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Anna Thairs: Bursting Adland’s Diversity Bubble

Anna Thairs is an award-winning Strategy Director and a strong advocate for diversity and mental health. Being open and vocal about her experiences as a mixed-race woman with OCD, ADHD and depression is one way Anna is helping to destigmatise neurodiversity; the other is leading by example, having held impactful roles at Grey London, Portas in Melbourne and now Ogilvy in Sydney.

In this insightful interview, Anna shares key insights on the state of diversity and inclusion in our industry, and emerging behavioural trends affecting advertisers.

Part of being a strategist means understanding human behaviour. What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned about humans since joining the industry?

I think it’s that as much as society says we hate labels, humans really do like labels, and we’re all inherently lazy at investigating past them.

Even strategists have a terrible habit of making assumptions about people based on a demographic profile and not pushing past that to see the individual characteristics or nuances of an audience.

Our brains are designed to take short cuts as much as possible to conserve energy, and that means taking short cuts on what someone might be based on a quick first impression or trend report.

It is constant work, both interpersonally and professionally, to challenge this natural behaviour; to stop defaulting to easy labels and ‘consumer segments’ but to actually investigate the context of each brief as and when it comes in.

I think this is particularly important at the moment. We’re becoming more and more divided as a society, stuck in our algorithmic bubbles which are designed to enhance and stratify differences. We are losing the ability to identify and accept nuance in situations, people and insights. This is making it hard for us to move forward from a diversity perspective and from a ‘creating-good-work’ perspective.

Back in the UK, you worked closely with industry leaders to get ‘non-traditional’ talent into the industry. Can you tell us about the programs you developed? Was your team successful?

I worked with a number of people to propose new or support existing mentorship schemes.

One of my agencies had a fantastic programme which worked closely with schools in underprivileged areas of London, encouraging students of all ages and all backgrounds to consider advertising as a career. Especially when previously they may have felt excluded or, in some cases (thanks to outdated recruitment methodology), completely overlooked.

We wanted to get in early and bring the actual and perceived barriers to advertising down, to make it both feel and tangibly become a career for everyone and anyone who wants to enter the industry. It was a hugely successful scheme, and we recruited a number of excellent, top-tier staff into the agency!

With the APG, I created a mentoring scheme for juniors ran by mid-weights and seniors, designed for two reasons:

A) to get experience across the board, allowing mid-weights and seniors to learn about management and start to build their network early and;

B) to be free from the unconscious biases of ‘big network’ normality.

When I started out, I worked at a tiny agency which had no paid-for resources or training and had colleagues that lived outside of the city. Most mentoring schemes at the time were run in big city hubs, targeted exclusively at networked agencies with a ‘norm’ that didn’t reflect the majority of the rest of the country.

Unfortunately, I left for Australia just as we were planning the logistics of rollout but I’m hoping it went ahead without me!

At Mavens, we believe that neurodiversity can help drive innovation because it brings new ways of thinking to the collective mind. What’s your experience with neurodiversity and how can our industry better understand it?

I have OCD, depression and ADHD, and have always struggled to ‘show up’ in the expected or neurotypical manner. This used to be something that (and to be honest, in low moments, still does!) really affected me.

But as I grew older I realised that because I see and experience the world differently, I can bring a different analysis to a situation, a different interpretation to a client brief, or sometimes even just highlighting how various biases are affecting an agency response.

I have a two-pronged proposal for leaders with regards to neurodiversity – and all forms of diversity:

Read always, read widely, read outside your bubble. There’s always the ‘hot inclusion book’ that hits the headlines with your peers, but you should be reading articles from junior staff, people outside the industry, what’s going on in social culture. Seek out minority thought leaders and read the content they recommend, rather than the content selected for you by other members of your bubble. Read widely, and read constantly.

Don’t just give your minority staff a seat at the table: give them the table. So often, a passionate staff member will come to a leadership committee with an idea or a perspective, and that perspective is taken and repackaged by someone who represents the status quo.

When inclusion initiatives are designed by the people they are meant to help, we are more likely to get to a solution quicker, and get to a solution that is less likely to be seen by the people it’s meant to be supporting as tokenistic or shallow.

A recent study* for the industry found 50% of respondents had left a workplace due to its lack of support or contribution to stress and anxiety. What is your view of our industry’s mental health crisis? Can we fix it?

The mental health crisis in our industry is wide-ranging and more complex than I think we have to date been willing or able to recognise.

My perspective on mental health, particularly in the workplace, is that we conflate mental wellbeing and mental illness, putting them both into the same box and imagining that those different issues can be solved with one (usually very shallow) response.

Mental wellbeing is our day-to-day experience of life: our ability to manage stress, our workload and our physiological patterns like the ability to get enough sleep, food and exercise. There is a huge, ongoing crisis around mental wellbeing in the workplace and how overwork and the pressure (perceived or accurate) to overwork is affecting us all – and discounted yoga is a not-very-sticky Band-Aid on the problem. Real change, when it comes to mental wellbeing, is fundamental shifts in the priorities and values of our industry: things like senior staff ‘leaving loudly’ at 5.30, encouraging and officially delineating mental health days as a type of sick leave and banning after-hours email. A solid ‘burnout plan’ and training for senior staff to recognise the signs of staff in crisis and equipping them to know how to handle these issues.

Mental illness are the ‘official’ (and I use that term with heavy scepticism) actual illnesses that require treatment and usually involve a severe difference in experience of the world. As I mentioned, I personally suffer from OCD, GAD, depression and (technically this is considered a neurodiverse condition rather than mental illness) ADHD.

We often refuse to acknowledge or engage in these topics, as they’re considered awkward, taboo and frightening. I have always been vocal and open about my experiences, in the hope that we’ll destigmatise these conversations.

Even in the last decade, I’ve seen a huge shift in the comfort levels of most people in hearing about them. However, in terms of understanding how to help staff in the workplace, accommodations and understanding that needs to be put into place – and past that, most crucially – the huge, huge value that having neurodiverse staff members brings to your team, your output and your creativity. Not to mention the bubble-piercing perspective someone with a different experience of life can bring on a wider scale, which is critical in today’s polarised algorithm-driven world. We’re hugely behind.

Real change here involves supporting staff to be open about their difficulties, investigating what these conditions mean and how people experience them, and looking at your recruitment policies and subconscious biases to ensure that you’re allowing these perspectives to surface and have an impact on your output.

I do think we can fix it but it won’t be in my lifetime. We’re making progress, for sure; it’s slow but steady. Yet, even given the societal and sociological shifts in understanding and identity (even this year alone), I don’t think we’ve 100% nailed down what a ‘fix’ would look like. Nor can we.

You’re a member of the world-renowned Ogilvy Behaviour Change Unit. Can you tell us more about that?

I’ve been fascinated by behavioural science since I was a Junior Planner and worked at an agency with a neuroscience lab. It’s been a huge privilege to reach a stage in my career where I am a part of the Behaviour Change Unit. I work with a small team of behavioural specialists under a Regional Partner, and it’s such a privilege to get to work on such interesting briefs.

Our job is to tackle sticky challenges in a way that (obviously!) looks at behaviour. So more often than not, the answer isn’t comms or isn’t, at least, comms as you might recognise it. It might be looking at pricing hierarchies on menu boards to drive profitability; how we can improve signage to encourage compliance; or even how you name a product to get people behind it before you even start advertising. It pulls on my traditional skillset as a strategist but it’s a really exciting way to tackle problems and drive a different kind of change.

It’s also personally fascinating to me, as I’m interested in comms and research for international development. Like understanding how you might encourage elephant conservation in an area in which elephants regularly damage crops or how to effectively and tangibly drive equality and equity across differing cultures with understanding of local nuance. All these issues can be tackled with behavioural science, rather than just ‘telling’ people what to do.

Being able to get an understanding of how the brain works, and what cognitive biases we can tap into to ‘psychologically R&D’ a brief, is just plain interesting.

Particularly as someone who’s passionate about understanding mental health!

Intersectional visibility is so important if we want to achieve gender equality, but it’s not widely understood. What is intersectionality and how can we (as individuals) elevate the conversation around it?

Intersectionality is the idea that the different facets of your social identity (e.g. race, sexuality, gender, class, religion, neurodiversity, etc.) overlap and intersect with each other, meaning we experience the world through the lenses of those facets and they can’t be abstracted from one another. With particular regard to feminism, this is important, because historically the narrative of feminism has been ‘white feminism’ which is the idea that feminist ideologies address the issues faced by white, straight, able-bodied women. Without acknowledging the separate issues that affect women of colour, LGBTQI+ women, non-binary individuals or women with a disability, for instance.

We’ll never achieve true gender equality until we work together to include and elevate all voices and perspectives.

I feel that the reason so many corporate initiatives around diversity and inclusion fail (or are received poorly) is because so often companies try to tackle issues separately, when that is fundamentally not how they are experienced by huge swathes of people.

We’re still in the infancy of intersectionality as a mainstream concept (and there are valid and important criticisms to acknowledge surrounding exclusions with regards to various minorities that we must address). And particularly in the working world, I feel the most important thing we can do is to keep raising it as an issue, to read widely and outside of your comfort zone, and to encourage senior members of staff and people in power to do so also.

I would also encourage people to ask leadership to give minorities the table, as I mentioned.

The more we elevate intersectional voices to be the ones designing, leading and implementing the change we need to see in the workplace, the quicker change will happen and the more authentic and affecting that change will be.

So if you’re a senior man in leadership, and a woman comes to you with a proposal, don’t take it and repackage that story as your own. Empower HER to lead that proposal.

If you’re a white woman and a POC comes to you with an initiative, elevate them and their voice to lead that change.

When we stop paying lip service to intersectional diversity and start actioning it, we’ll achieve the change we want and need to see.

2020 meant nearly everyone had to ‘pivot’ in some way. As a strategy director, how do you see the needs of consumers changing in a post-COVID world?

I think that we’re still punting frisbees into the air on this one. Particularly in a global industry, the vast differences between geographies in terms of COVID approach, COVID government comms and COVID recovery will impact how the market wants to see us ‘pivot’ and move forward.

I think we’ll continue to see a fondness for ‘local’ brands and then brands that sit at the intersection of ‘known’ (i.e. ‘I can rely on this to exist and work in a crisis’) and ‘cheap’ (i.e ‘I can rely on this when I’m budgeting’). One of the most interesting bits of data I’ve encountered coming out of the pandemic is that everyone has started ‘buffering’ with regards to money management. Even those people who are fairly secure and comfortable are now aggressively topping up and reinvesting their money into safe savings accounts, to build up a buffer for the potential ‘worst’ that could happen.

Lastly, how can Mavens’ audience support your work?

In the spirit of women-supporting-women, other than my (largely COVID-defunct) travel blog, I’d love to promote the all-female theatre troupe I work with back home in the UK, Scratchworks Theatre. They create from-scratch immersive theatre that brings to life questions around feminism and representation in an engaging and humorous way. They’ve been severely affected by COVID and so have been creating new content to entertain. This includes Faina & The Snow Beast, a fun and fascinating audiobook for young kids which teaches science through stories and is accompanied by a digital workbook. If it seems interesting to you or your friends with kids, please check it out here.

*The 2019 Creative Industry Mental Health Report, TANK.


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