S.04: E.06

The Thing About Discomfort

with Mira Kaddoura

November 12, 2019 • 19:57 min


  | The Thing About Discomfort (w. Mira Kaddoura )


We talk to Mira Kaddoura—risk-taker, conceptual artist, and Red & Co. founder—about moving beyond the brief to create meaningful work for giants Netflix and Google, using discomfort to improve our outcomes, and being grateful for our biggest challenges.

To hear more from Mira, find her on:
Twitter: @MiraKaddoura and @redandcoagency
Instagram: @redandcoagency
Linkedin: @MiraKaddoura
Watch her TED Talk

Written, hosted, and produced by Kenzie Haynes

Kenzie: Welcome back to, It's Worth Doing Right, a collection of conversations about the creative side of strategy. I'm your host Kenzie Haynes. Today on the show we're talking to Mira Kaddoura, a conceptual interactive artist and founder and executive creative director at Red & Co., an award-winning agency that focuses on work that inspires for brands that want to make a difference. Mira was born in Egypt, grew up between Lebanon and Canada, has worked in the U.S. and the UK and speak several languages. In short, she's a part of many worlds. Let's dive in.

Kenzie: Mira, welcome to the show.

Mira: Thanks for having me.

Kenzie: So you've been in the game for the last 17 years. I wonder what changes you've seen in that time, or what are you excited about?

Mira: I think that the rules are all changing. The way we're connecting to people is changing the, way the relationships... Gen Z is a whole different target. That's kind of the new consumer. Everything's kind of changing, and I think adapting to that and not ever feeling too comfortable. I think a lot of people have been too comfortable for way too long and this industry has been a little bit complacent, so I think it's just exciting that everything's changing, and being smaller, you're a bit more nimble so you can kind of adapt to change with the industry.

Kenzie: Your work tends to feel a lot more deep or maybe expansive than what we typically see coming out of the ad world. Your work with Google and Netflix for example, went well beyond the typical campaign. What informs your perspective and drives that edge?

Mira: Well, I think just by being a Middle Eastern creative woman in this industry, I feel like I'm challenging the status quo just by being here. There's over 16,000 advertising agencies in the U.S. that have national and global clients and I think only about 16 are founded by women, probably close to zero, founded by minority woman or woman from a different country, from a different place entirely. So I think that is huge, Just that I could bring a new voice to this industry and bring a new perspective. I also think all the rules are changing, right? Like big huge ad agencies are being shaken up by all the changes and I think that creates opportunities for agencies like us. Like 10 years ago it would be unheard of for a small agency to be working with such big, huge global brands, but we have, and these big brands are seeing the value of a smaller, thoughtful group of people and what they can bring to the table.

Kenzie: What challenges do you think are fundamentally shifting the future of the industry?

Mira: I definitely want to have more voices in this industry and just by the nature of these brands giving us opportunity as female founded, as minority owned, just the nature of them giving us opportunities, we're kind of passing the baton and giving opportunities to others, right? Like I think this year alone we've hired an African American director, a female founded production company, a female founded music company, a female founded sound design company. Like we're just doing it. We're just doing it, whether it's gender, thought or ethnicity or languages or religions or whatever, we just have a very diverse group of people. So just because of that. That's the way we operate, it just comes naturally to us to hire and promote that inside our agency.

Kenzie: And what impact would you say that has on how we're used to operating?

Mira: When you're given an opportunity by a client, you pass that down. So that means you hire, you promote, you partner with all of those people that are also diverse and that creates fundamental change in our industry. It's like this domino effect, right? And when you're hiring, you're putting money behind these people, so it's only making all these people benefit from that opportunity. In addition to that, there are actual dollar amounts that speak to how much diversity actually influences brands and clients is bottom line. This is not just nice to have, this is the right thing to do and also actually makes sense financially for a business. It can only make them more successful, so that's huge value. So it's not only the right thing that should be done because it's representation, it's being able to see the world as it is. It's being able to have representation of things as they are.

Kenzie: Speaking of seeing the world as it is, you're very multicultural and you have a fascinating background split between many different countries and languages and cultures. How does that inform your worldview or the work that you're able to do?

Mira: First and foremost, I'm super proud that all the work we do ends up connecting to people on a very human level, so I think that's huge. Having all those influences, suddenly you're not seeing it through these like one set of goggles, one set of glasses, you're actually seeing it in a very multi-dimensional, very colorful set of glasses. You're kind of seeing the world as it is and you're doing work that can connect to everyone and not just a certain set of people.

Kenzie: One of the big reasons I wanted to talk to you was that you're a strong advocate for creating meaningful work,, and I wonder how do you find or create meaningful work? Like is it teasing out what the client is trying to achieve or do you create it? Like it's something that you bring to the table regardless of where the client is at?

Mira: Yeah, you definitely create it. I think if you find the meaning, you create meaning out of an opportunity. Like I'll give you for an example, the work we did with Netflix. So Netflix came to us with a global brand strategy project. It wasn't a creative brief, it was basically who are we in the world? They've shaken up the entertainment industry, but they're having all this competition bubble up for whether it's Disney+ or Apple or Hulu or Amazon, who are we? So we went away and did this entire global brand strategy project, and through that process there's things that started bubbling up for us, opportunities that we saw for them as a brand to actually put out in the world.

Mira: So from that brand strategy project that was only supposed to be a few months long, we ended up writing and creating seven different briefs. So we created opportunity that we saw for them to say something in the world to stand for something to say something, and we basically ended up creating those seven briefs and then did work under those seven briefs, and then one of the pieces of work that ended up getting made was the Make Room work for them around the Oscars. And I think that's the difference between really being a partner to the brand, holding hands and trying to find opportunities for them to do something meaningful in the world is something that we constantly try to do with our clients.

Kenzie: But do you filter for it? Like when you're vetting projects, is that a filter or a lens you use to assess whether a project is a good fit? Whether the client has a strong sense of vision or purpose built into their business objectives? I imagine as you've built or a reputation in the industry for this type of work that now you have the experience and privileged to vet work with more scrutiny and I wonder do you do that or is any opportunity an opportunity to find a deeper meeting? I don't know if that makes any sense.

Mira: Yeah, no, that totally makes sense. I think it's a case by case scenario. Like for example, with Netflix, I don't think they came to us knowing that we're going to end up with all this meaningful work. I don't think that that was something anybody saw from the very beginning, but I think we got there. So sometimes they don't see it. Sometimes we get in there and we don't see it at the very beginning, but by digging and sorting through everything, we try to find something that we can put out into the world and be proud of that aligns with who they are. Right. I feel like the trifecta is something that really connects to people on a meaningful level, something that's true to who the brand is and something ideally that also connects them to culture. So those are the three big ones. I think our work with Google is a perfect example of that as a piece of work that really used technology to do something amazing in the world.

Kenzie: Yeah. Actually, can you talk a little bit more about that Google project? I think it's a pretty major case study for where creative agencies are moving or maybe need to move to stay attractive and critical as partners in business with our clients.

Mira: Yeah, absolutely. So it was Red & Co's first and one of its hugest projects and it just happened to be with Google. So they came to us with a challenge that only 1% of girls are majoring in computer science and women are basically not having a voice in all the technology that we're using. So how do we inspire 1 million girls to code? The problem is that girls see coding as abstract, as boring, for boys in basements like eating chicken wings, everything that we see in the movies so it's true. So they think like code has nothing to offer them. So our challenge here was how do we actually get girls to connect to code? And we came up with the idea that we have to stop talking about code as an end in itself and start talking about it as a means to something bigger, as a means to something that girls are already passionate about.

Mira: And suddenly girls started caring. So we decided that we needed to create an entire ecosystem that would change things from the ground up and not just do an advertising campaign. A TV spot was not going to solve this problem, at least not in any kind of future or lasting way. So we called it Made With Code. We created a website, madewithcode.com, and that became the hub for the whole initiative. We created an anthem film to inspire parents and educators to see the value of code, because if you're a parent or you're an educator and you don't know the value of code, how are you going to turn your kids or your students onto it? We created mobile first block-based coding projects that were based on a curriculum, so girls can get coding right away on the website and learning and not have a barrier to entry.

Mira: And then we also created the first ever coding directory. So girls, after being inspired, they can go and find coding organizations and workshops and camp to continue learning. Oh, and I forgot, and another huge thing that we created was 13 different documentaries with 13 different peers or women in the industry because girls had no role models in this whole world. So how do you get into a field if you have no role models? So that was a huge part of it. So this initiative ended up being so successful and it reached so many girls, way more than the 1 million initial goal, that now it's become a whole department at Google and it lives on. So that work is a perfect example of work that kind of broke boundaries. It was not a traditional approach to solving a problem. We brought in architects, we brought in educators into our team, among many other talents that don't belong in the ad industry. And we created something that didn't exist. And that's why it broke through in such a huge way. And that kind of work in that kind of thinking is what this industry I think needs more of.

Kenzie: Yeah. I love this case study because I think it really highlights the power of solving important and meaningful challenges beyond a sort of answer the brief, deliver, move on approach. And it really resonates with me that girls don't see code as just a hobby or even a career path. And this whole campaign, or probably a better word is program, was predicated on the notion that girls have to see code as a means to an end to gain access to something they're already passionate about or solve a problem they're already interested in. Like on the Made With Code site, there's all those projects you talked about and they range from code your own Snapchat filter to make your own music mixer to code an appreciation message to your favorite teacher. Like all of the projects that would get girls in to start coding are these wonderful little propositions that even I'm like, "Hey, maybe I should try out this whole coding thing because I want a custom holiday emoji." You know? So I guess I'm just wondering, how did you land on this linchpin hypothesis? Like was it pure intuition or was it research you did? Now it seems so obvious, but before you came up with it, it wasn't obvious. Can you walk me through that creative process

Mira: Again, I think the diversity of perspective here and having some women on the team that worked on it is huge, being able to put yourself in these girls shoes. And we actually got some research at the beginning of this project that said that girls see coding, in terms of preference of things they want to do for a living, they see it right next to being a prison guard at a correctional facility. So that's how interested they are in coding. So it was really far down on the list. But the interesting thing was number one on the list was helping people. So all we had to do is connect the dots.

Kenzie: Aha. So a little magical mixture of diversity of perspective, research and intuition. You seem like you've really thrived on being a risk taker. Starting from your jump from a really successful career at a major ad agency to start your own agency, down to the way you transform creative briefs from flat asks to these far reaching programs. Were you always a risk taker or is that something you learned or adapted to?

Mira: I remember when I left Weiden+Kennedy, you know, I got so much like, "Oh my God, what are you going to do? You can't leave. You can't leave this place. What are you going to do? How are you going to do it out there?" All that stuff. And the thing is, once you start taking those risks and once you start doing more and more of them, it becomes that muscle that you just know how to do. You just get more and more comfortable in doing it and then you find something else that makes you uncomfortable and you do more of that. And I think the more you practice making yourself uncomfortable and the more you get comfortable in making yourself uncomfortable, I think the more successful you're going to be. And I'm talking about this both in your career, your life, because you know what? Life's not predictable and life's uncomfortable. And the more you can kind of sit in the uncomfort and the more you can sit in that unpredictability, I think the better off you're going to be.

Kenzie: That's funny you say that because my mom always tells me that life is what happens when you're busy making plans, and this sounds a lot like that. So I feel like my life is coming full circle right now. This also reminds me of, you gave a Ted talk that really inspired me and one of the things you talked about is this word or concept of hamdillah, I hope I'm saying that right. Can you talk about that word and what it means?

Mira: Oh yeah, of course. I would love to talk about the meaning of that word. So the word hamdillah in Arabic means being grateful for everything that comes your way. So ever since I was a young girl, my grandmother used to say that. So did my mother, so does my dad, I grew up around a family that constantly used that word. And I realized it was such a huge part of... I saw my grandmother lose her husband when she was 26 years old and have four kids and raise them on her own. I've seen family go through all sorts of stuff and despite everything, they always said hamdillah. They always were grateful for anything that came their way.

Mira: And I think it's just a shift in perspective, right? Like something could happen and you could just buckle down and be completely miserable about it, complain about it constantly, see the glass half empty, or you can take it as an opportunity to raise yourself up and to grow from the experience. I will say life is kind of like a surprise party, you know, like "Surprise, you have cancer" or whatever it is, it's crazy. You don't know what's going to happen. You don't know what tomorrow's going to bring. You don't know how it's all going to unfold. And I think taking whatever it is that comes your way and seeing it as an opportunity to grow and to become this person that you're meant to become is huge, and it's such a shift in perspective. And for me, every single challenge and believe me, I've been through some challenges. seeing all of those as opportunities to, "Okay, what is this trying to teach me?" Instead of like, "I hate this. This is unfair," play victim. On the contrary, "What is this trying to teach me? How can I learn from this? How can I use this to actually make things different, better?"

Mira: And I think just that change in perspective and being grateful for it all and seeing anything that happens as an opportunity to grow is huge. And now I look back on so many things that have happened through my life and I'm almost glad that those challenges happen because I feel like it's what I needed to wake up or what I needed to learn that lesson that I would have never learned without that big challenge that came my way.

Mira: I've lived through civil wars. When I was five years old, I literally was in a building, it was my dad's uncle's building. They told us to go there because they thought that was going to be a safer building and we literally were on the floor where above us and below us got bombed and we were the only floor in between that didn't get bombed. And I still remember just being handed over by these people in my family through the barbed wire, through the floors. So it's like all these things, but all that stuff, like for example war, people are like, "Ah, it's terrible that you grew up in wars." Yeah, maybe from the outside. But for me, war taught me that we are way better off being interdependent than independent. The only time we've ever experienced this here in the west or in the U.S. is when natural disasters happen. You see humanity at its best, even though this terrible tragedy has happened.

Mira: Why? Because people come together. Because people help each other. Because people are volunteering their time there. It's all hands on deck trying to make things better. It brings you together as a community. It teaches you how we're better off being interdependent instead of independent. It teaches you about resiliency. It teaches you that if you didn't die, you're probably just bouncing back up and you can make something, you can build it all over again. I choose to see all the positives and all the things that it taught me, and I think it's made me more compassionate. It's made me more human. It's made me more loving. It's made me more grateful. That's why it's so important to me to not create more waste and not create more literally shit out in the world, but to do something that actually adds something to the world. And obviously you don't succeed all the time, but you try your best.

Kenzie: That's our show. If you'd like to learn more from the Accomplice team, visit us at itsworthdoingright.com, or drop us a line at podcast@itsworthdoing right.com. See you next time.