Rav Singh’s Q&A with The Drum: ‘Diversity isn’t about blending in, it’s about standing out’

Caliber CEO Rav Singh recently spoke with The Drum Network, discussing his own experiences of racism and discrimination in the industry and the changes he believes need to take place inside UK marcoms.

Article originally posted by Michael Feeley on The Drum

What are the benefits of encouraging ethnic and gender diversity among your workforce?

Looking across my 30 years of professional experience, I can see how having a range of different perspectives inside your team is very valuable for any business, but even more so for an agency like Caliber. If you have a ‘monotone’ approach to your workforce, you are more likely to respond to the briefs you’re given responsibility for in a monotone way. Alternatively, if you have a tapestry of people from different walks of life, you’re more likely to have a greater degree of depth and flexibility in solving a challenge for your client.

Today, I can see that I benefited from being in a situation where I did stand out. I had to do more to prove myself simply because of the colour of my skin.

The marcoms industry has traditionally struggled to become more ethnically diverse. What factors do you think are at play?

I’ve been working in the marcoms space since 1997 and prior to that I spent 10 years in the hospitality sector — both sectors rely on talent and both have suffered from skills shortages in recent years. If you think about the diversity on display in the hospitality industry today, you can see that the marcoms space has not really been as accessible to people from ethnic minority backgrounds.

If you haven’t had the benefits of socialising with people from different backgrounds to your own then your thinking is always going to be skewed to some extent in a particular direction, based on what you are familiar and comfortable with. That applies across the full spectrum of cultures, by the way, as you can see the same sort of thinking among black and Asian communities. That’s the mindset we need to change from all directions.

How do we influence that “stick with your own community” mindset?

Ultimately, it’s down to individual men and women to lead the way. I come from an Asian ethnic minority background. I was born in the UK 50 years ago and grew up in inner-city Birmingham during the late 60s and the 70s. It was a very challenging time. My father took a decision in 1973 to move out of the city’s Asian neighborhood to a largely white middle-class area. That was a brave move at the time and only now do I fully appreciate how advanced my father was in his own thinking.

Today, I can see that I benefited from being in a situation where I did stand out. I had to do more to prove myself simply because of the colour of my skin. I suffered significant amounts of racism and had to deal with that on a day-to-day basis at school, college and university. Looking back, I guess that shaped my character.

So, my thinking is that if you come from one specific part of society and you don’t mingle with anyone outside of it, you don’t have the benefit of experiencing various aspects of life. That spills over into the workplace. The marcoms space, for example, has never been deemed to be a career among Asian parents. Most of my relatives have studied to be doctors, lawyers or accountants and guess what, I’m a qualified accountant myself, so I wasn’t immune to the expectations of my parents. That said, my accountancy knowledge has been useful to me throughout my career.

The thing I learned in that role was to embrace and celebrate our differences and the traditions of each country in a way that enriches the team and our lives both at home and at work.

I think things are changing from both sides of the equation, so the PR, marketing and communications and design industries are becoming more and more accessible. I’m an ambassador for the Taylor Bennet Foundation, which promotes black and Asian minority students and graduates to consider careers in PR and media. That initiative has been running for 10 years now — I’m proud to be involved and show the young people what’s possible within this industry.

So, it’s really a question of broadening perspectives?

Absolutely. I’ve also had the benefit of living and working in Eastern Europe for 10 years, based out of Budapest, which was an amazing experience. We operated across 18 different countries and had 18 different nationalities on staff, many of whom were from the former Soviet Union. It was fascinating to understand the dynamics and psyche of each country; the nuances at play between them were often quite startling. The thing I learned in that role was to embrace and celebrate our differences and the traditions of each country in a way that enriches the team and our lives both at home and at work.

Likewise, I later became chief operations officer for a global agency, working with people from many different backgrounds and experiences in the US and Far East. The rich tapestry of thinking available within the business made work a very enjoyable experience.

Is it possible to influence diversity in the workplace without the use of quotas and positive discrimination?

I joined Caliber just over a year ago and have been lucky to inherit a broadly gender-balanced workforce. We also have people from Ukraine, from Poland, Italy, Spain — lots of ethnic diversity in the organisation.

We don’t use quotas. We simply hire the best people the business can afford to help solve complex challenges for our clients.

What advice can you offer to business leaders looking to broaden the diversity of their workforce?

I can give you examples from my own experience where I’ve submitted CVs for a job with my own name on it and had zero response but submitted the same CV to the same employer for the same job but with a Western name on it and received invitations to interview.

So, my advice to employers would be remove that mindset, that thinking, that someone from an ethnic minority background isn’t going to be able to do the job or that their face won’t fit. You’re doing yourself and your company a disservice by missing out on the full breadth of talent that’s available to you.

Pursue an agenda to have a more diverse workforce. Get out there and talk to people. I’m a first-generation UK Asian, but within my own family there is now a second and third generation who have lived here all their lives and have retained the work ethic ingrained into them by their older relatives.

Get in touch with organisations like the Taylor Bennet Foundation and others — come along to some of the events. You’ll find that there is a huge amount of people interested in coming into the marcoms space.

And for young people out there interested in joining our industry, but feel under pressure from a cultural perspective to go down the ‘professional’ route, try to follow your passion. Remember there will still be opportunities for you to apply your skillset within the marcoms industry further down the line either way.

There are lots of reasons to be optimistic about diversity in our industry but, equally, there’s still a long way to go.

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