and entertainment sectors.”

After all, as Alex points out, it wasn’t that long ago that Dame Naida Glavish’s “kia ora” phone greeting caused a national outcry.

Similarly, it was also only 36 years ago that the Māori Language Act was passed making te reo Māori an officially recognised language of Aotearoa.

“Today, we celebrate Matariki and join Ruby (Tui) in singing ‘Tutira Mai’. That change in society doesn’t just happen on its own; I believe the reo movement and the people within it have been central to that change.”

Alex believes “repayment” for this work, is to aim for bilingualism – something brands can play a big part in.

Mura Co-Founder Darryl Roycroft says the ad industry could also benefit from unpacking the idea of developing partnership models for Māori allowing genuine contributions to organisations and brands rather than just doing the governance components.

“Agencies need to be aware that Māori thinking is often more solutions and community based rather than campaign, executional or customer centric thinking and doing. My experience is that many clients want solutions to their problems as much as they want ads and they want to build communities as much as customer databases.”

Ultimately this would lead to a diversity of Māori storytelling and character representation in the ad industry and everywhere he says.

“As Māori it’s great our culture is reflected in ads but there seems to be a repeating genre and it pigeon holes who we are as a people and makes us look a little one dimensional.

“To celebrate Māori our industry needs to embed itself in our culture and really understand the many nuances. By default this should go a great deal towards normalisation of Māori culture and the many treasures that come with it.”

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About Bernadette Basagre

Bernadette is a content writer across SCG Business titles, The Register and Idealog. To get in touch with her, email [email protected].

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