Adland is missing out on talent that doesn't look like us

After volunteering at refugee camps in Greece, the Havas Creative Group CMO reflects on her learnings.

Our recent visit to refugee camps in Greece originated out of a simple idea, and one that runs through Havas: less talk, more "do". We decided to volunteer because we wanted to do something – anything – tangible in the face of such a devastating humanitarian crisis and we came home with a far greater understanding of the complexity of the situation. But what transpired was more challenging, inspiring and – to my surprise, or perhaps ignorance – creative than I’d anticipated.

Each camp houses more than 1,000 people in rudimentary metal containers. The majority have fled terrible circumstances; all are seeking asylum. Most are under 21. Syrians, Iraqis, Congolese and more live side by side in extremely basic conditions, coexisting through necessity despite a plethora of cultural differences and with a narrative none of us can begin to imagine.

I have no desire to write what would be a crass "five things marketers can learn from…" piece – but some of the things we realized are worth highlighting.

We went out with a specific brief: to help the refugees craft their CVs and asylum applications, and to highlight – to the women specifically – the level of opportunity available to them. What actually transpired was a series of interactive workshops where we learned as much from the attendees as we hope we were able to teach them, and sessions that became dynamic presentations, hotbeds of debate, complex and demanding Q&As and what amounted to, by any standards, show-stopping pitches.

It reminded me that pitching is not just a business (or new-business) aptitude, but a fundamental life skill – and one we should be equipping all of our people with, not just the most senior.

It also brought home that these kids (and they are kids, the same age as this "next generation of talent" we’re all looking to attract) don’t just want to be told what to do – they want to show what they have to offer. If they were able to force us to sit up and listen in this unlikeliest of environments, more fool us if we don’t do the same at home.

I met young women whose ability to articulate their point of difference would rival the expertise of the most seasoned strategist building a brand’s USP. The journey from camp to asylum status can take years, and these women were honing their skills and delivering succinct rationale of what they can offer and why, articulated better than many creative briefs I have seen.

I ran sessions with young men whose life experiences and copywriting talent told stories of heart-wrenching potency equal to any D&AD entry, and 18-year-olds showing the kind of determination, drive and entrepreneurialism that has led to successful start-ups and a level of innovation to rival any of our tech labs.

And yet what are the odds for those who end up in the UK – or, frankly, any country with an advertising industry – that any of them would ever be hired by any of us?

The difference isn’t talent or drive – it’s circumstance.

If you think this comparison is a stretch, or even flippant, try this one: what’s the difference between the predominantly white, middle-class, university-educated people we have traditionally hired and those we haven’t – those from disadvantaged or minority backgrounds or without a CV full of qualifications?

Circumstance.

I’m not saying that we’re missing out on talent in refugee camps in Greece (although I’m not not saying that either – some of the people I met could certainly teach us a thing or two). It’s that we’re missing out on talent that doesn’t look like us. There are pools of creativity and inspiration and ideas and difference in all sorts of places, which we are failing miserably to access.

Tracey Barber is global chief marketing officer at Havas Creative Group. 

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