‘Change brings fresh energy’

Haifa Barbari, EVP Strategy and Innovation at Dialect on why getting uncomfortable is vital for innovation

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director Creativebrief


“We are at the precipice of a co-intelligence co-existence.” Haifa Barbari, EVP Strategy and Innovation at Dialect, might have been trapped in a lift before our interview, but her enthusiasm and energy for innovating at the heart of culture extends beyond the four walls of the obligatory Zoom screen. 

Barbari, who is talking as part of Creativebrief’s interview series in partnership with Women in Marketing, was awarded Innovator of the Year. She believes now is one of the most exciting times in history to be a marketer. “There is a huge opportunity to make an impact, on culture, in gaming and in our society as a whole,” she explains.

According to Barbari, the industry is in a new era which has brought with it new possibilities that were previously out of reach. “Previously we made adverts and they were in print or on television, then we saw the impact of social media in creating culture. With Artificial Intelligence and Web3 we can see that things are about to make another step change and we can’t ignore it.”

I would encourage people to flip the script from fear to excitement.

Haifa Barbari, EVP Strategy and Innovation at Dialect

Barbari has a unique lens on culture at Dialect, an integrated creative and media agency, which focuses on connecting brands with a technology and gaming audience. An innovator in deeds and not just words Barbari is also Founder of Be What Matters, a self coaching app which she launched in January 2017. With a background at agencies including Saatchi & Saatchi (where she was Head of Integrated Strategy and Customer Experience) and stints at Digitas Health and W20 Digital, Barbari has a depth and breadth of experience to draw on. 

A new era of AI-infused experience

“We are on the precipice of a co-intelligence co-existence,” explains Barbari. “We are moving forward and we can see that brands and businesses are moving towards a new model of experience.”

Barbari points to the ability of Artificial Intelligence to serve up recommendations for shopping and create more immersive 3D experiences. “There are all of these new experiences and opportunities for brands to connect. You can bring value to consumers in a way you couldn’t before,” she explains.

Yet in a breath of fresh air from the industry norm, Barbari is equally eloquent in communicating the risks that come hand in hand with these new opportunities. As she explains: “The darker side is there are issues around safety, trust, data security.” Yet, she believes that at a time when trust has never been more important, the role of brands in creating that trust on new platforms is vital. 

As a futurist, she walks a tightrope. “It is important to be objective and pragmatic, we are human and ultimately it is human beings which are the powerful machines on the planet.”

This limitless perspective is extended to her predictions on the next wave of digital transformation. She explains: “In this next wave we have a far greater awareness of the impact of technology on society.”

So far from being swept up in the rhetoric of ‘robots are stealing our jobs’ or the toxic positivity embraced by some corners of the tech world, Barbari instead is honest about the importance of putting people first in this next wave of innovation. For unintended consequences can have a hugely negative impact on society.

The age of creativity by doing

Yet for all the hand-ringing (some of it justified) about the impact of Artificial Intelligence, there is no question that it opens a multitude of new opportunities for the creator economy. As Barbari explains: “We can look at new ways of leveraging technology and in turn what we can do to improve and learn to create better customer experiences. That in turn might free up our time to do more and take on new challenges.”

She continues: “From a creator standpoint this is such an exciting time, if you want to make something you don’t have to remortgage your house. If you are starting out and you want to get the attention of an Executive Creative Director you can use midjourney [an AI image generator] to create something.”

“You can build and make and bring your vision to life and that really excites me,” adds Barbari, who believes that AI can give creators the tools to make an impact at scale.

The paradox we are in right now is that technology moves faster than the human brain can. Our workloads are not necessarily sustainable and we have to think more critically about the impact of always on environments on our wellbeing.

Haifa Barbari, EVP Strategy and Innovation at Dialect

Making the space for curious minds

“What excites me and why I am in this industry is how I can impact this industry with a fresh point of view. Taking something new and applying it to brands is what I have been doing for my entire career.”

“I grew up in a world which was constantly changing and change brings me fresh energy,” she explains. Adding that knowing we are in a constant state of change and bringing authenticity, connection and purpose is what keeps us human.

For it is the human element of transformation which keeps Barbari passionate about her work. “The question for transformation is how do we maintain the human connection? How do we bring value through social media while maintaining our craft? How do we integrate AI into what we do and maintain the human aspect of what we do?”

Comfort with ambiguity is increasingly important to success and it is clear that Barbari has the security and self-assurance to recognise the power of saying when you don’t know the answer. 

“I would encourage people to flip the script from fear to excitement,” she explains, adding that: “to stay competitive in this environment you have to stay relevant.” To do this she believes it is vital to be comfortable with the uncertainty over how technological innovation will impact culture in the long run. 

Scheduling thinking time

“The paradox we are in right now is that technology moves faster than the human brain can. Our workloads are not necessarily sustainable and we have to think more critically about the impact of always on environments on our wellbeing.” 

However, ever the optimist Barbari believes that we need to be creative and think strategically about how we come up with new concepts and new ways of working. “We need time to process innovation and because technology is moving so fast we can almost forget we need time to think. Not everything needs to happen straight away.”

On a practical level, Barbari recommends scheduling time in your calendar to focus and think. Just because processes and platforms thrive on immediate response, that doesn’t mean a knee jerk response to every given request is needed. “That just isn’t how our brains work best,” explains Barbari. Instead, she recommends something of a sprint, stop and review approach. “When I am working on strategy or a client innovation project I build in time to stop, think and process then I come back to it.”

Effortly puncturing the efficiency myth Barbari’s approach underlines the importance of being mindful of how we spend our time. If curiosity is to be more than an empty platitude then actively making the space to pursue it is vital. 

For her team, Barbari recommends scheduling in an hour a day for what she describes as ‘product play’. In essence, this means taking the time to test and learn by using the latest products to hit the market, not simply scanning the trade press for a point of view. 

Don’t allow other people to take away the time that is so needed to think, to innovate and to create new things.

Haifa Barbari, EVP Strategy and Innovation at Dialect

It is this focus on tangible outputs that allows Barbari to stay in the driving seat of both her career and her clarity of thinking. As she explains: “We are rewriting the rules and reinventing what brands want and what we want. I get onto tech and gaming because there are not enough women in it. When the reality is as 3D worlds become such an important space, ensuring women have a seat at the table is more important than ever.”

Neatly sidestepping the ‘does the Metaverse even exist?’ hyperbole, Barbari believes that as more people come together in 3D spaces they will only become more important to both brands and broader culture. “These spaces are where society is congregating and more brands are creating 3D experiences. As a woman I want to be in that future to influence culture,” she adds.

Her purpose in this pursuit is equal parts crystal clear and compelling. “I want to create a world that is equal and safe and welcomes every type of person. You have to be there to influence what that world is and how we shape it. We have to think really consciously about the worlds we are creating and the footprint they leave.”

It is a commitment she believes extends far beyond what avatar you choose to place on your virtual character. “The creator economy means you can build and create anything you want.

What is most exciting is for brands to build new worlds with a real world experience and a 3D version for the community making sure it is safe, trusted and inclusive,” she adds.

Recognising not just the possibilities of AI but the responsibility which sits alongside it makes Barbari not just a best in class innovator, but a role model in the truest sense of the word.