On being BOLD

Building a culture of inclusion. Welcoming challenging voices. Being better because of our difference.

Jessica Zwaan
10 min readJun 18, 2019


In advertising, we know the best work is an egregious mix of simple truth, a bold voice, and a unique insight into the deeper human condition. Advertising which tells you what you want to hear isn’t powerful; advertising that tells it like it really is, makes you reconsider your position, and works for a brand in a changing, dynamic, and politically-charged world — that’s great advertising.

We’ve seen so much fantastic, challenging, controversial advertising in the last few years. (Perhaps a product of the deepening political climate we find ourselves.) It’s that work which sticks with us and makes people talk. It’s that work which wins awards, and benefits our brands — work like Nike’s controversial #Just Do It campaign with Colin Kaepernick, launching into national debate in 2016 by kneeling during the national anthem as a protest against the continuing police brutality and racial inequality that pervades North America to this day.

Kaepernick in the ‘Just Do It’ ad campaign

In a bold (and divisive) creative decision, Nike chose Kaepernick to star in the ‘Just Do It’ ad campaign. The move polarized the brand’s audience, loud and clear. While some of us applauded Nike for the decision, some others denounced — even berated the move — causing a twitter-storm of monumental proportion. Burning products, vowing to avoid the brand. Many called supporting Kaepernick, whom the brand endorsed for several years prior, unpatriotic and unduly political. Despite a decrease in business shares the day after the ad dropped (no doubt due to the controversy), Nike’s sales went up 31% over the Labor Day weekend in the US.

It’s work like Toxic Toby which challenges our elected officials to take action and shares a difficult and important message the public need to hear. Toxic Toby is an animatronic bear, who tweets local Members of Parliament whenever air toxicity rises above healthy levels in London. Toby is a roadside memorial in the capital’s pollution blackspots to highlight the startling 9,400 premature deaths associated with this public health issue.

You have to be different, you have to stand out, have a unique voice. This isn’t a message individual to advertising, because advertising is just a reflection of every brand we work for.

Toxic Toby by McCann London for Breezometre

There is no doubt in the marketing and advertising world, or indeed in any other field I’ve ever worked in (and this is the first time I’ve worked in advertising) that being bold, sharing new (and sometimes hard to hear messages) is powerful. Unique and diverse messages, strongly and decisively shared, are capable of changing consumer behaviour, uplifting brands, and creating real successes for businesses.

What do brands stand to gain when they get it right? Most obviously and prominent is recognition, but in many cases, increases in brand loyalty, life-time-value, and positive brand experiences.

Interestingly, this brand loyalty is not just within the marginalised audiences represented in the ads, but from the population at large. Recent reports by professional LGBT network ‘OUTstanding’ claim that 14% of customers are more likely to choose products and services from companies who promote diversity, for example supporting LGBT communities within their marketing. 37% of customers report feeling ‘positive’ towards brands who are active in working with LGBT and other minority communities to support and promote them in their marketing materials.

Of course, the way we’ve been told that this will best happen, and it’s right, is through building a team with diverse voices, different backgrounds, and unique points of view.


And, in fact, we have some very tangible work, ads, products, and ideas out there that didn’t get it right — work which furthers our understanding of what we know to be true — that having diverse people in your team will help you make better decisions. And when it’s wrong, it can be really detrimental. We all have these kinds stories in our professional history — where a few more voices may have helped us make better decisions, although I must say that these stories are rarely as poignant or pointed as they are in advertising, entertainment, or the arts.

Working in advertising, and working on a specially crafted apprenticeship programme for our agencies (which has the added benefit of welcoming these new, diverse voices), I’ve been inspired to talk about a side of championing and fighting for diversity which doesn’t get as much airtime. And something that I think we, as HR professionals, are ultimately responsible for.


Sometimes I feel that ‘diversity’ is fast becoming, or has become a ubiquitous buzzword. Something I hear the same discussions about time after time: diversity increases engagement, diversity will boost innovation. And I agree. Whether you work in advertising, tech or any industry in between, there are few disciplines which have not pressed efforts to embrace the age of inclusivity.

Evident so clearly in the strong work I showed earlier was the power of a strong, diverse, and confrontational, diverse point of view. The power of a new message, strongly voiced.

But equally, all of the work shown shares another story — one of dissent, difficulty, and challenge.

One of dissent, difficulty, and challenge.

Because building a diverse team isn’t easy, and I know we all know. But what many of my peers (in and out of the People function) seem to be equally unprepared for is how to, as a team, and as a business, ready ourselves for the voices we want so terribly to influence and challenge the norms in our work.

Bringing new voices into your company means you’ll experience new things. You’ll reap the rewards through innovation and economic gains, of that myself (and the research) is all but certain, but also — you’ll experience:

The questioning

The challenging

The dissenting.

These voices will come because we’ve invited them. And they’ll stay, and bring huge value to our teams if we are culturally prepared for this change. If we make this conflict constructive, welcome, and psychologically safe. We cannot, as businesses, have our cake and eat it too — we have to be prepared to change our work, and our ways of working together.

This doesn’t mean we need to alienate any part of our teams, but it does mean that along-side working on harmonious inclusion programmes and policies, we need to open our eyes and ears and find ways to build a culture that is welcoming of challenge, feedback, change, and dissent. Because it’s the only way we’ll grow and prosper as diverse communities.

All of us, together.

None of us are excused, absolved, immune, not subject to, released from, not responsible for creating this culture.

It’s not going to work if your leadership team aren’t willing to set up and take accountability for communicating their support for diversity, challenging voices, and to let your team know that it’s okay to take some time to get used to this. None of us avoid the responsibility of actively welcoming the changes and challenges a diverse, inclusive, and engaged team will bring.

Andrew Mason is the ex-CEO of Groupon. He was a lousy CEO towards the end by all accounts, but he, in his final days, demonstrated the kind of extreme self-awareness and transparency he himself advocated for — and sent a letter to his team which included the below quote:

I was fired today. If you’re wondering why… you haven’t been paying attention. From controversial metrics in our S1 to our material weakness to two quarters of missing our own expectations […] As CEO, I am accountable.

Now, I’m not saying you should resign from your jobs and send all company letters if you find yourself in conflict at work. This story is a clear example of a leader walking the walk he set out for his team, all the way to the end. If you and your founding or executive teams set out to embrace diversity, change, and radical candor — you have to build a culture where accountability is accepted, and expected from the very top: that kind of accountability, openness, and willingness to change is going to have to be embraced by everyone for inclusion to work.

It’s not you, it’s the work:

There’s a story about Google executive Larry Page bursting into a room and making a big show of announcing that a set of ads were terrible — in fact, they “sucked”.

If you invited someone into your team with a challenging point of view on the work you’re producing, and the way you’re doing it, and they barged into their first management meeting saying the way you ran things “sucked”, you’d be pretty correct in assuming this might not work out in the long run. Maybe these diverse and dissenting voices caused more harm than good.

Feedback given this way could only work because Google had spent years building up a receptive, communicative culture. And the reality is that a grand gesture like this, for all that it motivated some people in the room, very likely will have demoralized others. It certainly does nothing to build an atmosphere in which people would feel able to calmly and openly discuss their work.

To be constructive, strong feedback needs to be specific, showing people where to focus their efforts on improving. It needs to focus on the product, not the person, making clear that the employee who did the work is not under attack. People who feel attacked, or who are not given a clear way forward, will become defensive and less open to feedback.

Radical candor (or similar) and training around feedback is so important. Allow the new members of your team to share their feedback in a considerate manner which challenges the work — and never the individuals.

Say it loud for those in the back.

Every single challenge in my career, every employee relations dispute, every cultural cross-wire has had one thing in common. Poor or miss communication. Be manically clear about the culture you want to build. Over-communicate and find room for others to talk freely about how they feel. Actively kill rumors, gossip, and don’t let the grapevine grow.

So often we in leadership, or privileged People positions forget how hard it is to escape the noise of your day to day job, and get the cultural messages we’re trying to send out. Once you’ve opened your arms to diversity, you need to communicate the culture you want it to bring. Celebrate when feedback, dissent, and challenging voices work. Constantly reinforce that these challenging ideas, new voices, and diverse perspectives are what will make us stronger.

Allow underrepresented voices space to speak publicly in your all-hands meetings, and company events. Work hard to welcome the voices we need to hear to improve while listening for feedback from your team about how they’re handling this change.

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Over the past few years, we’ve hired a few folks into our agency who form something close to the first of their kind — state or self-educated, ethnically diverse, bold voices, passionate about social change. These members of our team are hugely talented and we are privileged to have them, I am thrilled that we’ve built a team that communicates with this kind of talent, and can convince them to join our mission.

I’m also proud to say that right now, McCann, and advertising, is the most diverse it has ever been in its history — but we still have much more to learn about creating inclusive workspaces for everyone.

Welcoming these new voices hasn’t always been easy. I’ve seen and heard them struggle to express themselves in the same way others have been taught to through family in advertising, or formal degrees, or simply because our meetings and hierarchy may be set up to suit those from a certain background.

We know that diversity doesn’t stop at bringing talent into McCann, so we’re working hard to build a culture where everyone can challenge each other to make challenging work.

Some of our Programmes that help support furthered equality:

  • We have a commitment to ensure fair and inclusive recruitment practices, which includes my team developing Interview Training, and the L&D team running unconscious bias training for those in decision-making roles with pastoral responsibilities.
  • A “Work in Progress” programme of quarterly events, projects, and goals — so that we remain focussed around developing a culture that welcomes new, diverse recruits.
  • Partnering with Brixton Finishing School, Exceptional Individuals, Camden Council, and Creative Pioneers.
  • Paying a London Living Wage

Maya Angelou once said, “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” If we want our businesses to remain competitive, if we want our companies to be great idea generators, and problem solvers for our clients, or creators of innovative products for our customers, and if we want to be great places to work, we have a responsibility to ensure that diversity and inclusion efforts succeed, and we simply must change.

We have to welcome the dissent, we have to welcome the challenge.

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Jessica Hayes: Executive People, Culture & Talent Director.

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Jessica Zwaan

G’day. 🐨 I am a person and I like to think I am good enough to do it professionally. So that’s what I do.