Martin Sorrell tells The Drum how his identity as a second-generation immigrant has shaped his career
Standard narratives around immigration usually concern an immigrant’s assimilation into a new society, rather that what they add to the culture of their new home. But ours is an industry where it’s impossible to ignore the contributions made to our innovative and dynamic economies. The Drum’s Sonoo Singh catches up with migrants, both first and second generation, to hear how an immigrant identity has shaped their approach to work and creativity.
Being a grandson of immigrants from Ukraine, Poland and Romania has certainly influenced me, probably making me more determined and focused.
I recall my ‘Zader‘ on my father’s side, who claimed to be over 100, with his snuff-soaked mustache and silver pocket watch and chain, telling (probably exaggerated) stories of chopping off a Cossack’s hand at the age of 11 with a sword, as it reached over a barricade in the ghetto.
My Bubba, also on my father’s side, the lioness of the family, was the real strength, raising five children and fleeing to the UK from Ukraine in 1899. When my mother died a few years ago, I found my father’s parents’ UK wedding certificate. No signatures, just crosses and the same for the four witnesses.
My mother’s parents were less colorful, Polish and Romanian, and my father always joking that his mother-in-law was a Romanian gypsy.
My father – who in his early years appears to have been an amateur lawyer defending Jewish businessmen in the East End – encountered significant antisemitism. He was an avid reader, quoting large chunks of Shakespeare and the Talmud to his dying day, and fell in love with Warwick Deeping’s book Sorrell and Son, the story of a father and son relationship. Worried by his Russian, Jewish-sounding name, he changed it to Sorrell in the late 1920s.
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Finally, I always remember my mother and father being amazed by the front-page story in The Times of London following our successful hostile takeover of the JWT Group in 1987. They had always thought of the paper as antisemitic before the second world war, and you can just imagine how proud my mother, in particular, was of her only son – a spoiled Jewish boy.
Finally finally, after my father died I found a letter he had written to me a year or so before, laying out his thoughts and wishes, sensing his condition had changed. One of the most memorable passages was where he said: “Try not to allow material matters to cloud your vision, for, however bright the sun, clouds do blot out its rays.”
I am a bundle of contradictions. I am a third-culture person. An aerophobe who loves to travel. A playwright in an advertising strategist’s life. An American and a South Asian woman. And while occasionally difficult, these conflicting and melding identities give me plenty to think about.
From an early age I knew I had to find a way to record and digest the many conflicts within me, so I started writing. My writing began as an act of survival, as a means to understand and interpret an unfamiliar new country. When we moved from Mumbai to rural upstate New York, everything was an enigma and writing made life easier to understand.
This desire to study, to emulate, change and record my environment hasn’t stopped. It is no wonder that I went on to study literature and then create a career in an industry such as advertising: both require an appreciation for, and understanding of, human behavior.
As strategists, we’re often asked to serve as the ‘voice of the consumer’, and yet we normally live in urban bubbles surrounded by people and media that reinforce our beliefs. How do we expect to represent people we have no interaction with?
For me, observation is not only an occupation, it is a necessary skill for making
my way in the world. As a child, I observed people and culture around me so that I could fit in. As an adult, though armed with more confidence than my much younger self, I still find myself skating on the edges of many communities.
Looking in from the outside makes you root for people. The edge is where culture is created. The edge is where the best of two things come together in unique combinations. The edge is where creativity lives.
These days, I see that Google has replaced conversation and observation as the first port of call for examining the forces that shape how people respond and react to culture and brands. The problem with this approach is two-fold: first of all, it relies on others as a lens to experience. We have to really seek out the raw materials we need. Second, the ‘searcher’ is a passive participant.
I always recommend that the best place to start when addressing whatever brief the client has put forth is to get out into the real world. That takes courage and tenacity – two characteristics that being an immigrant gives you in spades.
In the early 70s, when I was three, my family came to England from Egypt. They would have been the first and only members of their family to do so. By the time I was four we had settled in a quintessentially English city called Salisbury. Unlike London at the time, which had pockets of immigrant communities, there was very little ethnic diversity among its residents, and certainly no other Middle Eastern or Muslim families.
When I started school I didn’t speak a word of English. Despite coming from a Muslim family, my parents felt it would be better to send me to a school with strong religious principles, even if these weren’t quite aligned with their own. So I spent my early years in a Roman Catholic school run by nuns. If that wasn’t enough, this was all compounded by the fact TV shows at the time were probably at their peak of perpetuating racial stereotypes and dramatizing racist views.
My first day of school was a terrifying experience. I’m sure this is the case for many children of that age, but it was particularly acute given I was struggling to communicate with any of the other children or understand the teacher. It didn’t take long for me to pick up the language, but the self-consciousness and stigma that comes with being different to everybody around you stays with you. The drive to prove yourself to those who judge you stays with you. The need to adapt, to build a rapport and win people over stays with you. The sense that you must work so much harder than everyone else to be accepted and have the same chances of success stays with you. And, unfortunately, the need to deal with negativity and rejection stays with you too.
But for those who manage to overcome those obstacles there’s a lot to be gained. Like any challenging situation in life that is overcome, it makes you stronger, more resilient. Learning to be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable is more critical now than ever. To overcome rejection and pick yourself up in the face of criticism and defeat is something we increasingly need to face. It’s critical to being creative and running a business. With every idea that isn’t liked, every pitch that isn’t won, every piece of business lost; with an industry in flux and facing more disruption than ever before; where empathy is an essential part of what makes us good at what we do; resourcefulness and the ability to adapt will determine future success.
There’s something of a pioneering spirit in the DNA of any immigrant. They are individuals who have taken a risk to venture into the unknown, to build a new and better life, a life away from the safety of what’s familiar. To embrace new ideas, experiences and perspectives. It’s certainly not for the faint hearted, but these are essential qualities for surviving this business today.
Madhavan was appointed chief executive officer of the largest privately held, family-owned spirits company in the world in September 2017. According to reports, he began his career in engineering “building warships for the navy”. Madhavan grew up in Mumbai, India, and has worked in markets such as India, Dubai, Thailand and the Philippines. Insiders at Bacardi say that since his arrival, the business has been implementing a cultural shift with a focus on the concept of the ‘three Fs’: fearless, founder (legacy) and family.
The Brazilian-born marketer has become a poster child for diversity ever since she arrived on the shores of Britain. She led the global diversity and inclusion agenda, the #Unstereotype Alliance, and the Foundry startups – as well as global paternity leave across the company and the ‘Diffabilities’ program, which is about embracing differences.
In an interview with The Drum at The Drum Arms at Cannes Lions 2018, Santos called herself a marketer with the refreshing perspective of an “outsider” and “an activist”, and described how that makes her intuitive to the idea of empathy in storytelling, something that has led her to work to remove harmful stereotypes from her work and in her workplace.
I moved back to the UK in October 2018, after nearly five years based in Asia. Before I’d set foot in Singapore I was lucky to have it suggested to me that I read From Third World to First, a book by Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew. It’s an insight into the Singaporean psyche and helped me understand the extraordinary story of entrepreneurialism, vision and determination that has shaped Singapore. I was not there as an expatriate with superior knowledge and skills to the local workforce, but as someone whose role it was to train the next generation of Singaporean leadership. I was there to help form a future in which I would no longer be required.
During my time in Asia I also set up offices in Shanghai and Tokyo, and I admit that my first MD hires for the different offices were all western expats. People tend to innately stick with what makes them feel comfortable. But fast forward three years and all the MDs and almost all the respective management teams I had in place were Singaporean, Chinese or Japanese. In the intervening time I had come to understand that the best people to make things happen, to flex a network, to know and understand local consumers and to manage client relationships, were always going to be local people. I realized that despite the pressures of societies that are much more Confucian in nature than in the West, together with small budgets and aggressive timelines, the creativity on show was as strong as anywhere else in the world. In fact, given the constraints in place, maybe stronger.
Hierarchical societies can at times stifle people’s instinctive reactions to things. Perhaps what I may have brought to the table was a different context, and the attempt to encourage people to be more open and honest in their dialogue. During my time in Singapore I noticed a sea change in the behavior of Singaporean clients – at first they were keen to get the point of view of someone who had spent time in the West, but by the time I left I often felt that my voice was redundant and, at times, irrelevant.
There can be a tinge of smugness to the word expatriate; indeed, a good chunk of the expatriates I met did come across as smug. But with a dose of humility and an understanding that it’s a privilege to spend time in another country and another culture, there is no reason why people living abroad can’t add a lot of value. A diverse culture is something to be nurtured and celebrated. It’s always richer, more creative and more joyful.
My grandfather was born and raised in the state of Gujarat in western India, which has a population in excess of 60 million. He took the brave decision to travel thousands of miles and live and settle in a new home in the UK with his very limited English, and made yet another critical decision that I now realize changed my life forever. Not only did he decide to leave his home and parents to come to the ‘promised land’, but through one single friendship he decided to settle his family and build his home in a place called Cheltenham, a regency spa town on the edge of the Cotswolds. It’s the location for the Gold Cup festival, the horse-racing event often frequented by the Queen. It’s also a stark contrast to the village in Gujarat – my family raised my sister and I in a place where we were most definitely the minority.
Reflecting on first-generation immigrant, which I’ve never consciously described myself as before, I’d say culture and background have affected my approach to work and creativity in three ways. First, cherish difference – class, caste and culture can all change a person; understand and appreciate it. Second, walk the shoes – don’t just sit in an office to understand consumers. And third, surround yourself with friends, teams, family – they keep you grounded and will always put a mirror to you when it’s needed most.
My ‘cocktail’ of eastern and western culture makes me who I am today – a better marketer, a better creative.
A version of this feature first appeared in the Globalization for Good issue of The Drum magazine, in which we look at how the coming wave of connectivity associated with the fourth industrial revolution is set to impact business and society. Pick up your copy today and read more accounts of how an immigrant identity influenced the life and work of luminaries such as Dave Buonaguidi, Bilge Ciftci and Tanya Joseph.