The director of innovation and experience strategy at FP7 McCann on her multicultural upbringing and how it felt to be the only female creative director in Dubai
Sara Anani describes her childhood as either a “diaspora plague or a benefit” depending on how you want to see it: she was born in a British Army base in Cyprus, describes herself as a first generation Palestinian immigrant and grew up in Kuwait. At the age of seven she was sent to school in the UK where she realised after drawing pictures of blonde girls in art class that she was just one of a handful of Arabs around at that moment in time.
However, she never let any of those experiences define her and carved out a career in creativity that has been awe-inspiring. Sara became an expert in learning how to “read people” which she adapted into creative ways to communicate. In her early 20s she landed a role as digital creative director at Leo Burnett in Dubai and at that time was the only female creative at that level in the region. This experience – and the many after – taught her that while gender dynamics can guide career growth, “high-performance and perseverance are the true agents of change”.
Now based in Doha, Qatar, Sara tells LBB’s Natasha Patel about these experiences, becoming a life coach and what she thinks about advertising’s bias on the male gaze.
LBB> Take us right back to the beginning. When you were growing up was creativity a big part of your life?
Sara> What’s creativity anyway?
The term creativity is so broad and manifests itself across a broad spectrum of attributes. My upbringing definitely primed and nurtured me to be creative across multiple areas of that spectrum. Whether it manifested through humour, storytelling, music, acting, visual expression, or ideas to hustle some pocket change, at a young age, these creative outlets were a way for me to survive.
“Adapt or die” as Charles Darwin pointed out so well. This couldn’t be truer than when I moved from Kuwait to the UK in the mid ‘80s at the age of seven to study at a boarding school. When you don’t speak, read or write English on your first day of school, you have to learn how to “read” people fast and find creative ways to communicate and connect. As a first-generation Palestinian immigrant, I had to learn how to navigate unfamiliar environments, cultures and situations – and to do that, I subconsciously build my “empathy” muscle. I attributed this to having to “fit in” and adapt to new situations. Being curious and empathetic helped me to have a better understanding of people’s needs, and when you understand a need, an opportunity will more than likely present itself – this for me is where the magic happens and my creativity is sparked.
To this day, I still see myself as a people “reader”. As I’ve matured, this skill naturally moved from a survival mechanism to one that is of professional service to others.
LBB> You studied Design Futures at the University of Westminster and then went to University of the Arts London. How were those experiences and do you draw on those experiences today?
Sara> Looking back two decades, I would say, yes! Both courses are even more relevant in today’s digital revolution. They were ahead of their time (no puns intended)—unlike industrial or product design which educates you designing and redesigning objects, ergonomics and manufacturing, both Design Futures and Design Studies focused on human needs.
The curriculum was geared towards understanding the design process by putting human needs at the centre of everything we do, with an outlook to innovate and open new market opportunities based on trends. Essentially it was a mix of what you would now call futurism, with a deconstructed version of design thinking, innovation, entrepreneurship and prototyping—it’s now the core methodology used for tech innovations, having a people-first approach is the only way to “humanise” tech ethically for it to be accepted in society.
The courses reinforced what I already sensed from a young age: when you solve “wicked problems” that are derived from human insight you can create innovative ideas!
Having this tattooed in my mind helped me to be a creative thinker and maker that learns fast, perfects and tries new challenges across multiple dimensions professionally across sectors in both agency and client environments. Playing different roles from a digital creative director in Dubai, UX director in Doha, marketing director in Doha, startup coach in LA and the UK and most recently innovation and experience strategy director at FP7 McCann Doha. It’s a transferable skill that never goes out of fashion!
Sadly, both courses are no more and have been discontinued! But there’s lots of other courses in University of the Arts, Stanford and MIT that are similar and can really add value to anything from marketing and comms to innovation.
LBB> Tell us about your time as digital creative director at Leo Burnett Dubai.
Sara> I remember my time there so vividly—I was on honeymoon when I received a call that Leo Burnett Dubai would like for me to interview for a job. I was already working in the London office as digital art director and was excited at the thought that I can work in the Gulf, an area that I had grown up in during my younger years. So, when I got the offer, I jumped at the chance. The call came from Farida Shakhshir, she was the MD of the digital sister company at that time (special shoutout to Farida for giving me my first big break in life!)
My flight was set for 7 July 2005 – the day of the London terrorist attacks. It was a scary moment and I was in two minds on whether to go or not! I was 26 years old, and knew this was a once-in-lifetime opportunity. Not only would I be exploring a new country – something that evokes my creativity – but I would be nurturing a business and a team. This was a huge responsibility, and I was willing to give it my all! Even though I was the youngest and the only female creative at that level.
Leo Burnett Dubai, during my time, was known as a “school”. Much like a university, it groomed and delivered some of the best creatives and strategists at all levels. They trusted us to experiment again and again, they allowed it to have a safe space to fail making sure there is a net to catch you.
I was young, curious, fearless and accountable, I made sure I distilled these values to my team that slowly grew as we grew new business. The team had an alchemy that I’ve only experienced in a few other roles. We were winning awards not through ego and hierarchy—but through collaboration, insightful ideas and technological innovations. In retrospect, I think the biggest compliment wasn’t the awards—it’s now seeing the team being successful superstars, founders of their own startups and owning their own agencies.
LBB> And what did this show you about women in positions such as your own? How did it make you feel?
Sara> Female creative directors in the early to late 2000s were few and far in between, and digital creative directors were non-existent. At the same time, conversations around gender equalities didn’t exist either – so it never consciously crossed my mind.
I would probably attribute this gender amnesia back to my upbringing and having an inbuilt skill of using creative ways to navigate any situation and fit in – adapt or die!
With all that said, it did show me that while culture, tradition, norms play a role in guiding the gender dynamics and gender growth at work: high-performance and perseverance are the true agents of change.
I think the biggest challenge, which was probably felt by all genders, is that we got in the game of creativity to be creative, not to lead creatives. It was a difficult mindset shift to understand that you are there at the service of your team and to help them build their creative muscle at the expense of your own. It was a necessary sacrifice for me as my team’s performance had a direct relationship to their happiness. No one taught me that, and I had to learn the hard way.
LBB> Do you think that gender balance has been addressed since then?
Sara> Many factors play a role: age, education, cultural background, exposure to some of the globe’s highest performing markets, office culture, etc. Gender balance in some offices in some regions will take more time than others. Some people will be more accepting of it than others. Some sectors will be more accepting than others. Tech is now the centre of attention when it comes to gender balance. At McCann Worldgroup, diversity is a big focus area for us and we are consciously working to improve the balance and this includes gender balance.
The end goal is an inclusive and open positive advocacy for a new era of gender norms – not excluding or alienating all men, nor politicking, or forming rally-around-the-water cooler trade unions.
LBB> What do you hope for the future of gender equality in the creative world?
Sara> I’d like to flip the question on its head! I hope that we see diversity across the board and not just from a gender perspective. It’s essential for creativity itself; otherwise, it’s a myopic view and will always have a bias. It’s the same as the current debate of how tech solutions predominantly are designed for the 1%. For us to answer peoples and clients’ challenges, we need to explore varied viewpoints.
But to answer your question, I hope for a future where creative ideas are interrogated on matrices that include feasibility of the idea, longevity of the concept, relevance when seen in light of emerging trends, the number of lives the idea will impact and uplift. I hope for a future where creative ideas are not arbitrarily rejected based on which gender proposed it or who has more clout at the table.
LBB> You’ve previously spent your time with a lot of powerful women at the Qatar Museums. Tell us more about this experience.
Sara> I find ‘power’ a difficult word to digest! I believe in this specific context we all have power; it’s whether we choose to exercise that right or give it away. With all that said, when I was the marketing director at Qatar Museums, our department was predominantly female. Of course, this could be because the arts in general attracts so many females, but I think it’s largely due to having a visionary chairperson that acts as mentor to many women in Qatar. Her Excellency Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad Al Thani, the Chairperson of Qatar Museums – much like Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser and Her Excellency Sheikha Hind bint Hamad Al Thani – is an entrepreneur and philanthropist with a clear narrative of who she is and where she wants to take Qatar’s arts and culture economy. Having someone so driven at the top attracts a crowd, a female one at that.
LBB> Does this experience of women in the arts apply to the Middle Eastern region as a whole?
Sara> I would say that there’s a huge shift in the right direction across the region, from KSA to UAE to Jordan – there are more females in previously unthinkable social and professional roles today than ever before.
LBB> Tell us how you feel about the ‘male gaze’ in advertising, something we know you’re passionate about.
Sara> I do believe that there is still room for improvement when it comes to campaigns that are targeted at women, I would even say there is still room when it comes to even fashion and beauty. It’s all work in progress. With all that said, at McCann MENA we have some notable campaigns that tell the stories of women as they should be told.
Mashrou’ Leila – Roman, where we gave a new perspective on subjugated Muslim women, which received a whole lot of positive buzz globally.
Puck - Cook with Her, it’s the first campaign in the Middle East that asked men to lend a helping hand in the kitchen during Ramadan and beyond - challenging stereotypes.
Babyshop - Al Umobuwah where we created a new Arabic word for parenthood; one that included both motherhood and fatherhood vs the earlier word, that owing to the paternal roots of the language, only meant fatherhood.
If you think about it, it was only during the last generation that women started working in environments. The table was mainly filled by men, but it’s slowly changing. As women, we have to have the courage to step out of our comfort zone, educate ourselves and overcome hurdles. The more of us that do that, the more we can pave the way for future generations. Little by little we’ll get there. It won’t happen overnight and it certainly won’t happen with us just demanding it. Our focus should be the honest hard work we do at getting a seat at the table we deserve – it’s there for the taking and it’s high performance and grit that’ll get us there!
LBB> Do you hope young women creatives look up to you?
Sara> I would hope that anyone who is looking to explore multiple dimensions of their own creative potential would see that it’s possible – whatever gender they may identify with.
LBB> You’re also a life coach, tell us more about what made you get into this and who you’ve been working with.
Sara> I was first introduced to coaching when I was selected by Her Excellency Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani to be part of an Executive Masters at Qatar Museums. The course itself had multiple modules, one of which was coaching. I learnt a lot about myself through the experience and wanted to extend the same to my team. I felt they were in need of gaining a better understanding of belief systems and barriers that are holding them back from achieving their own vision of success.
A few of them moved on to being directors within the organisation and established business owners, I really get a lot of joy seeing them succeed and build the life they envisioned for themselves. During my training, I even did a few sessions with my then 80-year-old father, it helped him truly ‘design’ how he wanted to enjoy the remainder of his years.
Building on my certified training as a life coach, I still practice coaching and in my spare time focus on leaders. Whether working in some capacity to support directors and founders by holding space for them to better understand and breaking down barriers on what is holding them back from being the leaders they wish to be. Coaching leaders makes for a better organisation, and a better organisation makes a better work environment for us all. When someone at the top creates self-awareness, they’re able to make clearer and more fulfilling decisions, even hard ones. I wanted to give back something that I never had as I grew in the ranks.
LBB> What does the day-to-day in your role at FP7 entail?
Sara> My role at FP7 McCann is the next logical chapter in the context of all the roles that I’ve worked in.
As the director of innovation and experience strategy, my role day to day role involves owning and understanding the audiences needs: what interests and motivates them, where they go for information, what their journey is, what drives their decision making, and how they react to experiences we deliver. At times these experiences are purely communications-focused. In my role, I work closely with sister companies like Weber Shandwick and the likes of CRM companies like MRM McCann to deliver customer experience strategies on new products and services. Working closely with CX strategist to establish findings regarding user expectations, perception and behaviour that can be channelled to ensure smooth and satisfying experiences that encourage users to come back for more.
I was lucky to have a company that wanted to tap into my multiple skills to keep my day varied. It allows me to have a bird’s eye view of the client needs from driving a client’s meaningful role, using this to deliver new innovations to communicating new product and services launches. What’s more exciting is that in Qatar, you get to work on one of the most coveted global events - the FIFA World Cup 2022.
What’s great about FP7 McCann is how open the global community is on working together—one day you’re working with the Kuwait City office, the next you’re working with New York City and London. Working remotely through the pandemic has really broken down barriers and has helped us supercharge co-creation.
LBB> What advice do you give to those entering the industry right now?
Sara> I would pass on my 4C’s formula to get your creative juices flowing - I use both personally and professionally. Be curious, once you gather all the information don’t be afraid to be in chaos – there’s no such thing as analysis paralysis, there’s only a lack of courage to experiment and play with the information. Speak up, your voice and point of view is just as valid, work hard. Have a growth mindset and never be afraid to ask questions, there is so much to learn out there and you may have to ask Google at times. Then, trust your instinct and connect and form meaningful patterns and solutions/ideas. Remember, an idea is not worth much without action—make it happen, and be patient.
And finally—take a year’s break every decade if you can. Use your savings to travel, nothing beats being an amateur anthropologist. The wisdom you bring back has more value than some fancy-shmancy higher education. Use sunscreen and don’t forget to moisturise your neck, you’ll thank me later!