My generation

I’ve worked in pharmaceutical and healthcare advertising for 20 years this year. It’s a funny niche of advertising that I sort of stumbled upon, and ever since I did, I’ve been excited and engaged by the challenge of having to create impactful, surprising, charming and beautiful creative advertising and communication… AND do it whilst telling the truth. In a highly regulated market you can’t say you’re “The Real Thing” without proving it, and that intellectual rigour is something that has kept me interested all along the way. 

It’s also meant that over the years I’ve met some of the most fascinating people I could imagine – people who can balance deep understanding of science on one side of the brain and passionate creativity on the other. Working with people in whom the left brain and right brain work in harmony has been one of the great pleasures of my working life.

Twenty years is a long time, and yet it’s always surprising when I realise that somehow I’ve gone from being part of a new up-and-coming generation to being part of the establishment, to the point that now many of the leading agencies are led by my contemporaries and former colleagues. 

Just as you don’t notice your own ageing process until you look down at your hands and for a second you see your father’s hands [true story], the shifting of the work generations is imperceptible and gradual but inexorable nonetheless

My actual hand

[Wow that was an unnecessarily complicated sentence wasn’t it? I must squander less time perusing the thesaurus]

It occurs to me that the people I knew from ‘back then’ were people I spent many a long hour chatting with in local pubs putting the world to rights, saying how we’d do things differently when we were in charge.

And now we’re in charge. What are we going to do with that… well… power?

We call it seniority, or authority, or influence, but these are words we use because we shy away from the word… POWER.

We shy away because it’s a word which feels bigger and somehow darker than it should; that it’s more likely to be abused rather than be put to good use. That’s because we know that throughout history, as long as stories have been written, those in positions of power have been intoxicated by it, only thinking how they keep their power, increase it, use it for their own gain.

But you ask my young sons about great power, and they’ll tell you the truth:

Now the idea of “With great power comes great responsibility” probably didn’t start with Spider-Man (if you’re interested it likely dates back to decrees from the French National Convention in 1793) but it’s been repeated over the years by Presidents, Prime Ministers and more recently superheroes because there’s inherent truth in it.

Now I don’t have any superpowers [that I’m going to admit here, anyway] but I do feel the responsibility keenly.

I think we all do.

It’s something to be respected, and lived up to. Now we have that responsibility. There’s no excuse not to do the right thing if the right thing is there to be done. We said we’d do things differently if it were down to us, and now it is. Let’s make these places into the places we’ve always wanted to work, shall we?

I look at my contemporaries and see the leaders of our industry in the future. I see the people coming through and I know they see the value of an inclusive, caring, supportive environment where individuality is celebrated because that’s the stuff we all talked about back then.

And I don’t just mean the people I personally spent time in the pub with (although there are a fair few of those) but the people of my generation.

We are coming through and we are bringing with us new thinking and new ideas that are coming, slowly and surely, just as my hands turn into my father’s and his hands turn into his father’s [again, true story].

An idea whose time has come eh?

That’s quite some responsibility.

One I’d be happy to chat over any time.

The Four Conversations

And so it came pass that on Friday of last week I went to the PM [Pharmaceutical Marketing] Society Awards 2020 – the biggest annual awards show for my bit of the industry, where clients and agencies come together at a posh London hotel, dampen their Dry January, listen to the celeb compère and comedy turn who’ve been booked for the afternoon and then wander round catching up with former colleagues and co-workers. 

And the winner is…

This is an event I’ve been going to for twenty years [more on the seismic generational shift of that in a future blog!], but this is the first time when there’s been an explicit focus in my job, my title and my role, on inclusivity and diversity… and the first time since I’ve been writing this blog and sharing my thoughts out into the world. Perhaps unsurprising then, that all of this became the focus of so many conversations I had in the day.

What was surprising was the kind of conversations – or more accurately, the themes those conversations fell into. Four clear, distinct themes, with four distinct groups.

I’ll call them The Supporter, The Convert, The Cynic, and The Conspirator. Let me introduce you to them… and the four conversations that came with them…

The Supporter Conversation

This was heart-warming. A diverse mix of people – in age, race, background and gender – who were kind enough to tell me that they had seen what I’ve been doing and wanted to offer me their encouragement and support. Some I knew well, some less so. But all passionate and enthusiastic and earnest, and many saying that they had been reading some of this stuff over the last couple of months.

Every time I spoke to a Supporter I had a wide-ranging and thoughtful conversation full of determination about the future. Without fail, they made my day better.

The Convert Conversation

Not sure if the nomenclature is quite right, but The Convert is part of a group of people whom I’ve known for a while, since we were in less inclusive, less forward-thinking times and organisations. When we were led by the generation before us, some of whom held beliefs and exhibited behaviours then which would be totally unacceptable and inappropriate now.

The Convert Conversations were about what life used to be like. Men and women, we talked about our past lives with bewilderment really – the stuff we saw or heard but didn’t say anything. About how much we should judge our younger selves for not doing or saying more at the time. How we had grown and learnt and how we would do things now we had the opportunity.

Again, they were good conversations. Mutually supportive and full of care for each other. Full of optimism too about where we’ve come from and where we’re going.

The Cynic Conversation

This one I’ve come across before. Usually male (although in my experience not exclusively), and usually a little older (although again not exclusively), and usually someone I don’t really know that well. Or perhaps thinks they know me better than they actually do…

The Cynic Conversation usually starts with a “I’ve seen you doing all this diversity stuff…?” type of non-question, and from there it develops into them saying how inclusivity is a “very clever move”, or a “good thing to align yourself with”, or good for my “personal brand”. All with a nod and a wink, like getting into this was all part of a career master plan. Perhaps something I’m interested in, but more for self-serving reasons than anything else. Distrustful and disparaging.

This, I find, is the bloody difficult part of being an “ally” – particularly one who is the “Default Man” (from Grayson Perry’s book I mentioned in a previous blog). Usually it’s people who are from a minority group who are interested in minority groups, right? So there must be an angle I’m working… an ulterior motive. Right?

I know this is a conversation that’s going nowhere because it’s not for me to convert The Cynic. But it is an opportunity for me to reaffirm my beliefs. I know why I’m passionate about this – personally and for my agency – and inclusive, authentic and vulnerable leadership is where I’m going anyway.

The Co-Conspirator Conversation

The Conspirator (or to be precise, The Mistaken Would-Be Co-Conspirator) exclusively male, exclusively white, usually a little older (but not necessarily), usually someone I used to work with in some capacity and who (usually a few of drinks in, when the alcohol has thinned the blood just enough) feel they can put a sweaty arm round the neck, pull me in and say something like:

“What’s all this diversity crap about? What a load of old bollocks eh? I suppose we all have to do it now don’t we? But bloody hell, everyone’s a minority nowadays aren’t they – except us white middle-aged men?! Can’t say anything to anyone now with all this political correctness stuff – I guess you haven’t got a choice eh? But we know what’s really important, don’t we? Anyway see you later yeah?”

Like I’m going to agree. Agree that it’s all just a show. That I’m playing the game whilst thinking the opposite. I mean, who the hell would do that?

And even if they did, would they write a bloody blog about it every week to double down on the deception??

I never say anything in this one. I’m not there as part of a conversation, I’m there as a leaning post. I’m not sure anything I could say would make a blind bit of difference. Perhaps in time I’ll find the right words, but right now all I’ve got is “why don’t you just fuck off?” and I’m not sure that level of confrontation is a good look in front of the whole industry. So I just wait for the end, and let them barrel off somewhere else.

It’s a mixed bag, I think you’ll agree! 

From the life-affirming and motivating, the forward-looking and hopeful to the saddening and infuriating, the downright annoying and prickly. The whole spectrum of ideas in one afternoon, in a posh hotel somewhere in London.

But do you want to know the good part?

There were a hell of a lot more Supporters and Converts than anything else. Only a couple of Cynics, and about the same of Conspirator. Much more positive energy than anything else. And that wouldn’t have been the case even three years ago, let alone twenty.

Yes, we are moving forward. Yes there’s a long way to go on all this, and yes, sometimes it feels like things are moving glacially slowly. But we are moving forward.

Thanks for reading. Let’s crack on shall we?

The more you know…

Diversity. Inclusivity. Intersectionality. So much to get your head round (especially from the perspective of being The Man – see previous blog), and just when you think you’ve got your head round one bit you realise that while you were playing catch up everything wasn’t just standing still waiting for you and now the conversation has already moved on; the language is different.

Like walking up a mountain and thinking that at long last you’re reaching the summit only to see even higher hazy hilltops climbing into the clouds, there’s a distinct sense that the more you know, the more you realise how little you know.

Weirdly it can sometimes actually feel quite ex-clusive. Especially when you’re really trying to do and say the right thing: both because it’s important to say the right thing for all the good reasons and because you want to show you’re someone who knows what the right thing is to say.

And as I’ve got deeper and deeper into a world of inclusivity, I’ve found that there are things that only D&I ‘novices’ say, which the vanguard might even scoff at. You quite often hear something along the lines of “it’s not about concept X anymore, it’s all about concept Y” – and I’m pretty much always thinking “I’ve only just worked out what I think about concept X, and I’ve never even heard of concept Y”.

As an example, I always thought that getting people to understand their own biases seemed like a good thing, but increasingly I find myself in conversations where the ubiquitous “unconscious bias training” is derided for being “Diversity 101” – the thing that corporations do to say they’ve done something. Or in the (approximate!) words of Ruth Hunt, erstwhile CEO of Stonewall, it’s where people can realise they’re a little bit racist but it’s not their fault…

Not everyone would agree with that of course, but when you haven’t quite worked out what you think about it yet it’s easy to feel… well, uneasy. Like you should know what you think, about everything, even if it’s constantly metamorphosing into the next thing…

And of course the discourse around Diversity & Inclusion isn’t standing still either.

Diversity is the thing we all understand, but that’s just facts and numbers – how diverse an organisation is can be measured today. And when it’s Diversity 101, all too often it’s just visual. We’ve all seen diversity used tokenistically in corporate communications (if you didn’t last time, check out Diverse-ish – it really sums this up perfectly).

Inclusivity is more forward-looking: a mindset, a set of choices and decisions and associated actions and behaviours. Because of that increasingly you can start to see the initials D&I flip places to I&D, where a focus on building an inclusive culture comes first so that the diversity that it drives has a chance to thrive the right environment.

But even with the seismic shift from D&I to I&D (so innovative Phil, you must be very proud on how you picked up on that one) I’m still constantly feeling that I’m behind the curve. Or certainly a curve.

It’s not a comfortable feeling really. Perhaps if I were a different person it might be too uncomfortable – to constantly being shown my own ignorance; constantly learning more about how little I know. Constantly seeing another peak loom into view…

What I have learnt, is actually what keeps me climbing.

I’ve learnt that everyone is on their own journey or understanding. Some are a little further on, have read a little more or had to challenge their initial thinking a little more deeply, but nobody is at the summit, looking down.

From that point it becomes clear that it’s really about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Because knowledge is less important than inquisitiveness; pretending you’ve considered all the possible angles and thus have all the answers is less authentic than discussing your ignorance and asking all the searching questions.

And authenticity is everything.

Who am I to argue?

And so it turns out knowing nothing is the first step in any journey of discovery.

Who knew?

Longing for belonging

Culture is a funny thing to put so much time and energy into really, because really it’s totally intangible. Impossible to measure the return on the emotional and intellectual investment. The investment of time, and brain power. The books, the articles, the conversations. How are we really doing? And… whisper this quietly… what good is it really doing?

The dictionary definition of faith is:

…firm belief in something for which there is no proof.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Personally I’m not a religious person. I don’t have faith in that sense. Yet I do have incredible faith in the value of creating a really inclusive working environment.

How is that faith so strong, so unshakeable?

Well perhaps it’s because the end point is something we all recognise. Something we all know exists even if we could never touch it or see it or put a number against it on a spreadsheet.

We’re trying to get to a feeling. A feeling that can make us feel safe; that in its absence makes us feel exposed.

Think back to a time when you really didn’t feel you belonged. Maybe it was at school, or at a company where you felt you had to pretend to be someone you weren’t to fit in. Perhaps it’s when you find yourself in certain conversations, or in certain situations, or certain places.

It’s a bloody horrible feeling, isn’t it? Making you feel uncomfortable and uneasy and kind of small. And it stays with you.

So let’s leave that behind and go somewhere much nicer, shall we? Because the positive flipside is just as powerful as a connective tissue.

When was that time when you really did feel you belonged?

Perhaps it’s that time with that group of colleagues when it all just clicked. Perhaps it’s right in the middle of the dance floor, surrounded by strangers, when the beat’s just about to drop. Perhaps it’s just sitting with your closest friends, laughing in that weird way you laugh sometimes with the little piggy snort at the end (you know who you are).

Belonging means you feel safe. It means you can just be yourself, dancing like nobody’s watching… when everyone’s watching.

That’s something to aim for, right?

And that’s why I’m doing this work in inclusivity and diversity: so that people can feel like they belong. And when they belong they will feel free to be creative and innovative and unique and weird in all their weird and wonderful ways.

Because (and promise you won’t tell anyone this), I’m actually quite weird too, in my own way.  So are you. We all are. And we all need to belong, for reasons that are hundreds of thousands of years old.

Human beings are pack animals. Strategically shaved monkeys really. We have created a civilisation more complex and complicated and confusing than any in the history of our planet – way more complex than we are designed for, in evolutionary terms. Which is why we are conditioned to yearn for belonging – so we are part of the tribe – protected and safe. Close to the camp fire.

I don’t care that it’s not measurable to be honest – I’ve got evolutionary psychology on my side.

So yes, let’s aim for belonging, and let’s have faith in its value through culture, and values, and connection, and love, and all the other stuff you can’t put a number on.

Just because you can’t measure something doesn’t mean it’s not real.

Happy New Year brothers and sisters. Love and peace.

Hold the line – a message for the Inclusivity Warriors on their knees

There are people you meet by involving yourself in D&I whom you wouldn’t necessarily meet otherwise. Interesting people (almost without exception): passionate, thoughtful.  Often kind and generous with their input, advice and time. People who are determined and resourceful, strong and inspiring.

Most of them do it in their spare time. I say “spare”. They do it in their own time. On top of the day job.

But when I’ve spoken to some of those same people recently, I’ve noticed that there are other adjectives that I could use which I hadn’t seen before.

Dejected.

Disillusioned.

Exhausted.

“It feels like I’m getting nowhere”

“I’m just so tired of having the same conversation over and over”

“I can’t do this on my own”

“I’m not sure any of this is making any difference”

I know how they feel. Because I’ve felt the same recently as well. Too many to-do-lists where the urgent pushes the important to the bottom. Too many Too many conversations where people are agreeing because they feel they have to, not because they actually, truly believe what I’m saying. Too little actually changing.

In a twisted way I think it might have been easier before #MeToo, when lazy sexism (or any -ism you care to mention) just got blurted out by thoughtless idiots and was there, right in the open, to be challenged and argued. But only the most aggressive provocateur or mindless bigot (or arrogant, power-crazed sociopath like you-know-who) would blurt it out now. And as a life rule I try to make a point of avoiding people like that.

And now I’m constantly wondering if I’m having a conversation with someone who gets where I’m coming from, or someone who knows they have to pretend to.

There are tell-tale signs of course. Any mention that their organisation is fulfilling all legal requirements, or that they’re “looking into D&I really carefully”. Anyone who talks about the ‘unconscious bias training’ that everyone had to do… as though understanding bias actually changes anything…

If you haven’t seen the amazing “Diverseish” work done by some of my colleagues at AMVBBDO for #Valuable500 then check it out below – it’s a demonstration of the conversations across D&I that we’re having all the time…

And we’re all impatient. For others to see the world the way we see the world. When you have conviction in what you’re doing it’s incredibly difficult to see the other person’s world – it’s like having to explain to someone why you believe the grass is green or the sky is blue. You run out of words. Out of energy.

So what words do I have for those people who feel like they’re fighting a losing battle. Good people feeling isolated and small, confidence rocked, idealism shot to shit?

I say this…

Hold the line.

Hold the line and don’t take a single step back.  And know that I am here, alongside you. Arms locked, standing strong. We are all locked together, across geographies and oceans, and our strength comes from one another because in spirit we are as one.

Don’t doubt for a single second that you are making a difference, and even if you have to change the world one person at a time then every single second to that end will be a second well spent.

Listen, I know nothing will change overnight, but believe me, it’s changing. And we’re on the right side of that change, right now.

Why the hell do we need International Men’s Day??

Chances are you’ve probably heard of International Women’s Day. It lands on March 8th, and always has a celebratory feel – women celebrating other women, supporting each other and championing gender equality.  Big events, talks, commentary – all positive and future-focussed.

But also on International Women’s Day, there’s always an undercurrent from a certain type of man; a dismissive, faux-outrage “what a load of nonsense” response which is summed up by…

“Oh great, when is International Men’s Day??!!”

The comedian Richard Herring (https://twitter.com/Herring1967) actually dedicates his entire day on March 8th replying to all the men who tweet something like that and replying to them with “It’s on November 19th” or similar. Such a lovely, very British (read: passive aggressive!) retort, highlighting the lazy fatuousness of the question…

Just one of several hundred examples…

So to all those men, I say Happy International Men’s Day today. Hope you’re out celebrating and putting up bunting. But I’m guessing probably not. Probably something else to be outraged about today…

Whilst we’re on the subject of faux-outrage and backlash, there’s no better example than the reaction to at the beginning of this year we also had the Gillette ad which ran, trying to point out that traditional, old-school views of ‘masculinity’ don’t really fit with a modern world, and could end up being ‘toxic’.

This time the outrage came from all sides at the idea that Gillette dare suggest that masculinity is toxic.  Which of course wasn’t the point at all. But it did give people who like to be shocked and appalled by things like this something to be shocked and appalled about for a bit.

Someone being shocked and appalled whilst their co-worker pulls a face of incredulity.

That misunderstanding (deliberate or otherwise) did hurt Gillette – especially in the US where debate is increasingly divisive and “if you’re not with us you’re against us” indignation seems like a national pastime.

But whilst Gillette’s reasons were self-serving (their business model is under huge threat from online suppliers), the execution was underwhelming (the whole thing looked like the client had just gone for the first draft of the ‘manifesto film’) and the response to the inevitable backlash was disappointing (once sales dropped initially the whole idea was quickly dropped), there was an important inflection point in there too.

Because all the “traditional” ways that masculinity is meant to represent – that’s not me. It never has been (although, like most men, I’ve bluffed it so many times over the years).  It starts with the idea that boys don’t cry, and from that moment on we have the vulnerability drummed out of us to be replaced with stoicism.

To re-use some words from a talk I gave at the Omniwomen Summit on International Women’s Day last year:

Bravery is lauded. Confidence and strength still often defines social status. We’re not taught empathy we’re taught resilience.

That is why I think International Men’s Day is important.

Not to push men forward – God knows that happens pretty much every other day of the year anyway – but to have a space where forward-thinking men can set a vision of the future where men have the right to be all the things they want to be without judgement. To be free of the expectations of a society built around rules that none of us signed up for but all of us – men and women – are expected to play by.

Grayson Perry puts it best…

Men’s rights: The right to be vulnerable The right to be weak The right to be wrong The right to be intuitive The right not to know The right to be uncertain The right to be flexible The right not to be ashamed of any of these.

Grayson Perry – The Descent of Man

That’s real masculinity for me – nuanced and thoughtful. And strong with it. It takes a shitload more strength to admit that you’re weak sometimes than it does to pretend that you’re strong all the time.

And by doing that we create space for others.

Inclusivity starts when those in positions of power or influence have the self-assurance to take a step back, perhaps even admit some of their vulnerabilities. Without that there’s no air for inclusivity to breathe and thrive.

So a very happy International Men’s Day to all the men out there. Use it to be the best friend, colleague, brother, son, husband and dad you can be. On your terms, with honesty and truthfulness.

You owe it to yourself. In fact, perhaps you even owe it to your true self.

Solidarity brother!

Why this, why now?

I’ve always loved writing. When I was a kid, I read everything I could get my hands on, and then when I’d read everything I wrote stories and collected interesting quotations. When I was a teenager, I wrote poetry (of course). When I was in my twenties, I wrote a whole novel (which I only ever showed to one editor because they didn’t like it and I didn’t like them not liking it – not exactly JK Rowling levels of thick skin and determination).

And I’ve always been fascinated by the power of words. The power to move people, to support or cajole or challenge. To connect and to divide. To rise up or crush down.

Over the last few years, my own words are something that have started to bring more responsibility too. Whether that’s presenting to my clients about brand strategy or creative, talking to the agency about our values and vision, coaching or mentoring individuals to be their best, or (increasingly) talking to large groups of strangers about gender equality and building an inclusive workplace… my words have some of their own power of influence too.

Speaking at WACL Gather in May 2019 (picture ©BronacMcNeill)

It occurs to me that pretty much all of the people in the above groups kind of have to listen to me whether they want to or not – be that through politeness or payment. But you don’t have to read any of this, so if you’ve got this far I reckon you’re doing pretty well already.

Here I’m going to be using my words to try to make the world of work and life a better place. At heart I’m a dreamer and an optimist, and that has its strengths and weaknesses – all of which will be on these pages somewhere, asking questions and challenging on how we take things forward.

I’ll be blogging about things that make me want to speak up, but only things where I’ve got a perspective or something to add. None of us need more words about some certain subjects. I’m interested in asking questions and giving food for thought – how can we build truly inclusive working environments where people can be their best and do their best work? How can a shift towards modern masculinity improve the lives of both men and women? How do we turn the theory of all this into practicality?

Through doing this, I’d like to give people pause to think, and perhaps some positive ideas to take forward. If I can connect with some like-minded people then that would be great too.

Please note, there’s a decent chance I might swear a bit here and there, so if that’s not your cup of tea then I apologise in advance and suggest you quietly look away as I take the opportunity to shout #$@&%*! at the absolute top of my voice.

So without further ado, you’re reading, I’m writing… shall we?