It’s been about a month since I returned from Cannes after attending See it Be it (SIBI) – an acceleration programme launched in 2013 by Cannes Lions in an effort to address the under-representation of women at creative leadership levels in the advertising industry.
“See It Be It was launched to highlight extremely talented creative women and accelerate their careers. This year’s group come from all over the world and bring a wide range of experiences and strong leadership potential. They will be exposed to the best inspiration Cannes Lions has to offer, with exclusive mentoring sessions, workshops and a programme of events designed to extend and enhance their network.”
— Louise Benson, Executive Festival Director, Executive Lead, See It Be It.
For me, this translated as “Oh my God I can’t believe I am here!” For six years the wallpaper on my office computer was the Cannes Lions trophy. It was silly to dream I would make it to Cannes one day, but that dream became a reality when I filled in a form, thinking “Oh I will never be selected.” Not only was I selected, I was selected twice (in 2016, my visa was rejected by the French embassy, because “the reason of travel is unreliable”). However, in 2017, much to my delight I managed to get the visa, and hopped on a plane for Nice, from where everyone makes their way to Cannes.
From there on I spent four intense days with remarkable women and men from the industry and attended exclusive events and trips which admen and women could only dream about.
The diversity and the similarity of the group was astounding – women from Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Germany, India, Japan, Nigeria, Singapore, the UK and US. To be the first Pakistani woman to make it to this programme is still unbelievable, yet the learning was that it was unbelievable for all of us. Most of the time, we think ourselves unworthy. My biggest learning during day one was that we are different, yet we are not that different. Even the people whom we think have it made have their own insecurities and fears.
Too much happened in the course of SIBI for me to encapsulate in 1,200 words. Things like the tour of the jury room, the trip to Google Island, meeting creative gods such as Susan Credle (Global Chief Creative Officer, FCB), Wendy Clark (formerly at Coca-Cola and now CEO, DDB North America), Tham Khai Meng (Co-Chairman and Worldwide Chief Creative Officer, Ogilvy), Piyush Pandey (Co-Executive Chairman and National Creative Director, Ogilvy India), Sheryl Sandberg (COO, Facebook), my hero David Droga (Founder and Creative Chairman, Droga 5) – I was willing to stand outside his hotel day and night for a chance meeting; thankfully it didn't come to that, and most of all Madonna Badger (Founder and Chief Creative Officer, Badger and Winters, the creator of #WomenNotObjects campaign and SIBI ambassador for this year).
There was so much learning that it felt as though my head would explode and too many moments when I was slapping myself... thinking: “Man, why didn't I think of doing that?!”
As SIBI participants, we were given an exclusive tour of the jury room (no one at Cannes is allowed to enter it). I remember that during a conversation with members of the jury on the things that annoy them most about entries, their matter-of-fact statement that: “our bullshit barometer is finely tuned” led to laughs and insight. For them the context to any idea is the most important thing. They stressed that the jury was truly global and for most of them English was not their first language. Some of their observations included: make your case simple and spell out the cultural and local references and context clearly; a flashy case film will not help you win – it's the bravery and creativity of the idea itself – great storytelling versus great shiny things – that win.
As this was a leadership programme for women, there was a lot of discussion on women in the creative industry and the challenges they face. I am so pleased to report that Pakistan is far ahead in terms of equal treatment for women in the advertising industry at least. When I heard women talk about pay gaps and biases at the workplace I could not relate to it. Unlike the West, more women are given a seat at the table in Pakistan to discuss the big issues and I have never been a victim of prejudice in any organisation. I wish all fields and sectors of our society would follow the advertising industry’s example in Pakistan.
There are so many talented women in this industry who should apply to this programme next year. Bookmark the Cannes Lions site on your browser, applications open after February or March every year and the announcements are made by May. This programme is unlike any other trip to Cannes. It gives you what you most need to know from the people you have admired from a distance: everyone is afraid, we all have our demons, but we can make our mark in the world.
I have not won anything at Cannes yet, just going there was a dream. Now there is a new dream in my stupid brain: let’s create history and show the world that you can’t ignore Pakistan anymore.
Atiya Zaidi is Executive Creative Director, Synergy Dentsu. firstname.lastname@example.org