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Changing The Ratio: Think HQ’s Jen Sharpe And Sarah Said On Speaking Equally To All Australians

Changing The Ratio: Think HQ’s Jen Sharpe And Sarah Said On Speaking Equally To All Australians
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As our Changing The Ratio breakfast events draw closerB&T is excited to be sharing conversations with some of the changemakers in our industry.

B&T sat down with two of the Think HQ team, founder and managing director Jen Sharpe (pictured right) and social media coordinator Sarah Said (pictured left) to talk about why diversity is better for business and the importance of reaching diverse communities.

B&T: Our theme for this year’s Changing The Ratio is ‘Belonging: it starts with you.’ What does authentic belonging look like to you?

Jen Sharpe: For an employee in our industry, it means feeling safe to be yourself.  No matter what your age, gender, sexual identity, culture and religious background, ability or disability, geographic location or socio-economic background.  The idea of belonging, and therefore inclusion, is really really wide for me in terms of what it includes. And then, just as importantly as a consumer, it means seeing yourself or being communicated to in a way that means you feel seen or included.

There’s a lot of people in our community at the moment who say they never get to see themselves in a lot of communication and a lot of visual creative.

Sarah Said: For me, to authentically belong somewhere is to exist in spaces without fear.

It’s having the freedom of not having to hide or distill who you are. Where your identity and all of your intricacies are both celebrated and accounted for.

Ultimately, it means to exist in a space that actively cultivates a sense of safety, wellbeing, and compassion for everyone.

Why do you think diversity and inclusion initiatives have lacked in the industry in the past?

Sharpe: Same breeds the same.  If you have an agency full of people that look the same, come from similar backgrounds and are around the same age, chances are that both the recruitment activity as well as the creative output of the business will reflect this reality.  For example, image selection in creative decks when it comes to the selection of imagery to present to clients. These are so often white people, and if someone thinks “oh, we should include someone with diversity”, they put someone with dark skin in and they will often include someone who is African-American because that’s the stock image they can find. There’s very limited access to diverse images in Australia to reflect diverse Australia.

When you talk about PR agencies, so many of the case studies that get pitched into media tend to be of very white Australians, and the reason being is that so many case studies are generated through friends of friends and contacts, so if you’ve got a workplace that’s just purely white, you often don’t extend out beyond that. It tends to breed its’ own reality and its’ own reflection.

Said: While the intention was there, a lot of these initiatives are seen as an afterthought. And as a result, people missed out on being engaged in a meaningful way.

We needed considerate strategies that moved beyond dichotomies like the CALD (culturally and linguistically diverse audiences) vs mainstream. And we needed those strategies to be revisited and amended as times change. We needed to be flexible and adaptable to the times, essentially.

For that shift to happen, you need to centralise the mission of speaking equally to every single Australian.

As an extension of that, how can the industry become more welcoming to people of diverse backgrounds?

Said: To truly connect with your communications, you need to ensure your team is reflective of the people you’re speaking to.

This covers everything from reviewing your hiring practices, engaging with community experts and leaders, and ensuring your space is physically accessible to all.

It could also include implementing diversity and inclusion plans to cultivate that safe environment I touched on earlier.

Moreover, there needs to be an acknowledgment that we still have a long way to go. Gaps need to be identified and difficult conversations need to be had for us to collectively progress. There needs to be room for feedback and reflection among the team.

Everything needs to have that active, underlying commitment to fostering and cultivating diversity in the workplace. Because we all have that responsibility to one another.

Sharpe: It’s not just difficult conversations, it’s awkward conversations too. We’ve got people from thirteen different countries now that speak twenty different languages, and there’s a lot of different needs in that group. Some people don’t drink alcohol, for example, some people need space for prayer during the day. How you actually ask those questions and how you understand the needs of your employees can sometimes feel a bit awkward, and sometimes that feeling can be a barrier  – and it’s a matter of therefore making a really conscious effort to employ diversity.

It has to be a very conscious effort to start recruiting people from lots of different backgrounds.  But that is just the start.  The work culture itself also has to change to become more inclusive to people from different backgrounds.  For example, alcohol has been such a central part of the industry for so long, but if you’re genuine about welcoming true diversity, there may need to be other ways a workplace can celebrate all together.

It can exclude people, and that isn’t just people from different cultural backgrounds, it’s new parents as well, or people who just can’t head out on a Friday night to do the traditional team bonding.

I think the true success of the push to diversity is not necessarily how many people you employ, it’s how many stay and then work their way through the business.

I definitely see this with women.  There are so many great women that work in the industry and yet by the time they have children, I reckon the majority move to a different sector because it all becomes too hard post kids.

This obviously doesn’t happen to men because the executive ranks are filled with men and I’m sure most of them would also be dads.

What is the role of Think HQ, in both of your individual jobs, for creating a more authentically representative industry?

Said: Truly good communications can change the world- and making sure it’s inclusive is at the heart of everything we do at Think HQ.

For this to happen, we speak to our audiences in languages they can easily understand and access.

That includes translations, easy English, things of that nature. On top of direct translations, we tailor our messaging and engage directly with experts and community leaders to ensure everything from our creative to our translations to our social media campaigns account for every single small or minor detail that we might have overlooked.

The impact of social media and communications specifically is quite immense. The simple act of occupying that space as a woman of colour – a black Muslim woman specifically – is incredibly significant.

I get to work alongside our diverse team, and being able to bring my identity, my experience and my voice to the table provides a level of dimension that you simply can’t achieve in more a homogenous workplace.

Like Jen said, things like drinking, praying – those are things that affect me – and being able to contribute to the workplace culture, the narrative and communications that we output is just so significant.

Sharpe: As the leader of the business, I have been pushing to become an agency that has inclusive communications at its core.  It’s not only because it’s the right thing to do, [or] because I want to become some niche, do-gooder agency, I just think it’s incredibly smart business. We know, for example, that 21 per cent of Australians don’t speak English at home, so it you don’t know how to communicate to that audience, then you are missing over 20 per cent of the entire market in his country.  That doesn’t make sense to me, that you don’t know to communicate to 20 per cent of the Australian population.

I have been actively recruiting people from all kinds of backgrounds, and the more diverse we become, the more the business grows.  It just validates that it’s the right decision to make. We’re also just about to recruit our first Aboriginal engagement specialist.  That’s another piece to the puzzle that we’re looking to solve for our clients because at the end of the day, all I want to do is make Think HQ reflect what you see in the street. I want our agency to reflect the reality outside.

What, in your view, is the most pressing diversity and inclusion issue facing the industry?

Sharpe: I’ve got two issues.

As I mentioned before, I think people treating audiences that speak English as a second language as an afterthought is a big worry, but also a big opportunity.  Same goes for Aboriginal audiences, regional audiences and those that need more accessible language via Easy English and Auslan.  It shouldn’t be a matter of mainstream first and then everyone else after.  It leads to a very restrictive and narrow strategy and execution and also creates a culture of us and them.  Strategies should be inclusive at the start and execution should be rolled out together.

I also think women staying at an agency after having children is a massive issue that has yet to be resolved. A lot of the time when I read or hear about this issue in the industry, I keep hearing the same response that I have been hearing the last 20 years – that being that the client expects us to be available 24/7, so a part-time position doesn’t work.

But, I would argue that new parents on the client side are also trying to juggle more flexible work arrangements, so a discussion needs to be had between client and agency around the flexible working arrangements of both sides of the broader team.

I think we need to start talking to clients about what their expectations are because we might find that clients themselves are looking for more flexibility as well.

I don’t think it’s good enough or acceptable to continue to say it doesn’t work, because we have plenty of examples of where it works just fine.

Said: Inclusion needs to become more than a buzzword. It needs to guide our processes and become a proactive, considerate and deliberate effort.

While it’s been great to see more people authentically represented on screen, I think our next step now is to move towards something more systemic rather than just representation.

We need to have the people that are being represented on screen, working behind the scenes on campaigns and informing the work. To be engaged with authentically.

To create impactful work, we need to see more of us working as leaders and decision-makers.

In 20 years’ time, what do you hope the industry looks like?

Sharpe: I hope the industry reflects the community that it seeks to speak to.  I hope the culture is inclusive and that agencies are run by all kinds of people from all walks of life.  I hope that inclusive communications is seen as a smart business decision, it’s not just about feeling good, and it’s not something that gets spoken about once a year, it’s something that should be embedded in the sector: it’s the future.

Said: I hope it’s an industry where inclusive communications is the standard. Where CEOs and decision-makers are situating inclusion at the forefront of everything that they do.

Ultimately, I hope it’s an industry that speaks for and to us all – that’s our goal.

The first Changing The Ratio breakfast will be taking place on Thursday 13th May at 12 Micron in Sydney.

Thank you to our amazing Changing the Ratio sponsors:

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