It Takes A Broader Culture To Attract The Right Mix Of Talent

27/07/2017 13:43 BST | Updated 27/07/2017 13:43 BST

The advertising industry has spent the past three years tying itself in knots about diversity and equality. Yet figures suggest that this has been to little effect. Statistically, the percentage of BAME employees has actually fallen and stands well below the population as a whole. Culturally, it is something advertising still struggles with.

When I left my role as Chief Executive of McCann London, the second biggest ad agency in the UK, to lead and become partner of independent creative agency Above+Beyond, I had to think (and still do) long and hard about the culture I wanted to create. This was important as there is no blueprint for creativity, which can only come from the culture of the business. The best ideas have always come from the best teams, and the ability to deliver consistently good ideas comes from the companies with the best culture.

As one of the few people in advertising from a BAME background (I'm even more exclusive, still, as an Arab), I drew on my own experiences and considered how they would influence the company that I wanted to create. Some of the tales seem shocking, but in the context of an industry where the pushing of boundaries is encouraged, they are also complex.

I've always been able to play with the stereotypes around my own ethnicity.

My parents came over from Baghdad in 1970 to work as doctors within the NHS. They did everything in their power to make sure that I integrated fully into British society, with success. Perhaps my privileged public school and Cambridge education positioned me well. But it didn't stop me being called a 'coconut' at university by an angry British Asian because he didn't think I was 'a real Asian' on account of my ethnic looks and 'white' middle class upbringing.

If I'd been pure brown inside and out, would I have stood a chance? I'm not so sure. But now, looking back, it strikes me that being a 'coconut' seemed to mean that I was able (or expected) to absorb such so-called banter. So, on occasion, I've been happy to call myself a coconut because the joke is a useful way to assess people's PC levels and sense of humour.

However, sometimes banter goes too far.

Maybe that's why at one agency I was pressured into wearing a Guantanamo Bay-inspired orange boiler suit on my work stag do. While stag parties are known for being outrageous, the joke that 'all Arabs are terrorists' was hurtful and uncomfortable. It was bordering on abusive but bordering on funny, too. These were friends humiliating me by stereotyping me - a form of mockery that is a well-trodden path.


Being given a baby's high chair as a company leaving present with a brown baby doll in an orange boiler suit was really hurtful. In part, this was the company mocking me for being an over-zealous new parent - but the baby doll?! Would it have been too much to expect a gift commensurate with my contribution to the business? So I stomached it (again) in the spirit of jest in a culture that's all about pushing beyond natural boundaries in the restless pursuit of new creative answers to clients' business problems.

These were, after all, jokes delivered by good friends who were therefore by definition not racist. Or so I thought.

Insinuations elsewhere that as someone of Arab descent I was a 'gold lover' were less palatable. 'Are the alloys on my car plated in gold,' I was asked? Tiny insults like this were always done with a smile and a 'don't worry, you're alright mate' reassurance. And as I, too, hate those gold-plated alloys that Saudi princes used to sport on their impossibly-expensive Ferraris, I could share the joke ... at some level.

Yet now, as I build my own conditions for business success - namely, a culture of creativity - I face my own issues based on my own standards and range of acceptable behaviours and expectations.

In my experience, for example, my best relationships have been formed over 'play hard work hard' principles of long working hours and some serious drinking sessions in pubs. Because Northern Europeans, who make up the majority of the industry, need booze to open up, right? But this is not the currency for everyone.

What no-one in this industry can afford to forget is that the best creativity comes from the best mix of talent: the rational and the lunatic, the scientist and the artist, the thesp' and the prole, the university-educated and the self-schooled, the dyslexic and the spelling bee. But perfecting this mix and creating the conditions for its success requires a delicate balancing act.

It's important that our people feel comfortable but also have the ultimate permission to go anywhere with their mind and that they see the bravest of thoughts rewarded. As if not more important, however, is a broader culture that encourages people to both break rules and defy conventions without causing offence.