Here's the third of our 'Building Better Business' series of articles and interviews.
We're featuring brilliant business leaders and innovative thinkers who are focusing on building better businesses... and a better world!
Our first interview was with James Timpson OBE, the Chief Executive of Timpson, the successful British multinational retailer.
We then spoke to Sarah Brown, founder and CEO of Pai Skincare, a business that began in 2007 in a garage in West London that now exports to over 50 countries worldwide.
Next up is Ben Brooks-Dutton, Managing Partner at The Unmistakables - a diversity and inclusion specialist consultancy.
Ben joined The Unmistakables founder Asad Dhunna and team in November 2019. They help businesses build more inclusive internal cultures, and create environments for more inclusive planning with currently underrepresented communities, leading to products, marketing, communications and advertising campaigns that are more representative of society.
Ben and I used to be colleagues many years ago. We had a long and wide-ranging Zoom conversation against the backdrop of the death of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement.
We explored why he joined the agency, the current lack of diversity in marketing, advertising and communications, the role marketing, advertising and PR can play in both communicating and creating societal change and what the industry can and should do to speed up change.
Ben, both you and Asad worked in senior positions in PR agencies before starting The Unmistakables. Did the agencies teach you anything about the business you and Asad wanted to become?
"I was one of those unusual kids who knew what he wanted to do from the age of 15. I did a PR and Spanish degree and the most important part of that was getting as much work experience as possible from around 18.
I got brilliant work experience in-house for Iceland (British Supermarket Chain). We won loads of PR awards, including PR Week's In-house team award, because of work that they were doing then. They offered nationwide internet home delivery shopping first and took GM products out of their food.
That was a brilliant foundational experience. I also worked at a number of different PR agencies - where we met in fact! They taught me absolutely everything about businesses; running an SME, running an agency and I worked with some of the biggest businesses in the world.
Working closely with chief executives and boards gave me an insight into when you’re being too idealistic and creative in your strategy, and not taking into consideration all the elements that go into running a big business.
I learnt everything I know about business in those environments."
So, why did you move from one of the world's leading consumer PR agencies to The Unmistakables?
"The move to the 'world of diversity' was a very personal journey.
I took my son Jackson into the last PR agency office that I worked in. He looked around and said what a lot of adults were thinking “Where are all the Black people?”
That’s when I realised I needed to do something about that on a personal level. I didn’t want him walking into a professional environment when he was older and feeling like the only one in the room. So, I took a leap and decided to try and venture into a career of diversity and inclusion.
I met up with Asad Dhunna and when I told him what my ambitions were he said great come and join me because that’s the business I’m just about to start."
What does the ‘most diverse marketing and communications agency’ mean?
"We talk about being inclusive by design and that is the ideal position we hope to get The Unmistakables' clients to.
What we’ve seen in response to George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter movement is a lot of companies posting black squares on their social media accounts.
And there has been a kick back against some really big companies that usually get praised, because people have gone, "there’s no authenticity in this! How can you put this message out about Black people, yet we know they face this discrimination within your organisation or there’s no people of colour in senior positions!"
Our consultancy is inclusive by design because of the make up of the team. Everyone is from a different background."
What do you do for your clients?
"We can truly observe and consult on business strategies and campaigns from different cultural points of view.
If somebody asks us to review an inclusion policy or an advert, we’ll state we will do it, but we’re going to give if three or four different points of view. So, you might get the British South Asian point of view or the British West Indian point of view. It takes some of the bias away from just getting a monocultural, one-dimensional response.
We’re challenging ourselves all the time internally.
We give guidelines which instruct business language and behaviours required to be inclusive in the workplace. This helps clients navigate religion, ethnicity, gender and disability in the workplace."
What about the more creative consultancy you offer?
"If you look hard, you might have an agency that’s reflective of the ethnicity statistics in the UK, but it's still unusual to have a diverse creative or strategy team. The creative work that goes out isn’t necessarily diverse and risks stereotyping.
A trained eye to spot cultural mistakes can really see this. You see it a lot in TV ads - the individuals in the ad are not living the life they would necessarily live.
We were reviewing ads yesterday and we were saying "this isn’t this family’s house"; it had been set up through the white gaze. It was a white creative director and their ideal of what the world is that they live in.
It wasn't truly reflective of the people that the ad might be trying to reach or reflect.
That’s the danger. What happens when there are pockets of diversity within agencies there simply isn’t that diversity in insight and strategy. And you won’t really be inclusive in any of the campaigns you develop because you don’t necessarily know how to.
You don’t necessarily have to completely change your recruitment policy or suddenly find lots of people from different backgrounds but you certainly need to talk to them.
We do this for clients where we create workshops, we sometimes call them 'Wokeshops', and bring people from different backgrounds in to plan campaigns because we’re trying to reach them and how can we reach them if we don’t understand how to talk on their terms or prioritise messaging, or actually even know where they are.
It's important to realise that these things can often be fluid.
In some ways religion can be the easiest because religions are thousands of years old and much of the language and behaviours have been codified, but with ethnicity right now for example the language around it has become quite fluid and if you’re running a global organisation, it's quite different in different territories."
What do you mean by 'fluid' when it comes to diversity?
"For example, a lot of business have started to use the term BAME. Until a few months ago not many people knew what it meant. They found out for all the wrong reasons because of the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on BAME communities, so it hit the mainstream.
And then, in response to Black Lives Matter, what was becoming apparent was that businesses and particularly politicians, when asked questions about Black statistics within their organisation, would respond with BAME statistics.
It became apparent that this acronym was being used to cover up gaps.
If we take it out of the UK and to the States we’ve got People Of Colour and African American. Many people are afraid to say the word Black. We're helping organisations navigate this. What we’re finding is a lot of businesses are lost and desperate for help."
So, why haven't we made more progress?
"I think what’s happened is that diversity has sat in silos and pockets within businesses.
Lots of organisations have started networks to allow the LGBTQ+ community to come together and to allow people from different ethnic backgrounds to come together but they’re often conversations that don’t have any power or direct route to the board.
What we talk about is making diversity everyone’s business. Taking it out of the silos and making everyone a little bit responsible for diversity across the business and not in one bucket.
We’ve realised that our work doesn’t get very far if there isn’t senior buy-in right at the beginning. So, if we’re not having a conversation with a chief executive or a board member almost immediately it’s probably not going to work.
The commitment is not going to be there and the benefit of diversity and inclusion isn’t going to play out in as powerful way as it might or could if it was understood that it’s a commercial imperative and not just a nice to have."
Let's talk about 'commercial imperative'. I've heard you talk about the 'difference dividend' before. What does that mean?
"We talk about the 'difference dividend' and making the business case for diversity.
What we talk about with our clients is rather than this being a nice-to-have, because frankly if it was that we wouldn’t have a business, it’s what are the commercial, conversational and cultural opportunities that can be found in diversity.
It just makes sense if you are an FMCG brand for example, but you’re completely ignoring a massive Muslim market, then you’re not making as much money as you could do, you’re not stimulating as much conversation as you might and you’re excluding a huge market.
We’re fortunate enough to work with clients that are diverse enough to put content out there, or even develop products to suit a new audience and generate business growth.
What we’re finding at the moment is that a lot of businesses that we work with understand that they need to look at their own structure and adapt their business before they can develop products for a specific audience.
What are your observations about how businesses and business leaders are talking about diversity and addressing the issues?
"If we’re doing some sort of listening exercise, we often see that conversations are a lot more active when there’s diversity within the conversation - and I don’t just mean the subject matter - I mean when the audience and the participants are from lots of different backgrounds the conversation really flows then.
But again, to be blunt, if there’s a lot of white people in that Zoom meeting it can be quite quiet.
What I’ve spotted over recent months is a lot of fear.
We try to challenge that and create a safe space to speak and ask questions; if we don’t overcome this fear, then we won’t make any progress and we’ll just be complicit to some degree.
The book charts are suggesting that people are finally admitting that they need to educate themselves about racism. It wasn’t that long ago that the country was broadly saying 'we’re not racist' when they talked about Meghan Markle, but now the TV shows and debates on the radio, the book charts are suggesting that actually we are structurally racist. We’re not deliberately racist, but we are racist, and we need to learn more about that.
So, I think what we are selling to clients a lot at the moment is trying to create cultures of learning and helping them become strategic and consider the long term. Businesses are often like mini societies.
The difference between a business and actual society is you could go out in the street and be sexist or racist and probably get away with it. But in a business you’d get fired for behaviour. Businesses are good places to start, in order to educate people about how to behave better, as well as learn more about diverse cultures.
We can do unconscious bias training workshops but longer-term, it’s more about how can we use the communication flow within the company to engage people in the conversation. It doesn’t have to be dull. There’s so many different ways of doing it, but people do want to learn at the moment and so it’s often about finding the time and resources to do that so businesses can help their own employees and start to create a dividend from diversity."
What do you say to people who say: "Black Lives Matter and diversity issues are just too tough for me to navigate."
"Google is really handy. You can find anything out. We’ve all got to take the time to learn about each other.
Be a nosey bugger and asking questions that you may think are inappropriate, well the answers are all online. I think there’s a lot of laziness, a lot of privilege in how we deal with things.
A lot of this work is about taking the time to research and educate yourself. And that’s why as consultants we’re here to help with that. But everyone needs to do a little bit of work themselves which is why we talk about making diversity everyone’s business.
The argument about 'All Lives Matter', it’s like, yes, but all lives won’t matter until Black Lives Matter! And that’s where we have to do the work. Let’s not get distracted. If we take our eye off the ball and focus on everything instead of this one thing, nothing will change."
Does diversity and inclusion also include those in society who have been left behind somehow by businesses? Some people talk about Neuro-diversity, attitudes towards older people or ex-offenders in the workforce for example?
"I certainly think as a starting point when we are having a conversation. But as we are now focusing on Black communities, we shouldn’t be changing the subject.
I think that that’s been the problem with the term BAME it’s allowed the UK government to say that they have got one of the most diverse cabinets ever. That’s because of the South Asian MPs in it, but the South Asian experience and the Black experience in this country is entirely different.
My wife was struck and killed by an older driver years ago. I’ve campaigned for driving tests for older drivers, and whenever I’ve gone on the radio or TV and spoken about this, people have said more young people kill than old people. But it’s the same as me going on and talking about heart disease then being told on the radio that strokes kill more people.
We can talk about all of this stuff in the round. But the point really is if we’re engaging in a conversation about progress for Black people now, let’s allow that conversation to continue and not get distracted by saying that we’re diverse in other ways. We should absolutely encourage that and it needs to happen, but I don’t think we should play a game of diversity chess right now."
Can marketing and communications really help to drive real societal change?
"It’s proven that marketing spend can have an impact - there was a study recently about the prevalence of LGBTQ+ communities in advertising. When those communities are in ads it increases acceptance.
Diversity in sexuality has made great strides. If you think about the Stonewall movement in New York, it was nearly 50 years ago. It’s gone from that riot to a sort of riot of colour with brands falling over themselves to support it, more so when there’s actually events.
In the UK we see LGBTQ+ people in ads all the time now. It helps sell products and it helps increase acceptance so there’s definitely a role for it."
Editor's Note: McCain, a leading frozen food brand in the UK believes in representing real people within marketing and advertising.
It celebrates difference by making diversity a natural part of everyday life and its marketing campaigns, such as this 'Here's to Love' TV advert.
"What we really try to explore with clients is tokenism and not doing a Noah’s Ark two-by-two approach to diversity where it feels inauthentic.
There was one year where every mainstream Christmas TV ad seemed to have a Black or mixed race family in it. There were question marks from communities saying that many of these ads missed some of the cultural nuances.
I’ll give you an example of something we did last year at Christmas, the Museum of London came to us recognising that it’s got a Santa’s grotto and the museum sector isn’t massively popular amongst Black and BAME audiences.
We talked about how could we do Christmas through a diversity filter. Something like 40% of Londoners don’t celebrate Christmas in the traditional capacity. It’s simply not part of their religion or culture. But as united as we are in this great city we still mark it regardless of where we’re from because it might just be you’ve got the day off or it’s an opportunity to hang out in your pyjamas with your friends and family.
We did a piece of content with a Muslim poet because we found that a few years ago he’d gone out and cycled to Mosque one day to pray and noticed that there was no one out on the streets (this seems absurd now because we’ve been in lockdown now for so long that anyone could do this).
He went out and took some pictures which got a lot of traction on social media. So, for Christmas 2019, we asked him if he’d go out on his bike with some cameras and make a film set to his own poetry.
It was filmed, edited and put out on Christmas Day before Gavin and Stacey had aired. The response from the Muslim community, who otherwise probably wouldn’t have been speaking about Christmas, was phenomenal because they’d never seen anything like it from a brand before - a brand 'doing' Christmas by a Muslim artist on Christmas Day! Jesus was Middle Eastern let’s accept it, let’s embrace it.
There’s no more clichéd marketing time of year than Christmas. It makes out that we all live the same lives at the same time. For many people, Christmas is not a great time; single parents, bereaved people or different communities.
To go back to your question about different sorts of diversity, I'm a writer as well as a consultant. I’m often sent press releases at Christmas. I suppose PR people hope that I might put something on my blog, but I’ll get stuff about how many hours mums spend planning Christmas. And I’m thinking really?? I’m a single dad, I'm widowed and you haven’t gone deep enough to double check.
Probably where a lot of this stems from is that if there isn’t that diversity in the planning process or the creative process then these storylines and campaigns are never created because people just don’t think of them, they really don’t think about how many grandparents are raising their grandchildren alone, how many dads are fully responsible for their kids.
Probably one of the biggest things that pushed me out of consumer PR was walking into a brainstorm and being told that today we're thinking about reaching 'Mum'. Not mums with an S. And I was thinking, if I’m playing the role of both mother and father why am I not just as important?"
What should all businesses be doing now that conversations about structural racism and BLM are actually happening in the workplace?
"The first step that businesses should be taking right now is to really listen.
We all have bias and we all carry that bias. For senior people in businesses that bias can be quite acute, because you don’t necessarily live the same experience as junior members in the organisation with very different backgrounds.
During lockdown and social distancing, I’ve been really concerned about empathy and the impact on diverse thinking. I remember when we seemed to be at the peak of COVID-19 thinking. I couldn’t picture what it was like in hospitals. I live near Kings Hospital in London, but I went nowhere near and was so distant from other people’s lives in lockdown that I felt that I couldn’t empathise, and that really concerned me.
Imagine that feeling at a business level, a big business level.
We helped clients run open forums with everyone from the most senior to the most junior person in an organisation online to talk about how they were feeling in light of lockdown and the Black Lives Matter movement, and also to talk about their experiences in business where things could be much better.
Rather than just being open surgery or a counselling session, what can we all do individually to build a more diverse future within organisations. And what’s been really powerful in these is having the chief executive or financial director listen and really listen to what people have got to say in a safe environment, to know what racism can actually show up."
What types of things come up in these open forums?
"It’s very important for it to be not just peer-to-peer but right across the business. What we talk about here is recognising the things you can’t see when you’re in it because we all get very into our day jobs and it’s a real step to take to listen, to uncover blind spots, to look at diversity across the business, to look at the gaps that are there and actually learn from other people’s experiences."
So, it's much more than just running a few unconscious bias workshops, or 'Wokeshops' then?
"I’d say that that was our first point. We would suggest workshops for senior leadership. I think what people really need to understand is that there’s no such thing as unconscious bias training, there’s unconscious bias awareness, but it doesn’t train you to do anything.
It’s what you learn from it and what you do with it that matters, so if you notice that there is some bias there - how are you going to make change? Those organisations who are saying we’re okay now, we’ve done a bit of training, they’ve not even begun.
For businesses that are really serious about this, we talk about the difference dividend and make the commercial, conversational and cultural case for diversity. Actually, taking time to plan that, thinking where can we grow, might we be a stronger business if our recruitment policy is more diverse or could we be making gifts for people for Eid that we’d not thought about before for example.
Can we somehow navigate the fear of getting it wrong and find help in getting it right that might make us loads of money and might actually make us more popular with a bigger community of customers.
In terms of representing audiences, looking at how we bring more diverse voices into the business whether that’s in the planning phase, whether that’s permanently or on a consultant basis.
Making sure if we are trying to respond to things like 'Black Out Tuesday', have we got a right to respond? Have we got people in the business to back up what we’re saying? Do we have enough insight to get this right and not stereotype?
Then the last point really is about the responding part. I think that too many organisations at the moment respond to these movements as moments - and they’ve not necessarily done the work that they need to get there. There's a lot of work that needs to be done before organisations are in a position to put themselves on a pedestal and say 'we are diverse' or 'we are for these different communities'.
You’ve got to do the hard work first. You wouldn’t ignore strategy in any other area of your business but when it comes to diversity and inclusion it’s often let’s put it in a network and we’ll see what comes out of it. But there’s structural problems there as well. Often diversity sits in pockets, or hits a glass ceiling really early.
You can get ideas that come from these networks that aren’t strategically sound necessarily, so there needs to be input from across the business to make sure that the recommendations that come out of it can actually work."
Any podcasts that you recommend to help people trying to understand the issues and opportunities?
We recently launched our own podcast called the Speakeasier.
The reason it’s called the Speakeasier is because we recognise how hard it is for many people to have conversations about diversity, so we wanted to take issues that often sit in niche pockets and make them more mainstream.
Every week we interview different guests that have got something to say about different areas of diversity and inclusion and one of our first guests was June Sarpong who wrote Diversify, a best-selling book about diversity and inclusion. She now works at BBC as Director of Creative Diversity. So, our podcast is a really great listen to get lots of different points of view. We make it very easy for people to understand.
How about books about diversity?
"I was actually in a session that Asad my business partner hosted and he said something that really stuck with me which was that if you want to understand and help different communities, just go and help. Volunteer, spend time with different communities.
Books are great but it’s a lived experience, and actually making contact with people, having them in your life really helps you diversify and understand how to diversify your business. I think there’s so many ways in which people can get out and there engaged, get involved and to not be scared.
I think back to how poor some of our leaders and influencers are around us, if you look back at Theresa May and her response to Grenfell for example; she didn’t even go and say hello to anyone, she didn’t go and ask people how they felt, she didn’t feel comfortable going to the victims of Grenfell and engaging with them. I just think that’s remarkable.
I simply can’t understand businesses and brands that don’t get out there to meet their customers and find out about their lives, the people that they’re trying to reflect or reach in campaigns that they build."
What advice would you give to your younger self or any young entrepreneur starting a business?
"I don’t want to be a cliché, but the best advice I’d give myself, and what I wish I could have done sooner, is to find my purpose.
I think that purpose comes with experience though. And I’ve had two major shifts in my purpose in my adult life.
One was when my wife was killed, and I invested a lot of my time trying to make the world a better place for bereaved parents, families, men, just making it ok to speak out, open up and ask for help which I did through writing, blogs, books, making a TV show and all those things. Then one day I just gradually started to realise that I didn’t want to be Mr. Grief or Doctor Death forever, I didn’t want that to define who I was and I needed another purpose.
I needed purpose to be in my work, because promoting fizzy drinks or salty snacks wasn’t making me feel good - and that purpose really came along through my son’s comments, “Where are all the Black people?”
Just before I came on this call I texted my business partner Asad and said 'god, I love my job so much'. So, I think my advice is simply to find something you love, that has purpose, and get good at it. I know now that the work that I do every day can make people’s lives a bit better."
One final question Ben. Fill in the blank. "If I didn't do this job, I'd be __________"
"I'm a diversity consultant but I also write and I'm a published author.
I write about what I’m passionate about, when I’m passionate about it and that gives me so much satisfaction. I really love the balance of what I do so I wouldn’t really change very much.
The great thing about the generation we live in now is that we’re empowered enough to do what we want to do even if it’s not our job; I can write and share my thoughts every single day of the week through the business blog, through my own blog and I love the freedom to do that."
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