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An Exclusive Interview with Sereena Abbassi, Worldwide Head of Culture and Inclusion at M&C Saatchi

How often do you interact with people that are completely different from you?

Stepping into someone else’s shoes can be an eye-opening and powerful exercise to help you to see how people relate to you when you’re out of your perceived comfort zone.

In this interview, we spoke with Sereena Abbassi, Worldwide Head of Culture and Inclusion at M&C Saatchi, where she shares her insights on how a critical part of building a more inclusive culture is to take time to interact with people that you wouldn’t usually interact with.

Sereena is also the founder of ‘All Here’ – a social enterprise that connects individuals, brands, and agencies; supporting them to think more critically about the world and the work that they create.

In this interview, you’ll discover:

  • The value of helping people to connect to each other by feeling
  • How microaggressions, the really subtle messages that you don’t belong, are actually a lot more damaging than overt racism, sexism, or ableism
  • The current state of inclusion in advertising

Listen in above (cc available), or read below the transcript of our interview with Sereena. You can also listen on Spotify, iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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FIONA: Our guest today is Sereena Abbassi, Group Head of Culture and Inclusion at M&C Saatchi. Sereena founded All Here, a social enterprise that connected individuals, brands, and agencies, supporting them to think more critically about the world and the work that they create. And to top it all off, as well as being an established writer and speaker in the advertising industry, she’s currently working towards a part-time Masters in Post Colonial Culture and Global Policy at Goldsmiths at University of London.

SEREENA: Hello? Yeah, no, thank you so much for having me. Yeah, it’s a real pleasure to be here with you.

FIONA: Thank you. Can you give us a quick overview of your role and what you’re trying to achieve at M&C Saatchi?

SEREENA: Yeah, absolutely. So, there are lots of different bows to my arrow. Yeah, I wear kind of lots of different hats in some ways. Essentially, if I were to kind of distill down what I’m trying to do,

I’m trying to get people just to connect to each other, it’s all about connection, and togetherness, and the way that we get to do that, so the way that I’m helping to cultivate that, is by people sharing a part of themselves or all of themselves if they so wish to.

Yeah, we were speaking about this just a few moments ago before we started recording and it’s about … you know, we live in a very heady, cerebral world, and I think we’re very well versed.

We know how to connect with people by thinking, but we don’t really know how to connect with people so well by feeling.

The work that I do at M&C Saatchi is all about feeling, so I try to use the arts as much as possible. Obviously the arts are very much embedded into our DNA here with Charles Saatchi being obviously one of our founding fathers. Yeah, I try to use the arts as much as possible to kind of create that sense of togetherness through feeling.

FIONA: I love that. I think that’s probably one of the simplest and best definitions I’ve heard for inclusion and belonging, right? Helping people to connect to each other by feeling.

SEREENA: Thank you.

FIONA: So, I’ll be speaking to you a bit more about your experiences and all the phenomenal work you’ve done to drive inclusiveness throughout your career. First I’d like to ask you the question we start with for every guest on the show. Can you tell us how you first became woke to Inclusion and Diversity? When was the moment you first realized it matters in business, and in society more broadly?

SEREENA: I probably am going to share a lot of personal experiences with you, because I think that’s probably the only real way that I can fully kind of convey why I’m here, and how I got here. So, my father’s Persian-Iranian and came to the UK just before the Iranian revolution of 1979, so he came in the late 1978, and my great-grandfather came here from Jamaica in the post-Windrush. Then when he was able to, he brought my grandfather over. So, both sides of my family aren’t native English, and that’s quite an interesting thing in itself, when does one become native? So, this idea of being others and not quite looking like everyone else or sounding like everyone else or … having different festivities, you know, we would celebrate Persian New Year, which is in March, which marks Spring. It was always very apparent to me. It was always very apparent to me that we were different to the majority of my friends, and I think it just became this sense of being others and it became heightened. And by the way, I just want to say that you can still analyze things in a good way and a bad way. I have to say, my experience has always been quite positive.

When I was younger, much younger, in my early teens, when people would stare at me and my brother in the street, I thought it was because they thought I was famous. And so, I just want to say, you know, there’s a good and a bad side to it, however you kind of want to interpret it, right? It was through, I think, traveling … I’ve lived in the US, I’ve lived in the Netherlands, I’ve lived in Spain, I’ve lived in Iran, and I think it was through living … you know, when I moved to the US, I really fell into my blackness, in a whole way, so, as we mentioned, I’m mixed. My Dad’s Persian-Iranian, my Mom’s British with Jamaican ancestry, and it was what I loved about being in the U.S. is that there was just real multiplicity of the black experience, which I didn’t feel I could see, I didn’t feel represented in the U.K. in the same way, so you know, you’ve obviously got the whole Afro-punk movement, which is something that is very celebrated and known about, but you know, growing up the in U.K., I never saw black or mixed-race kids or Asian kids that were into Indie music, for instance, where I was. I was an Indie kid, wearing Converse, listening to The Strokes, and going to the U.S., I was able to see that. I don’t know if I’ve actually answered your question in any way, but I think it’s really been my whole entire life that lead me to where I am now.

FIONA: Yeah, probably more of a gradual unfolding, right? Rather than a single light bulb moment, is I’m sure the way that it happened for you, right?

SEREENA: Yeah, absolutely.

FIONA: And what influence did that cultural background of yours, so being part Jamaican, and being part Persian-Iranian, have on your passion for equality? I mean, you spoke a little bit about the different experiences you had growing up in the U.K versus the U.S. and do you think that any of the experiences that you had in your childhood, perhaps in the U.K., have helped to shape you into a bit of a social justice warrior?

SEREENA: Yeah, so I think in the U.K. … I think injustice here is a lot more under the radar. It’s not as overt, it’s microaggressions, whereas in the U.S., there is a lot more of that, which for some reason is a good thing, because you actually know what you’re working with. Being much less likely to happen in the U.S. I think we’re going back to your question … I have to say, I haven’t really had any overly racist experiences in the U.K., except for kind of one or two, but that’s probably about it. But, when I was living in the U.S., what because really apparent to me is that for a city that calls itself a melting pot … and by the way, I absolutely love New York. So yeah, I was living in New York and out of my white friends, I was their only friend of color, and amongst my black friends, I was their only friend that didn’t just identify as black. I always say mixed race or Asian. I was thinking, for a city that bound together, like public transport, there was really no excuse for there to be this level of degradation. So, I have to say, I think it was to really kind of tap into my activism in a lot more of a way.

FIONA: And yeah, I’ve seen some research, actually, that indicates that the microaggressions, so the really subtle messages that you don’t belong, are actually a lot more damaging than overt racism, or sexism, or ableism, or any of those things, because I think in some way we can kind of excuse, “Oh, well that person is just a jerk,” right? But actually, when you get these really subtle messages that are hard to kind of … it’s hard to fight back against, as well, right? And it’s pervasive, through so much. So yeah, I think that absolutely aligns with some of the stuff I’ve read as well.

SEREENA: Well definitely, if you are a black man in the U.K., you are four times more likely to be sectioned onto the mental health path than the path, and even if you keep unpacking it and unpacking it and unpacking it, but I think one of the primary reasons goes back to this idea of microaggressions, gas lighting. You feel something in your body intuitively, that everyone else is telling you that what you’re feeling is, so yeah I have no doubt that is not the research, that word.

FIONA: Well, just to switch gears a bit, can you tell us a bit more about this social enterprise All Here that you founded? So, what is it and how did it lay the foundation for your career in diversity and inclusion?

SEREENA: Yeah, absolutely, so it was back having just got back from the U.S., and actually just realizing and really starting to critique the U.K. and wondering whether we have the same issues. It became really apparent to me, and I really started to see in the U.K. that public transport is quite segregated here in some ways. So, you know, you would see … and when I’m saying segregated I’m not just talking racially, I’m also talking about economically. You know, you get on the tube in the morning, and actually who is present on the tube … I think it’s 44% of London is made up of minority ethnics, and you don’t really see that representation on the tube. You see it on buses, however. So, it got me thinking how actually in so many spaces within such a multicultural city such as London, we’re still not next to each other, we’re still not connected. And then we’ll go into work, our office is at Saatchi, and we’re fully aware of this, and actually this is no different to most advertising offices. We don’t really represent the 44% minority ethnics within London, and something that I really believe in and which kind of lead me to All Here is that we need to start interacting with the local community. All industry needs to start actually representing the people that they’re supposed to be serving.

FIONA: And I think that brings up great point about representation, right? Which is of course a huge issue in advertising specifically. So, at M&C Saatchi, how do you make sure the messages you’re putting out on a global stage are really culturally relevant and also appropriate and reflect local nuances?

SEREENA: Yeah, so that’s a really great question. So, in regards to making sure we really work globally, we work in 27 different regions, and because of that, there’s a great opportunity for us to actually tap into local markets. Has got this great history and has changed, which is wonderful, so everything that we do here is very much grounded in a lot of research. We’ve got an incredible research team that at all hours have access too, and also collaborate with other offices, so if London wins a bit of business in say Australia, we’ll then collaborate with the Australian offices there. So, there really is an emphasis on locality, which is great.

FIONA: And what do you think, just generally, about the current state of inclusion in advertising?

SEREENA: The current state of inclusion in advertising, as you know, is not great. But, I would say that would be the case. Whatever happens within these walls is very much the case outside. These are the standard issues. So the injustice or lack of representation that we see within M&C Saatchi, for instance, or within our industry more broadly, are all the same issues that we all see within government and in other industries. So, we’re on the journey and we’re aware that we’ve got a lot of work to do, but we fully embrace that and I think my appointment is the proof in the pudding there, that I’ve got a great budget, I’ve been given complete autonomy, basically they respect that I am the expert, and I have autonomy to do what I feel is best for innovation, which is wonderful. So yeah, we’ve got lots of different programs which we’re rolling out, to get great representation of women, great representation of black Asian minority ethnics, great representation of people with disability, and people from different economic backgrounds, which as you probably know, our industry is very middle class. Upper class, actually, and we definitely need diversity in a broader sense, present within our walls.

FIONA: I completely agree with you, Sereena, that the economic background issue is real in businesses, particularly I’ve seen this and heard this from experts in London, certainly, and I can imagine that’s a real issue for both your work force and also for representation of the audiences that you serve. So, just thinking about the 80/20 rule, what is the 20% of stuff that you’ve done at M&C Saatchi that you think has wielded 80% of the value?

SEREENA: Yeah, so I’ve been having a good think about this, and I’m thinking it’s about finding those change places within the organization, identifying them and actually really empowering them and allowing them to kind of think of their own agendas. So, we’ve got five employee lead networks, so all the employee lead networks have a co-chair, which is great, some have three chairs, some has two, and they all have budgets, and they completely have complete autonomy over how they choose to use that budget. I’d probably say that’s actually had the biggest impact on us, which actually has taken the least amount of my energy. All I have to do is put a call out to the whole organization and I’d be like, “Right, I want to conduct a around this subject.” People come to me and then we have an employee lead network. I probably would say that being the most valuable and most efficient way that I spend my time here.

FIONA: That’s great, and I just wonder as well, from some of the research I’ve seen, members of majority groups who serve as allies in these sorts of networks and outside of them are incredibly important for driving real change. So, have you guys really leveraged allies using those groups and have you done any campaigns or different things using your allies?

SEREENA: That’s great question, actually, and that brings us to something that we’re really pushing, so we’re going to be doing some work to create. I don’t know if you’re aware of them, they’re all about creating race and gender equality within the advertising industry in particular, and what they believe is … obviously it’s about mentoring, but it’s also about. So, all the women that are going to be put through this crazy week of programs, they all need to have a man advocating for their career, because without that kind of sponsorship, you just can’t really get to where you need to get to, like to the point that you’re making it.

FIONA: And sponsoring differs from mentoring because they are usually really specific, kind of targeted deliverables, right?

SEREENA: Absolutely, yes.

FIONA: Putting the women forward for a promotion, for instance, might be one of them. Is that the sort of thing that’s involved with the Creative Equals sponsorship program?

SEREENA: Yeah, absolutely, so just for the sake of kind of really highlighting the difference between mentorship and sponsorship …

And yeah, with Creative Equals, it would be a case where actually there would be a level of mentorship, say like the training program would be mentorship, but then the sponsorship would actually come from the majority culture, so it would come from the male leaders that we have in our organization and how they will try their best to facilitate grace within all these females to get to where they want to get to.

FIONA: I was actually talking to a leader in one of the world’s largest tech businesses the other day, and I asked her the kind of 80/20 question, and she said to me, “The best thing that we’ve done, that’s yielded the most benefits, was a sponsorship program for female up and coming leaders of business,” and so yeah, I absolutely am a believer in that as well. So earlier in January, 2019, Gillette’s ad that took on toxic male culture made waves in the diversity and inclusion world, and I think just generally probably in the world beyond diversity and inclusion as well.


FIONA: Where were you on that, and does advertising have a role to play, or even a responsibility to challenge these kind of problematic social norms?

SEREENA: Absolutely. It’s incredibly idealistic of me, but I like to think of myself as being a strategic idealist. I think advertising has the power to change the world if it wants to, and it has, not always for the best, but it has. And sometimes in our offices, like our South African offices, oh my goodness, the world that they do. They’re all activists there, and they’re really channeling what they believe through advertising, making the world definitely kinder and a safer place for all. So yes, I believe advertising has a moral responsibility, absolutely, yeah. But, obviously first and foremost in the eye of business, I think is how to monetize that, as well.

FIONA: And were you surprised by some of the reactions around the web from men, primarily, who disagreed with this ad?

SEREENA: Yeah, see I have mixed feelings about the ad, actually. I think in many ways it’s great for such a huge brand to really try to sneak into one of the biggest issues that we have at the present moment, and have always had. So, I think that’s wonderful that Gillette was brave enough to do that. I have to say, there were parts of the ad where I was like, are they completely deconstructing that? What it is to be a man. Maybe there was that exception where the two boys were play fighting. I think in the revaluation of what it is to be a man, of what it is to be a woman in 2019, I think we have to be really careful about identifying the good from the bad, and I think in some ways, the ad tries to place all masculine traits into one … all male traits, I should say, into one, and that would probably be my only critique of it. But, overall it was really good and I thought it was very brave and I think advertising needs to be brave, or become braver than it has been over the past years.

FIONA: Yeah, that’s such a great and really nuanced perspective to hear, thank you so much for sharing that. I’m also really interested to hear a bit about the Master’s degree you’re working on in Postcolonial Culture and Global Policy. Can you tell us a bit more about it and perhaps a few surprising things you’ve learned through the process of going through that program?

SEREENA: Yeah, absolutely. It’s probably worth mentioning I just decided to interrupt that since my role here at M&C Saatchi has evolved, so I won’t really go much into it, but back to your original question. So, yeah, I still … in order for us to understand why we have under-representation of certain groups within our industry, or within that pocket of society, we need to understand our history, and I think we have to go back to colonization and the damaging effects it had on the mind, the body, on society as a whole. So, I use it very much, it really kind of is the foundation of the work that I do within this space [inaudible 00:20:39], yeah. I don’t know if you would want to know more than that.

FIONA: It sounds really interesting, and I can imagine, as well, that it’s a pretty heavy load. I’m not surprised you’re interrupting your degree for a bit, because on top of a full-time job and all of the various speaking engagements you do, it’s a lot to juggle.

SEREENA: Yeah, do you know what I find actually is the heaviness of it comes from … it’s so dense and I had a moment about six months ago where I realized actually that I am discovering myself and the way that I move through the world, and obviously that applies to my occupation, as well, and I felt like I needed the space and distance actually for my own mental health, to be honest.

FIONA: Yeah, I definitely have felt this at times, in deep research mode, probably like you have for your degree, feeling like, “Gosh, where is the light at the end of the tunnel here?” And how do you manage your emotions and your mental state to continue to be moving forward on a positive trajectory and really trying to drive change and not getting bogged down by feeling like, “Gosh, am I really having an impact here?”

SEREENA: Do you know what, I think we just have to be an eternal optimist, which I am, although you have to constantly look for the good in people, because there is that, if you look hard enough, and just realizing that we’ve all walked a completely different journey in this life and the views that we have, the fears that we have are founded on past experiences that we’ve had, and what we’re trying to do is trying to make new experiences for people. But yes, being an eternal optimistic I think is absolutely paramount for me to be able to do the work that I do and kind of keep on driving forward.

FIONA: I think we have that in common. Optimism helps. So, just to finish off, going back to what you first said at the beginning of our chat, you know about inclusion and belonging really being about helping people connect to each other by feeling. Can you share with us perhaps one simple thing that anyone could do in their workplace tomorrow to build inclusion?

SEREENA: Absolutely. I think it’s about interacting with people that you wouldn’t usually interact with.

If you are an account manager, if you are a CEO, how do you take the time in your kind of working day to interact with someone that’s completely different?

Do you know the names of your team downstairs? Do you know the names of the operational team that we have? The HR team? And I think it’s about really really being … you have to have the willingness to engage with people that you’ve never engaged with. So, I can say that’s a really simple thing to do. Engage … ask your head receptionist or one of your receptionists how they’re going to be spending their weekend. Make sure that you know all of their names.

I think, far to often within the corporate world, we dehumanize people without even realizing we’ve dehumanized them, and I think that’s a really easy exercise, you know. I know that one of our competitors … I’ve got a friend of mine that works for the and a really simple exercise that they actually did was they actually … all the had to sit in the receptionist’s chair for a day. Probably not the whole day, I’d imagine, but for part of the day, and I just thought that was such a … obviously that was just one off. That wasn’t a weekly occurrence, but I just thought that was a really really powerful exercise, just to know how people relate to you when you are from a path, and the rubbish, perhaps, that you might need to put up with. I think that things like that is about stepping into each others’ shoes. That’s the only way that you can actually cultivate empathy. It’s about me being willing to actually step into the shoes of you, for instance, and actually seeing and acknowledging, realizing your experience.

FIONA: I love that. Thank you so much for sharing that and all of these insights with us. I’m sure there’s a lot for our listeners to take away from this session. If anyone listening wants to stay connected with you, Sereena, what is the best way for them to do that?

SEREENA: Yes, so you can find me on Twitter, Instagram … I was about to say Facebook, not Facebook, and LinkedIn. They’re literally my name altogether, obviously separated out for LinkedIn, so yeah. I look forward to interacting with you all.

FIONA: Fabulous. Thank you so much.

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Be sure to follow Sereena as @sereenaabbassi.

Check out our other interviews with inclusion’s change-makers, thinkers, and influencers.

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An Exclusive Interview with Sereena Abbassi, Worldwide Head of Culture and Inclusion at M&C Saatchi

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