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You were recently named head of culture and inclusion at M&C Saatchi. How did you first become interested in the overlap between advertising and diversity? My advertising and diversity journey started upon entering the industry as a digital creative recruitment consultant. I was struck by how homogenous the industry was—and still is—and how the creative teams behind most advertisements in no way represent the rich cross section of British society.

You have a degree in visual arts and performance. How has your experience as a performer shaped your current work? It gave me the time to explore subjects in a way that isn’t just about the data or theory. I was able to work through very tentative subjects, from my sexuality to my race, by feeling into them.

What personal experiences or circumstances have most influenced your work? Having the privilege to travel from a young age, mainly to visit family—my father is Persian Iranian and my mother is British and of Jamaican ancestry. I’ve had the opportunity to live in different countries, as well as different counties and areas within the United Kingdom, from some of the poorest parts of London to one of the most affluent villages in Berkshire.

Build your community. Look after your community.”

You founded the London, United Kingdom–based organization All Here, which connects thirteen- to nineteen-year-olds with creative industry professionals. Why did you decide to focus on mentoring? All Here was initially a reciprocal mentoring scheme and inclusivity program. After going through a couple of iterations, we found that in some cases what people actually needed was sponsorship over mentorship. Not to discredit mentorship, though—they serve two very different functions.

Where we decided that we could really add value was by helping people gain access—and our youth-led Creative Hackathon was born. We also have an Interactive Talk Series that helps people explore the cultural context in which their work sits by discussing and looking at the history of visual culture—primarily from a postcolonial lens—and exploring questions such as: How do politics and history interact with culture today? How do we quantify privilege? Where does intersectionality sit within this? And what is the role of authorship?

What do you think creative professionals can learn from young adults? The advertising industry as we know it will be dead in fifteen years’ time if it doesn’t start taking into consideration the wants and needs of the youth and other demographics. Times have changed, and dynamics also need to.

What is key to creating actionable change grounded in inclusivity when an agency has an extensive workforce and deep roots? First, you need to establish the type of change you want and how committed you are as an organization to make it happen. There’s no quick fix—change requires patience. Then you need to measure where you are as an organization. This can be done in several ways, like working with external consultants to conduct focus groups or—depending where you are on your diversity and inclusion journey—working with companies such as Brands with Values to measure culture. Realizing that you’re going to have to look outside to find some of the answers is key.

There also needs to be a multipronged approach to this; several elements need to be working in tandem. For example, if you want to attract more BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) talent into your agency, then as well as looking at different recruitment channels, you also need to figure out as an agency whether you’re ready to facilitate difference and where people can bring their whole selves to work and thrive. Ultimately, your agency needs to take a long, hard look at itself in the mirror. Otherwise, it’s in danger of just box ticking.

What should all companies know about how to create a more inclusive culture? It’s a listening exercise. You need to create an environment where everyone feels that her or his voice is valuable enough to be heard.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given in your career? Build your community. Look after your community. Community meaning people you share the same purpose with.

How do you stay inspired? By staying connected to the youth and embracing difference in every sense.

Sereena Abbassi is the head of culture and inclusion for M&C Saatchi and the founder of the innovation and strategy consultancy All Here. She has worked with organizations such as Creative Equals on its diversity and inclusion strategy. Abbassi is one of the diversity and inclusion experts advising the United Kingdom advertising and media industry’s Diversity Taskforce, and she has advised agencies such as Dentsu, FCB Inferno, Grey, MediaCom and Wieden+Kennedy. Abbassi is currently working towards her part-time masters in postcolonial culture and global policy, which sits within the Media and Communications Department at Goldsmiths, University of London, where she’ll be continuing her research and study into a part-time Ph.D. Previously a visual, sonic and performance artist, Abbassi helps individuals, agencies and brands create their futures with diversity, inclusion and accessibility.

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