DDB managing director Priya Patel may joke about being a “coconut” – brown on the outside and white on the inside – but in this discussion with Ant Melder, she reveals how she learnt to embrace her Indian culture and her view on achieving better diversity within agencies…
Creative agencies have historically underrepresented certain minorities, said Patel, with most of her superiors being “lovely, white, posh blokes” in the early days of her career in London.
“I used to joke that I was the only Indian person in account handling in London,” Patel said on the Brown Riot podcast, hosted by Coffee Cocoa Gunpowder creative partner Ant Melder.
The Brown Riot podcast launched earlier this year, featuring candid chats with a range of creative and business leaders from ethnic, cultural and socio-economic backgrounds.
Reflecting on her time at girl’s school in Cambridge in the UK, Patel admitted she initially masked her Indian background to better fit in with her white colleagues, even avoiding another Indian colleague ironically with the same name.
“When I think about it, it’s because I thought I needed to make sure that I differentiated myself and that people didn’t think we were actually the same person!” she said.
“It was this absolute paranoia from the very outset that everyone would just think we’re the same because there wasn’t enough room for two Indian people.”
Surrounded by her predominantly white classmates, Patel said she was aware of the cultural differences, and tried to “speak the same, act the same and have the same experiences” despite her cultural background.
While Patel admitted she tried to assimilate at school and later Oxford University, she later learnt to embrace her difference, or “otherness”, and found it was something that her friends and colleagues enjoyed.
“Over the years, and especially as I got older, I think the ‘otherness’ was something that my friends really loved. And their love for this ‘otherness’ gave me a lot of confidence,” she said.
This confidence carried on with her as she landed her first job as a grad trainee at DDB London, before moving to Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R and back to DDB in 2017 as managing director of the Sydney office.
Patel jokes she “over indexes in whiteness” due to her education at prestigious universities and believes this has somewhat meant she has avoided discrimination or stereotyping that others like Melder have faced in the industry.
“I’ve perhaps over-compensated and go out of my way to present a very un-Indian version of myself. I don’t feel like people would instantly think of me as that – because of the way I look and the way I talk,” Patel said.
“I grew up in an environment where I felt quite confident. So, I marched on in [to advertising] as if I belonged there – because a ‘white world’ was all I’d known since school, it had been my life. So, for me it wasn’t necessarily a barrier.”
While racial diversity continues to be a focus for the wider industry, Patel said she’s most interested in diversifying the socio-economic class of advertising.
“Advertising is a very white middle class industry and you only stumble across it if you happen to be in that socio-economic band.
“Trying to get the industry in front of more diverse groups of people is interesting. Whether that be through going into schools or universities and presenting the profession. And generally raising awareness.
“Finding different mechanics to open the industry to people is probably the easiest way of changing it or shifting it.”
While Patel didn’t endorse quotas, she could see the advantages of them in the long term for driving meaningful change, mentioning successes in political points of comparison like Ghana and in the Nordics.
Patel also discussed how Australian marketers compared to those in the UK and suggested they were potentially ‘bolder’, but how ultimately many marketers globally were grappling with the same challenges of balancing short-term and long-term objectives for their brands.
Brown Riot is an ongoing podcast series hosted by Ant Melder, creative partner at the independent creative agency, Coffee Cocoa Gunpowder and produced by sound and music legends, Smith & Western. You can listen to/download full episodes at brownriot.com, Apple Podcasts and Spotify.