The World As It Should Be…

Last weekend I went to a festival. An actual, proper festival, with camping and everything – which if you know me even slightly, is somewhat out of character, seeing as I am the fluffy towel, chocolate on the pillow kind of traveller. I should point out that I glamped – so got there to find the tent already set up, complete with bed, duvet, pillows etc, so it’s probably cheating if you’re a ‘real’ camper.

The reason I was prepared to camp/glamp (although there was the option to stay in a hotel nearby and take a minibus to and from the campsite) was the nature of the festival itself. Oh, didn’t I say? I went to the Primadonna Festival – the very first one, as it happens, created to celebrate brilliant writing, music and ideas. Catherine Mayer, one of the Primadonnas (a handful of fabulous women behind the Festival, including Sabeena Akhtar, Joanna Baker, Jane Dyball, Shona Abhyankar, Jude Kelly, Alexis Kirschbaum, Lisa Milton, Shola Mos-Shogbamimu, Sonia Purnell, Catherine Riley, Monisha Rajesh, Athena Stevens, Cathryn Summerhayes, Sandi Toksvig and Sioned Wiliam) described it as “the world as it should be for one weekend”, and it was the most extraordinarily warm, welcoming and inspiring experience.

The Primadonna Festival was designed to give ‘prominence to work by women’ and introduced ‘fresh voices alongside famous names in a fun and welcoming environment’. It totally lived up to and in many ways exceeded my expectations, for a number of reasons. Even from the beginning, it encouraged participants to be generous – at every stage there were opportunities to support others, whether it was the ability to donate a ticket for those who couldn’t stretch to it, donating fees for writers to enter the Primadonna Prize (so proud to be one of those longlisted), or donating against the cost of the minibus.

This generosity of spirit was embedded in everything about the Festival. Speakers were from varied backgrounds, opinions in discussion sessions were listened to, properly responded to whether agreed with or not, and everywhere, all the time, participants said hello to each other, made new friends and celebrated successes, large and small. I saw performance poets, met writers and agents, sang along with Ukelele karaoke, watched films by the campfire and laughed my socks off at Katy Brand, Sandi Toksvig and Ada Campe. But most of all, I came away feeling hopeful and energised for the first time in a long time, given what’s going on culturally and politically in the UK in recent years. It was the most fantastic example of female leadership in action – empowering, inspiring and engaging across the board. And what’s most interesting is that whether you attended or not, there’s been a ripple of extended engagement post the event on Twitter, so the spirit of Primadonna is being extended.

Fingers and toes crossed that this Festival runs again next year, because it’s an oasis of fabulousness in a world that feels increasingly claustrophobic.

Appearances matter

This time last week I was at the Creative Floor Awards, applauding outstanding creativity in the healthcare space. These particular awards are close to my heart, unique as they are in diverting a proportion of their profits – £65k and counting over the five years that the awards have been running – to charities focused on increasing diversity within the industry. Recipients of the Creative Floor Awards Talent Fund have included The School of Communication Arts 2.0, The Ideas Foundation, and the JOLT Academy.

Last year’s Talent Fund donations enabled The Ideas Foundation to help more than 370 kids from across the UK get exposure to the creative industries, including children from The Amos Bursary Trust which helps inspire and develop talented British students of African and Caribbean descent. It’s a rare example of a founder (Shaheed Peera) who has literally put his money where his mouth is, quite apart from the calibre of judges, which include Rankin, Trevor Beattie, Ben Kay from Apple and Tea Uglow from Google, as well as heavy-hitting creatives from healthcare specialist agencies.

Given all of that, the lack of diversity amongst those who took to the stage was striking. Bravo to Concentric Health for their fabulously female winners, and to agencies like McCann Health, Publicis Life Brands and Saatchi Wellness who appeared to take great care to share the limelight across mixed gender teams, but they were sadly few and far between. If you were a casual observer, or new to the industry, it would be easy to walk away thinking that opportunities for anyone other than educated white men are sadly lacking.

You may think that it doesn’t matter who goes up to collect an award, that they represent teams which are much more diverse than they appear, but it does, it really does. When you have a woman relegated to taking pictures from the sidelines for the company blog instead of up there on stage with the rest of the team, or the lone BAME team member sticks out like a sore thumb – I wish I’d been counting, it would have been a handful of times I saw a non-white face picking up an award (again bravo Concentric Health), you can’t help but go away with a view of the industry which is less than inclusive.

We have a responsibility as leaders to celebrate difference and to showcase diversity in all its forms. So when you’re thinking about who gets to collect the next award, or show up at an industry event, it’s worth bearing in mind that the best way to attract diverse talent is to demonstrate how open and inclusive your organisation already is or aspires to be. It’s not tokenism, it’s one of the ways you build the future.

The human face of innovation

I was at Wired Health this week, taking advantage of the opportunity to listen to experts talking about the impact of new technologies as they apply to modern medicine. As you might expect, it was informative and inspirational in equal measure, and I have come away equipped with a deeper understanding of correlative imaging and citizen science (check out @EtchACell), the real role that AI is already playing in helping patients understand what their symptoms might mean, and the disease-modifying potential of microbes in the human gut.

But as a communicator, what really struck me was the humanity of what was being presented, because underneath all the sexy science and cutting edge technology, lay very personal experiences which had been the catalyst for innovation.   Bruce Levine (@BLLPHD), who kicked off the event, proved to be a powerful communicator, explaining CAR-T therapy in the most compelling and clear way, using everyday language to bring extraordinary science to life. Not just that, but I loved the way he thanked the patients who had participated in clinical trials for their contributions and courage, telling us their stories alongside the story of the way in which this new cancer therapy was developed and approved.

The Hon. Dorcas Makgato, Minister of Health and Wellness, Government of Botswana (@DorcasMakgato) spoke without notes and held the room spellbound – not just by the content of her speech and the refreshing clarity of approach she’s taking, to drive change through investment that must deliver robust economic returns, but also by the force of her personality. She was utterly human and totally authentic.

One of the projects her department has invested in is the work being done by Peek Vision (@PeekTeam).  Founder Andrew Bastawrous told us how the experience of being labelled lazy at school when in fact all he needed was a pair of spectacles had inspired him first, to qualify as an eye surgeon and second, to go out and deliver eye-care in sub-saharan Africa. A few statistics that really caught me – did you know that worldwide, 1 in 3 people can’t see just because they can’t get spectacles? And, one of the key factors that led to his developing a low-cost smartphone ophthalmic tool that’s revolutionised the diagnosis of reversible blindness in remote, hard to reach rural areas, was the realisation that 80% of people in sub-Saharan Africa have access to a mobile phone, where only 50% have access to clean running water.

And Tania Boler (@taniabeeb) of Elvie (@helloelvie) spoke eloquently about now being a special moment in the evolution of the femtech industry when three factors are coming together to drive change: first, the growing empowerment and activation of women through the #metoo and #timesup movements – we’re no longer content with the status quo and are prepared to fight for what we deserve; second, the revolution in technology itself; and third, the paradigm shift currently taking place whereby individuals are now taking much more responsibility for their own health. And that’s quite apart from the incredible success she’s having using biofeedback technology to help women support their pelvic floor.

I can’t do justice to what was a very full day at Wired Health, and there are plenty of people who’ve blogged in greater detail about the content, but for me the unifying thread was not the technology, but the personal stories behind every breakthrough. Every single one of those entrepreneurs and pioneers had a story to tell about their own experience, or the experiences of someone they loved, and that’s what drove them. It’s easy to get lost in all the whizz-bang of AI, VR, spatial genomics (have a look at humancellatlas.org) and forget the humanity behind extraordinary innovation, but this year Wired Health and its speakers did a really good job of reminding us. Can’t wait for next year.

Three things…

How’s it going with all those resolutions you made? You know, the ones where you were going to get to the gym four times a week, eat seven portions of fruit or vegetables a day, give up alcohol and sugar, and be nice to everyone you meet? Those ones. Chances are that whilst you’re probably still doing okay(ish) now, barely a week into January, by the end of the month most people are falling by the wayside, and by the time you’re halfway through February those promises will feel like distant memories.

The thing about New Year’s resolutions is that they’re often about deprivation, and there are usually far too many of them for any normal human being to stick to. Making new habits is hard, no matter which self-help books you’ve read that promise to make it easy to keep going with radical changes, so maybe there’s another way to look at it.

After years of well-intentioned but ultimately pointless resolution-making, this year I’m taking a different approach, streamlining the whole process into three key commitments – and guess what, they’re not all about me and the changes I want to make, they’re about promises I’m making to myself, to the teams I work with and the companies I engage with.

Let’s take them in turn. My personal promise is to be kinder to myself. In practice that’s going to mean making sure I’ve got a good balance between commitments to work, writing my novel (draft 3, since you ask) and juggling family demands, along with remembering to relax and have a bit of fun. Could be any of us, right?

For the people I work with, as individuals and teams, whether it’s as a consultant, a mentor or a leader, I’m going to ask them to be brave. 2018 is the year to step out of your comfort zone and do something different, maybe it’s something that scares you or means learning a new skill, or perhaps it’s about asking yourself the ‘so what’ questions. It might even be about being brave enough to say  ‘this isn’t for me’.

Being brave is just as important for companies and organisations as it is for individuals, but it seems to me that sometimes what companies need more than courage is someone to challenge their thinking in a constructive way, so that’s my company promise this year. It’s going to be about broadening business horizons, thinking about what the future holds and how organisations might need to adapt to best exploit what opportunities lie ahead.

I’m going to come back to these themes of kindness, bravery and constructive challenge throughout the year, and I’d love to know what your three words would be, if you could sum up what you want to happen in 2018 for you, the people you work with and the company that you’re part of.

Photo by Steve Harvey on Unsplash

 

Workplace Wellbeing

It’s unlikely that you’ll have missed it, but just in case, today is World Mental Health Day and the theme this year is all about wellbeing in the workplace. To their credit, numerous high profile individuals, including Lloyds Bank chief executive Antonio Horta-Osorio and Geoff McDonald from Minds at Work (and former Global VP of Human Resources at Unilever) have been open about the difficulties they’ve encountered, largely driven by stress in the workplace.

Many big companies and professional organisations have called for a greater focus on mental wellbeing, but the stigma associated with asking for help is enormous. According to the PRCA, 59% of PR and communications practitioners say they’ve experienced mental illness, yet only 37% would approach their managers to talk about the challenges they’re facing.

As leaders, we have a responsibility to create the right environment for people to flourish and that means cultures which enable individuals to openly seek help when they need it, hopefully before they reach a crisis point.  It’s not rocket science – to be compassionate, to look out for people’s welfare and to identify those who need support – but it’s also not something that’s focused on in management skills training. There’s always an element on how to manage performance (usually how to give constructive feedback, swiftly followed by how to manage underperformers out of the business), but not on how to help people who really need it.

And, because once the subject of mental ill-health comes up in businesses, HR departments get anxious about legal liabilities and confidentiality in a way that physical illness doesn’t seem to provoke, it’s all conducted behind closed doors. People ‘disappear’ from work, returning a few weeks later surrounded by rumours, unless they decide to be open themselves about what’s happened to them, all of which adds to the stigma.

Let’s train our young managers and leaders on how to spot people who’re burning out, but more than that, we need to keep talking and sharing our experiences. Presenteeism continues to be a curse in our industry, particularly for the ambitious, so highlighting the successes of flexible working and insisting that people balance their lives is an important leadership task. Yes, we can lead by example, but we also need to take action so that at all levels, our teams are able to manage their working pattern and preserve their physical and mental health as they build their careers.

Want to take that first step? Having been fortunate enough to hear Geoff McDonald speak very eloquently about how to create “mentally and emotionally healthy and human workplaces where individuals can flourish and organisations prosper” I can thoroughly recommend Minds at Work as a good place to start: www.mindsatworkmovement.com

Let me know how you get on.

 

Marcel and AI – the future of agencies?

First up, a couple of disclaimers. I used to work at Publicis some years ago, and still have some extremely fond memories of the place and the people. And secondly, what I know about Marcel so far, the AI system Publicis has just announced it’ll be spending all its award entry and sponsorship money on for the next year, is what’s publicly available.

Still, from what I can see, the majority of the reaction to Marcel has centred on the likely impact that missing out on awards might have on the motivation of creatives across the business. If they aren’t going to be recognised by winning awards, how can they judge their success, so the argument goes. Marcel is described by Publicis as a ‘professional assistant system’, which will incorporate detailed profiles of every member of staff in order to pull together teams to address specific client needs, the idea being that staff can ‘bid’ to be involved in client briefs.

Hmm. Let’s just take another look at that, shall we? Whilst it’s heralded as a natural next step in delivering the “Power Of One” approach that has supposedly done away with individual P&Ls to facilitate cross-company working (tell that to the poor souls presenting quarterly numbers for which they are being held accountable by the way), in my opinion the real promise that Marcel makes is to remove the need for managing directors and business unit leaders altogether. Well, if you have the technology to match people to opportunities across geographies, time zones and markets, what’s the point of having managing directors to manage those people? If the promise of the work itself is strong enough, one presumes, there will be no need for traditional leadership of any kind.

It kind of fits, though, with what’s happening across the communications business as a whole. The exodus of mid-level and more experienced account handlers from the PR and medcomms business continues as people walk away from the always-on demands of agency roles to freelance. They don’t seem too bothered about any lack of personal development or growth opportunities, in fact some see not having to participate in company-led initiatives as an advantage. Loose collectives or groupings of freelancers happy to work together on projects directly with clients are springing up all over the place, as our work becomes increasingly commoditised.  It becomes about the ‘stuff’ we deliver rather than the value of the thought behind it.  To be fair though, talented creatives and planners have long been able to name their price in the freelance market, picking and choosing the work they want to do and the hours they want to work.

The days when clients relied on agencies as their institutional memories are rapidly disappearing, as the value of long-term relationships is continually degraded. In the race to cut costs, most agencies now have to repitch regularly even when the client is happy, because that’s what procurement requires. The influence of procurement on agency selection increasingly forces marketers to view all creative agencies as much the same, and the only way to differentiate between services becomes about chemistry and teams rather than the ability to do the work to a higher standard or think differently.

What Marcel offers, in my view, is the opportunity to remove even that differentiation. It promises to use predictive technology to match talent with client briefs, wherever it’s located. The problem for me is about seeing ‘talent’ (or as I like to call them, people) simply as a series of building blocks, albeit with varying characteristics, rather than in all their rich diversity. Amongst other things, this limited view provides procurement with the opportunity to more clearly specify which blocks it wants to buy, at what price. So, I foresee a future where procurement will specify the use of x hours of y shaped talent at z price (not that different from what happens now), and the beauty of individual creativity will be lost in translation. If you’re a freelancer, you’ll be forced to fit into that mould too, whether you’re under the radar or not.

And if you don’t fit those specifications, if your creativity isn’t quite the right ‘shape’, or if you need a different kind of opportunity to grow your skillset, well that’s tough because there won’t be a manager or a leader in place who gets you and is willing to fight your corner.  In the race for flexibility, we are at grave risk of losing our individuality, the ability to engage with and support real creativity that’s different and chafes at being put in boxes.  Winning awards is often the result of creating environments that nurture difference, that encourage creativity and enable people to be themselves.  You can’t wish winning teams into existence just by picking people from all over the world and shoving them together to answer a brief, they need leadership and support, and technology alone won’t deliver that.

Maybe I’m wrong, hopefully I am, but my worry is that Marcel heralds a future where the importance of the individual contributor within agencies becomes meaningless, certainly from an account handling and management perspective. And once this AI system has got enough data on board about what makes a successful campaign, how long will the individual creative be safe? Whatever happens we can’t get this particular genie back in the bottle, because where Publicis leads, others will almost certainly follow.  In ten years time, perhaps the hottest shops on the block will be agencies that offer a return to ‘old school’ working, with teams all together in one place rather than scattered to the winds.   What do you think?

Nearly there…

After weeks of frantic election campaigning here in the UK we’re nearly there, and whatever your voting intentions tomorrow, you’ve got to admit that campaign managers from all sides have had their work cut out keeping their candidates on track, in control and on message.

Maybe it’s just me, but there have been times when I have yearned for candidates and party spokespeople to set aside their soundbites, stop using the techniques so painstakingly learned to avoid people’s questions, and instead speak to the electorate as human beings. Yes, it’s important to stay on message, but that doesn’t mean trotting out the same stock phrases out over and over and over again in response to numerous different questions. “Strong and stable” made sense the first time I heard it, but as time went on and every Conservative Party spokesperson hitting the airways used it, the phrase lost its meaning and became risible.

Don’t agree? Well, it certainly gave the opposition room to counter-attack with “weak and wobbly” every time manifesto promises were clarified and amended in response to public criticism. Oh, and by the way, do stop answering every question with “let me be clear”, it begs the question of why you weren’t clear in the first place. Why not drop the barricades a little and use your own natural speech patterns – unless of course you spend your time in the pub continually interrupting people and shouting “let me finish…” whilst completely ignoring the question you’ve been asked. No? Thought not.

Now, when I have gone into pitch for business, one of the key things we’ve done to prepare is to make sure we’ve got the facts at our fingertips. So, when going into a radio or TV interview to talk about say, the cost of policing, it’s a good idea to have written the numbers down in big letters where you can see them, so you don’t have to make up the answers on the fly (and get found out when you get it wrong – repeatedly). Also, on this same topic, maybe learn from your mistakes so that if you’re invited onto another programme to talk about perhaps local election results, you don’t make the same error all over again. In fact, if this is your candidate, I’d be taking them off the airways altogether  – oh…

In the communications world, there’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes on issues management – looking at where problems might lie for brands and businesses in order to defuse them before crises happen. So, if your own personal beliefs seem to be at odds with the mainstream, or even your own party’s policies, it’s worth taking time as a candidate to think through how you might respond to challenges about them. Just ignoring the issue simply makes it worse, and gives the appearance of not caring what people think about your views – as does a long period of silence followed by an unconvincing denial. We don’t all have to agree on everything, but pretending you do when you don’t can be fatally damaging to your reputation.

I worked with an HR manager years ago whose mantra was that you should take time to understand the intention behind people’s behaviours, because it was almost invariably good, even if the execution left a lot to be desired.  It was a good lesson, and worth applying in this instance, because I don’t believe any of the campaigners and their advisers went into politics with the intention of misleading or alienating the electorate. But I’d give anything to hear a politician today dropping the front, speaking like a human being, admitting when they’re wrong and talking about what really matters to them, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that.

So, some last minute advice to all the candidates today – lose the rhetoric, speak from the heart and remember what it is to be human. There’s an appetite for change, and those who can actively listen, engage openly and acknowledge other’s views in debate rather than simply blindly defend themselves are likely to make more headway in today’s environment.