Tahaab Rais, Regional Head of Strategy & Truth Central at FP7 McCann MENAT, confronts the culture crisis the industry faces today and proposes ways to address it, getting inspiration from bees.
In “Truth About Advertising,” a 2016 study done by our agency, only 7% of the people surveyed said they’d date someone from advertising, marketing, and communications. While saddeningly funny (or funnily sad) for the single folks in our fraternity, this is actually a very relevant little piece of data. Truth is, the industry doesn’t have that badge value out in the real world in our region, beyond award shows and our own circles. It did a few decades back. I have heard from veterans in Egypt, Lebanon, and Bahrain how it used to be cool to be in this field. People would quit jobs to restart careers as writers in our industry. Now, other industries and platforms have taken that badge value on out here.
And one major factor, coupled with the way most agencies price their value (and therefore, reward people financially), is ‘culture.’ This topic is being discussed in every company now more than ever. Why? Because a company’s ‘culture’ is a significant performance and reputational factor. We’ve seen that with sports teams. Teams with great cultures win more and are loved more than teams with divided or absent cultures. During this entire crisis we’re in, looking around at companies that are short on resources with overworked staff who face stresses in their own personal lives too, it’s pretty clear that the ‘culture’ has not held on strongly enough or just wasn’t believed in enough. It has led to what I’d call a tragedy of talent.
Amidst this crisis, another tragedy our world faces is that bees are disappearing at an alarming rate. And seeing the process of harvesting honey from a live beehive a while back reminded me of what we can learn from bees about creating great ‘cultures.’ You see, in 2012, three months after her birth, my elder daughter (now an 8-year-old) was diagnosed with severe neutropenia (i.e., very low immunity to illnesses that can lead to severe health issues). We were given the ‘wait & watch’ prescription by doctors in Dubai. Sasan Saeidi, who had hired me at FP7 back then, recommended me to a pediatrician (thank you again, Sasan), who in turn, guided us to a hematologist. Instead of waiting for things to watch out for, we were advised by this accomplished doctor to go old school – to give the little one a spoonful of Manuka honey (scientifically recognized for its healing benefits) every night. Today, my daughter is growing up as healthy as any other healthy kid (may she always be healthy) and falling sick as often as them too.
Now, that fascinated me. Man-made medicine and expertise couldn’t do much to help with her sickness, but something a honeybee created, did. And I was hooked to the power of healing that came from this little creature. I started reading about honeybees and watching videos about their habits and what they can teach us, with the passion of an apiarist. Since our industry is a little sick on the culture front (COVID-19 and otherwise), we could do with that power of healing and building great cultures, learning from good old honeybees.
Define the North star and what will get you there
Learning: Bees know their purpose and hence, their goals. Everything they do follows that purpose. The author of the ‘Little Prince,’ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, once wrote, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
Reflection: 46% cite company culture as a reason to join. 76% cite company culture as a reason to stay. Most companies have an external purpose, and they usually are pretty awesome. But how many have an internal purpose for their own people, or an external one that works for their own people? Few do. Creating a purpose for an agency’s culture, much like we do for brands, is a good start. It becomes the guiding light for everyone. It is a company’s brand. It helps companies stand behind their people. It attracts the best to join (and stay). It influences the work that is created and interactions with others.
Idea: ‘The Culture Belief.’ Develop co-creation workshops to define, or redefine, the agency’s culture for these testing times. The participants? A cross-section of people across departments, disciplines, experience levels, genders, nationalities, and backgrounds. Make sure the goal is to identify the most compelling culture statement co-created by the people who work in the company. And then, help them define a range of activities and ideas to bring that culture to life. When launching it, help them launch it. Make them the spokespeople. After all, don’t we tell most CMOs that a brand’s strongest allies are its consumers and fans?
Give more than you take
Learning: Even though the bee shares a transactional relationship with the flower it pollinates, it will always give a lot more than it takes. And what it gives makes the life of the flower better. If you observe a bee about to eat from a flower, you will see that it keeps hovering gently over, so as to not put its entire weight on the most delicate part of the flower. Now, the bee is relatively heavy for something as delicate as a flower. Watch how it shows its compassion. It sits but it doesn’t break. It puts demands but it doesn’t break. What a great way to eat! What a great way to live!
Reflection: That analogy writes itself. With work from home becoming a habit for many; with lines between work and home blurring; with people expected to be always around to have a video call, even after working hours; with the entire day spent in meetings because one’s Outlook calendar shows up as free (forgetting that our people have actual work to do besides meetings); are we putting too much pressure on people? As a result, do we realize the pressure we are putting on their partners, their families, their children? As an industry, we have to ask these questions because it impacts culture. 67% of employees are facing burnout; and those are just reported numbers. We have relationships with people but we keep demanding incessantly from those that want to belong to us, not giving more than we take.
Idea: ‘The Personal Time Timesheet.’ Make sure people know there’s a time they need to keep for themselves. In such times, ensuring people work during humane working hours and have downtime and weekends to themselves is key. Whether they choose to invest that personal time in honing their skills, investing more in their professional lives, doing something they love with people they love, or simply watching Netflix and chilling, is up to them. They come back happier, they’re fresher, and they contribute better. It’s up to us, as leaders, to manage expectations, not send emails on Thursday evenings or late at night (unless it’s really an emergency, which does not happen every day) and not break what can bloom.
From “Where’s Wally?” to “How’s Wally?"
Learning: Bees are known to not only change jobs as they grow from younglings to more experienced members of the hive, but to also do something beautiful as the seasons change: when it gets cold, bees form a cluster like a big ball (the size of a basketball) to ensure the inside is very warm. Individual bees move in and out of the center, in order, and take turns on the chilly outside. Then, if it gets too hot, they start fanning to get rid of the hot hair inside the hive. That’s empathy from an unexpected place
Reflection: 42% of people don’t feel empathized with. In most workplaces, we usually see folks ask “Where is someone?” or “What is someone busy with?” when looking for that person’s availability. If only we changed the lens of the question to also ask “How is that someone?” (first and foremost) when looking for that person’s availability, we’d create not only places with more empathetic cultures but also cultures where people give a whole lot more to. It’s akin to our brands targeting people based on “where” and “when” without defining “why” it matters. Return on Empathy, like Return on Giving, is a potent culture metric, quite often not considered in measurement methodologies and hence, not measured.
Idea: ‘Personal Status Checks.’ Every team should not just do work status checks or traffic sit-downs, but also personal status checks and people sit-downs. Employees’ emotional well-being should be a focus area for companies in how they help those who struggle with mental health to come and talk freely, and not worry about how they’ll be perceived. High EQ is needed when it comes to tackling this sensitive but very, very, very important topic.
Inspire people to do something new
Learning: Bees go off and do their actual tasks outside the hive. They come to the hive to congregate, collate, and connect.
Reflection: With the migration to online ordering and home delivery in most fields, the likes of Starbucks and Apple asked themselves, “When the store is not necessary, how do you make people come to the store?” They turned their stores into experiences. Apple, for instance, launched Today at Apple, making their stores into centers of creativity. Anyone who has not heard of it should check this story out. Similarly, if working from home has made us realize that being in the office all the time is not necessary, how can we make people come to the office and, better still, how can the office play a meaningful role in their professional lives? The answer lies in turning the office into an experience too.
Idea: ‘Places to Grow.’ Offices of the future need to become places of collaboration – where teams can get together to brainstorm ideas; places of wellbeing – where people can come to relax and destress; and, very importantly in my book, places of innovation and experimentation. Our schools and universities had laboratories, where we experimented; libraries, where we studied and learnt; cafes, where we chilled out. For instance, how many companies, in our industry, have areas dedicated to interacting with emerging technology? Not many, right? So, with less people needing to be in the office, it’d be great to see these spaces emerging. That might just, in turn, encourage more quality visits and time spent at the office.
Building a collective vs creating competition
Learning: Collectively, bees travel nearly 55,000 miles and visit two million flowers in a day to gather enough nectar to make just a pound of honey. When our bee comes back to its hive, it does a peculiar dance, hovering around. This dance informs its fellow bees about the navigation path and coordinates, directing them to the area where this bee got its food. It therefore helps them pollinate, so they can nourish themselves too. This ONE bee helps the community get nourished and richer. The bee recognizes that it cannot build a hive by itself. It has to do it together with the other bees.
Reflection: When the team wins, everyone wins. When an individual wins, everyone wins too. Taking pride in our collective success should always be the goal. When individual successes happen, we must learn to celebrate the collective that made them possible. The Chicago Bulls did that, didn’t they? They had to educate and teach their superstar how to play in a team and for the team, as the team winning mattered more than him holding on to the ball all the time, while letting him know he was still their main player and that his success mattered too.
Idea: ‘Good News Gatherings.’ Companies must create more, regular monthly team gatherings, even if they’re virtual. Share the work done by all teams. Celebrating and cheering each team while crediting the individuals is key. Showing their work is recognized makes teams and people feel special. And have fun afterwards!
Do something good for others
Learning: The way the bee eats produces more life; the way the world has worked and consumed over the past few years, doesn’t. There are problems aplenty in our society and in our lives. Looking at the bee, again, gives us a poignant reminder. Just like us, the bee earns its livelihood and has relationships; yet it not only benefits itself, but also its community and its environment. And it is the bees’ joint efforts that create the very honey that heals people, including my daughter thousands of miles away. This amazing healing power can come from each of those little bees.
Reflection: 84% of people want to associate with companies that do good for others. We all know that the world around us has gone sick and needs healing. And we have the power, as creative and marketing teams. We have the voice to heal. If a community of bees can heal ailments around the world, imagine what a community of smart minds in a company can do. If we can be like the bees and work, live, and contribute to a cause that matters to the people in the company, we don’t just benefit and heal each other; we benefit and heal mankind. Creativity for a greater good is a result of that. And feeling good is, too.
Idea: ‘The Solidarity Chain.’ Find a cause that the company’s people believe they must support. And get people (everyone) as part of that cause. It can be inequality, economic disparity, mental wellbeing, anything. Look at the UN SDGs as an inspiration. Let’s not just do CSR ideas for awards season. Let’s do CSR for real as people and as a company.
In the year ahead, 86% of people believe they would be less stressed if they had a flexible job; 76% claim they would be more loyal to companies if flexible work options were offered; 77% say flexible work options would enable them to lead healthier lives. Regardless of what companies do with their working policies, what matters is that while we focus on bottom-lines as an industry (and that’s important, even for bees!), we also remember that people don’t just want to work for a company that they love; they also want to work for a company that loves them. And in learning from that little bee, we can help do just that as we move towards what’s next.
This article was published in Communicate’s Q1 edition. You can access the full magazine here.