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'It benefits everyone': how brands & agencies can create an authentic culture of belonging

By Sarah Jenkins |

October 20, 2020 | 6 min read

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, brands and agencies have grappled with how to make their workforce more inclusive. Here, Saatchi & Saatchi's managing director Sarah Jenkins shares three pillars to help businesses create a culture of belonging, built on a proper measurable and sustainable strategy.

 Saatchi & Saatchi's managing director Sarah Jenkins shares three pillars to help businesses create a culture of belonging

Saatchi & Saatchi's managing director Sarah Jenkins shares three pillars to help businesses create a culture of belonging

Black History Month can divide opinions. Is it a fleeting flicker of focus, or the chance to build real, solid foundations that foster belonging over the long-term? Clearly, the industry goes both ways, and it’s increasingly clear which agencies have got their A-game on when it comes to inclusivity.

It definitely seems strange that Black History Month is not embraced more wholeheartedly, because by seizing every opportunity to work on creating a culture of belonging, we can all make our businesses a little bit better.

Belonging makes you more profitable because your best asset – talent - are more effective and want to stay with you. It makes the work better because people feel part of something and want to put more energy into creating extraordinary. Belonging is visceral. You can’t contrive it or make it happen by ticking boxes. Belonging doesn’t allow artifice it has to be genuine, honest and authentic.

Sue Unerman and Kathryn Jacob’s excellent new book, 'Belonging' devotes 288 pages to the subject and it’s clear belonging takes proper work. For belonging and building culture is not simply about being really supportive and handing out duvet days, instead, as with any commercial and strategic imperative, it has to have rigour attached. Standards need to be set and systems need to go deep.

At Saatchi, have a new leadership team and a new remit. Our chief exec (CEO) Sam Hawkey talks openly about how a feeling of belonging has been critical to his success and informs his vision for what he wants at the heart of the agency. He recognises that despite working in some of the best places in the industry, until he stopped acting like others and started bringing his true self to work, he couldn’t be truly happy or brilliantly productive.

There are perhaps two really critical points here. One, creating a culture of belonging really has to start at the very top - it needs apex leadership. And, a culture of belonging where everyone can be themselves literally benefits everyone – even a white, male, middle-class CEO.

And so, if creating a culture of inclusion and belonging isn’t about conjuring up some floaty, nebulous feeling. It needs to have rigour and strategy, but how do we build a proper measurable and sustainable strategy to ensure it happens? For a start we use these three pillars to help keep us focused:

Stay connected

This might sound like it came out of Covid-19, but it was as true in January of this year as it will be in January 2021 and, again in a post-vaccine world (when please-god that actually happens). Our industry moves so fast that we have to make an effort to keep everyone involved, to get more people’s fingerprint on the agency output and make time for a general check-in chat about the weekend before we dive into the rush of the week. It’s vital to have open channels and conversations that feed back into the leadership, we need to know what we are getting right and what we are getting wrong and adapt accordingly.

Keep healthy

We’re far from perfect at this but we’re working hard to get it right. It’s about taking a pastoral approach across the whole agency, and it’s now one of the biggest KPIs for our talent team. We think of it as keeping people 'Impossibly Healthy', working to keep the agency team physically, mentally and emotionally at their best despite the crazy of 2020. It might be making sure everyone has access to a flu jab, checking that the quiet people are okay, or our Saatchi 'Time Out', which involves blocking out 11pm to 12pm and 3pm to 4pm as 'Zoom-free' of 'meeting-free' times when people can take a pause and do something other than work. Admittedly keeping 'time outs' in diaries is notoriously difficult, but there is at least a plan in place, there is shared language and there is intent. We recognise that it’s now going to require more energy (and probably better behaviour from leadership) to continuously deliver it.

Move everyone forward

We make a promise to our staff that we will all keep moving forward, and everyone is free to hold us to it. To achieve that, you need to find both time and budget for training and development. When we say 'all keep moving forward', we really mean the 'all'. Which is why we have chosen, in our 50th year, to double down and made real commitments to moving the diversity dial. Hitting 50 has inspired a triple lock plan to lay inclusive foundations for the next half-century. Saatchi Ignite is a schools programme to inspire on creativity and inform on our industry, Saatchi Open welcomes creative entrepreneurs of all ages to start their creative careers with us, and Saatchi Home offers affordable accommodation in London to interns and junior staff, making sure that anyone with talent can arrive in London and build a home.

In a difficult year, we are seeing some incredible agencies loom even larger while some other agencies falter, and we should remain mindful that culture is only ever as good as the people in it and their energy for maintaining it.

Belonging has to be constantly cultivated. In an industry now shaped by a pandemic, a different agency landscape is already emerging and as we ‘build back better’ in the shadow of George Floyd’s killing and our industry’s awareness of its own systemic prejudice – the focus has to be looking after and building a culture where everyone can feel like they belong. Which is why Black History Month is a time to double down and get busy, not a moment for whimsy and gesture.

Sarah Jenkins is managing director at Saatchi & Saatchi London

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