“Let's move forward together, because then everybody benefits”

Bukola Garry, Head of Diversity, Equality & Inclusion at adam&eveDDB on working as a community, putting people first and the power of courageous conversations.

Izzy Ashton

Deputy Editor, BITE


As a moment in time 2020 may just be one of the more remarkable years to have lived through, a unique period in our collective history. It was a year that brought about immediate and dramatic change, which shifted the world of work almost certainly for good. It was a year that led people to examine the reality that, just because it was the way it was always done, didn’t mean it had to be that way in the future. A tectonic shift in every aspect of our lives.

It was a year when Black Lives Matter took centre stage across the world, a moment which forced many business leaders to take a look internally and ask some difficult but vital questions. Luckily for the creative industries, there are brilliant leaders speaking up and offering action-based solutions to bring about substantial, long-lasting change.

Incredible things can happen when leaders are empowered to not just speak their minds, but implement real change. One such leader is Bukola Garry who recently joined adam&eveDDB as the agency’s first Head of Diversity, Equality & Inclusion. She was previously Diversity & Inclusion Manager at Havas. She has joined adam&eve to work to embed, as the agency calls its pro-actively anti-racist and positively inclusive philosophy it has placed at the heart of its business.

Garry is less than a month into her new role, which would be a monumental shift at the best of times, let alone starting the process remotely after a tumultuous year. She starts by emphasising that her primary focus in the role, “is how the work we’re doing is impacting our people.” She wants to ensure that people feel seen, heard and validated within their roles.

On top of that though, she adds, she wants to make sure that “they are developing and growing, that we’re actually starting to have fun.” Because that, she believes, will have the biggest impact not only on the happiness of the people who work at adam&eveDDB but also on the creative output itself.

Too often the focus is on the racist act itself rather than on the experiences of the people being exposed to it.

Bukola Garry

Taking a holistic approach

There is no question that in some corners of the industry the pandemic resulted in businesses actively deprioritizing diversity and inclusion. Garry explains: “I think diversity and inclusion can sometimes still be seen as a little bit extracurricular. The way that we approach it is to isolate it or centre it around a particular moment in time.” She feels this is completely the wrong approach and instead, she says, “what I think we should be doing is integrating it in a holistic, always-on, consistent way that touches every area of the business.”

Garry acknowledges that work around diversity and inclusion can all feel a bit overwhelming, to both the people leading and those working alongside. She explains that, “it can at times feel like a bit of a burden or interference to business as usual and that we’re waiting for this trend or phase to be over. When what I want to encourage people to be is more excited and driven by what it means to and for our industry.”

Garry wholeheartedly believes that the creative industries are “set up to do this [D&I] work.” The pandemic, she feels, has actually made it even more important to prioritise because we’ve all been so much more exposed to societal differences that dictate our access to opportunities, provisions or even healthcare. “The pandemic has really shone a light on that,” she adds.

Starting with the people

The point that Garry keeps returning back to is that the work she’s doing is for the people she works alongside. That is where the conversation must start. “It’s about understanding where we’re at,” she says, acknowledging the importance of the work that the agency has done prior to her arrival.

But fundamentally, she says, “it’s also about understanding what anti-racism work is and what it means i.e that racism is the issue, not Black people and people of colour. It’s racism that is the issue.” Then for Garry it’s about using that understanding to review and subsequently update internal policies. Something she also wants to make sure the agency is doing is, she explains, “ensuring that we’re picking up the barriers and the bias that exist, that block the advancement of minorities and marginalised groups.”

She also believes it’s down to each individual and each manager to engage in some self-reflection, to educate themselves to, as she says, “understand the consequences of racism on individuals,” and the landscape of diversity more broadly. Because, she explains, “too often the focus is on the racist act itself rather than on the experiences of the people being exposed to it.” This process of education is vital, she believes, because it comes with the realisation that “there is no quick fix or magic switch that will create that change.”

Garry wants to work to create a real sense of belonging within the agency that instills within its people the confidence to thrive in what they do. Within that, she believes it’s vital to set really clear D&I boundaries because, she explains, “I think it's about setting the expectations of what we can and will do for underrepresented groups that positively impacts our business and the way we work.” These boundaries are key because, as she adds, “without them it’s guesswork.” They provide a framework in which people can safely navigate the space and feel like, as Garry notes, “they belong in the workplace.”

By working together, we open up pipelines and points of access to underrepresented talent.

Bukola Garry

Be motivated by the community

What the last year has shown us is the power of communities working alongside one another, something that’s been particularly prevalent within the creative industries. Gone are the competitive cards to chest attitudes of old and in their place come empathetic businesses and leadership teams reaching out to one another to help the industry progress as one.

“I think community is everything,” Garry says, believing that focus needs to be “on the we and the us, not the I and the me.” This not only extends to the community working within the business but also to the way that the agency engages with external organisations, with the partnerships they form to push for progress. It’s about, she says, “trusting people that don't hold the same exact ideas as us,” those who are “set up to support the change we want to see in our industry.”

This partnership approach is also essential, Garry believes, in making the industry more accessible to the next generation. She says, “by working together, we open up pipelines and points of access to underrepresented talent.” It is with this attitude, Garry notes, that the agency and the work it produces stays both relevant and meaningful.

She highlights the realities of working in the diversity and inclusion space, how much of a toll it can take on one person’s mental health. Her advice is that you need to surround yourself “with a support network that informs your approach, and helps you create the necessary boundaries to protect your mental health.” Build a supportive community around you as a reminder that this work, Garry explains, is “everyone’s responsibility.”

When it comes to being a proactive ally in the push for greater representation, Garry’s advice is clear: “it's about people being as triggered by the experiences of oppression, as those that experience it firsthand.” Because then, she adds, “you're motivated to move, not just out of self, but out of community.”

Creating space for courageous conversations

In a world in which making noise feels like the only way to be heard, it is beholden on businesses to create spaces in which everyone feels empowered to speak up. For Garry, this means listening to what people are asking for, whether that’s through internal surveys, facilitated discussions or appraisals.

Alongside that, she explains, “it's also about having the right policies and processes in place to respond to what we're hearing.” This enables authentic, immediate action to follow insight. Because what educated leaders can help to do, she says, is “raise our collective consciousness” and to ensure that these courageous conversations are never limited.

Garry reflects on the interview process she went through at adam&eve, drawing on a comment that CEO Mat Goff made that she says really stuck out to her. He said, “one thing we do well is fight. We say what we think and we go back and forth until we find a solution, and then we move on.” She says she found the sentiment truly empowering because it suggested that the agency is, as she explains, “open and inviting to that kind of courageous conversation that is needed.”

The important factor within this, believes Garry, is that in fostering a positive and supportive working environment based on mutual respect and ego check, you create space for disagreement, which is vital. It is often within respectful disagreement that you make the most progress. She explains: “part of creating environments where people feel empowered to speak up, is being open to actual disagreement and to perspectives that may challenge you, that may even go against you.” Within that space you can be truly heard, believes Garry, “without fear of reprimand.”

Where do we get our vision from? Where do we get our inspiration from if there's no belief in it in the first place?

Bukola Garry

Everyone plays a part

“In my role, I almost have to consider the person that is at the back of the line,” says Garry as she explains that often, with diversity and inclusion work, you rush so quickly ahead buoyed by your allies that you forget about the naysayers still hanging around at the back. It is these individuals who you have to wait for and carry along on the journey with you, believes Garry. “It's just as important that they are as part of that journey as the person right at the front,” she adds.

Garry acknowledges that it might be an assumption to say but she feels there can often be a generational curb when it comes to progressing the diversity and inclusion agenda. The younger generations joining the industry, she says, have been raised in a way which means they’re used to, as Garry explains, “speaking up and speaking out.” The tension arises, believes Garry, when those who are perhaps of an older generation “feel displaced in this conversation.”

What it always comes back to, says Garry, is asking the question of D&I, “how does everyone contribute to this?” Because, as she adds, “there’s no opting out for this.” Everyone needs to be part of the change because fundamentally it benefits everybody, not just those from underrepresented communities. Garry offers a note of caution however about using the tag of underrepresented because, as she explains, “underrepresented doesn't mean less capable,” as it can so often be assumed to be.

What it comes down to, particularly when examining what businesses can do to support new talent and people joining the industry is, she says, “to be genuine in your approach and your intentions.” Foster relationships, build trust, connections and a network to offer both support and empowerment to the people around you.

Garry also cites the importance of belief being placed at the heart of the work that each individual does. She explains: “it's important that we believe in the work that the business is doing to create more and better access for underrepresented talent, and actually believe in the talent themselves.” As a team, Garry says, they need to believe in their own ability to bring about change. Otherwise, she adds, “where do we get our vision from? Where do we get our inspiration from if there's no belief in it in the first place?”

Don’t run before you can walk

“I don't believe that you can run at it, I think we need to walk at it,” says Garry as she explains the pace at which she now works. She cites this as one of her greatest failures however, noting that she was so impatient when she started working within the diversity and inclusion space to get the work done that she wasn’t waiting for anyone to catch up. “I held this great sense of urgency that we were just moving too slow,” she says. “And I just wasn’t willing to wait for people to get it.”

The advice she gives about slowing down couldn’t be more important not just for furthering the diversity and inclusion agenda but also for bringing about long-lasting change. It’s a sentiment that is easy to forget in our always-on remote working world. And this pace took its toll on Garry as she explains that it left her feeling “overloaded, exposed and quite isolated.”

“I had to find another way that brought more people on the journey of change that I wanted to see,” she says because the reality is, as she explains, that if you run you leave people behind. “Let's move forward together, because then everybody benefits from it,” she says.

As we begin to move forwards into a new year, Garry’s outlook  is a reminder of the power of building supportive and inclusive working environments, where the weight of pushing for progress is carried by entire organisations and the industry at large.