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“We look at other youth brands – and then we innovate”
Liam Hackett, head of anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label and a Sussex alumnus, is receiving an honorary degree at this year’s Winter Graduation. JACQUI BEALING spent the day with him at his office in Brighton to see what goes on behind the scenes.
Today is an ‘office’ day, Liam Hackett informs me when I arrive at Ditch the Label, his anti-bullying charity HQ in Brighton.
He has a stream of internal meetings planned with his dedicated team on everything from devising their Instagram strategy, to writing funding applications.
But on other days he could be giving media interviews, meetings with funders and brand partners (such as EA Games or Lynx, the male grooming brand), presenting evidence in parliament or delivering inspirational talks. He has just returned from a month in the US, and is in the process of setting up a Los Angeles office.
“I’m very hands-on when I’m here,” he says. “I’m also helping out with the mentoring when I can. Kids contact us and they don’t know that sometimes it’s me they’re talking to. It’s important for me to stay connected with what we do.”
Ditch the Label (DTL), or ‘Ditch’ in the team’s shorthand, is housed in a bright, airy office close to the seafront. Leafy green plants sprout next to white desks, and there’s an abundance of bean bags, chalk boards, bottled water and healthy snacks. 26-year-old Liam confesses he is “always hungry”.
While Liam is the inspirational force, managing his daily diary is his deputy, Sue Jones, who also keeps an eye on his stress levels – and reduces his workload whenever he shows signs of exhaustion. This morning he is raring to go.
Liam began DTL as a blog on Myspace when he was 16 after being “brutally” bullied at school for attitudes towards him being gay. The charity had a global reach of 1.1 million in 2017 with over 60 million people viewing just one of their videos, including in North America, Mexico, Australia and the Philippines as well as the UK. Around 150,000 young people aged 12 to 25 regularly turn to their website for advice and support every month.
Their success, says the University of Sussex business and management studies graduate, is down to not looking like a charity.
“If kids are being bullied, they don’t want to go to a website with bullying in the title. That’s not what engages them. Our strength has always been that we look more like a fashion brand, or a youth brand, before a charity. So we look at what other youth brands are doing to engage – and then we innovate.”
One of the first meetings of the day is with his colleagues, Emma and Bex, to decide on the final cut of a new promo video for Facebook. It’s fast-paced, showing a diverse range of young people in various activities – wheelchairing at a skate park, lifting weights. There’s no mention of the word bullying, just the pulsing beat and life-affirming messages about acceptance and equality on the screen and in the voiceover.
This video has been made in partnership with Lynx. Liam says that their biggest source of revenue is currently from their brand partnerships, but the agreements are always based more on ethics than money.
“We get approached by brands all the time, and we have turned down those that aren’t the right fit.
Another major part of DTL’s work is commissioning research on issues that may affect bullying behaviours. For a recent survey they turned to big data to review 25 million online conversations around masculinity.
“Toxic masculinity causes a lot of issues – mental health, suicide, crime, homelessness,” points out Liam. “We also know that young guys are less able to talk about issues and are more likely to perpetrate aggressive behaviours. We wanted to know where the land lies in terms of what it is to ‘be a man’.”
Supporting those who are prone to bullying behaviour ̶ finding out what’s behind their actions ̶ is one of the more innovative aspects of DTL. For Liam, it’s an aspect that has been important in overcoming his own experiences.
At 15 he was physically attacked by another teenager who had regularly taunted him. He was held down by two others while the main attacker repeatedly hit Liam’s head against a car bonnet. Liam was hospitalised, needing treatment to a gash over his eye. After that, the bullying became worse. “Everyone was bullying me because I had been bullied by this guy.”
Everything happens for a reason, he believes. “I don’t regret it, because Ditch came out of it. The fact that I went through that period of time means that I really relate to people who experience things like that. I know that some people have it far worse.
“We did some research and found that those who perpetrated bullying behaviours are far more likely to have experienced stressful or traumatic situations. There could be abuse at home, bereavement, divorce … you just don’t know.”
So the key message of the charity is to ditch the labels for both sides, he says. “We need to stop calling people bullies or victims because it’s not who people are. It’s behaviour that can change.”
Entrepreneurial by nature, Liam took business studies for GCSE and A Level before embracing it wholeheartedly for his degree at Sussex. On graduating, while DTL was still in the background (“I didn’t know what it was then”) he set up a digital marketing agency. He also worked in a clothes shop and sold clothes on eBay “to pay the rent”.
For the first three years of DTL, he didn’t draw a salary. But now the charity is growing rapidly – his ambition is to offer 24-hour support and to explore new territories – he talks about “scaling up”, while still retaining their core ethos.
Later in the day the team are called in to come up with a name for their new metal charity bracelets. 'Love rings', 'strength bands', and 'cuffs' are some of the suggestions. Liam likes the word 'karma'. Would that work? A member of the team points out that 'karma' contains the word ‘arm’. It’s perfect. Karma Bands it is.
Liam doesn’t struggle to make decisions. “I can separate logic from emotion. I am very strategic.” But working up to 60 hours a week can still take its toll. “I allow myself to feel like a failure for a week or two every year,” he admits. “It’s really a positive process, because it keeps me grounded. I have learned a lot about my state of mind over the years and how to build resilience.”
After a day in the office, Liam generally goes to gym, then spends the evening with friends, often eating out. Bed is around midnight, followed by eight hours of sleep. And in the morning he is ready to get going all over again.