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Philippa White makes leaders
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Philippa White makes leaders
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"It's been a bit of an uphill struggle; it's been challenging, but it's certainly been worth it."
1 July 2010

Philippa White makes leaders

Interview by Kate Bezar
Photography by Ana Luiza Marques

Kate Bezar on Philippa White

There are some professions that people love to hate; used car salesmen, parking wardens, telemarketers … Advertising is not really one of them, mostly because it’s kind of glamorous – it’s creative, the budgets are big and the expense accounts generous – but there is something a little ‘off’ about working to fan the flames of consumerism.

Philippa White was tired of apologising for being part of the ‘communications’ industry (by which she means public relations and advertising) and was determined to find a way for people within it to use their substantial skills to do something they could feel 100% good about. She founded TIE (The International Exchange) to facilitate the short-term placement of advertising professionals from the ‘first world’ into NGOs in Brazil.

This story originally ran in issue #25 of Dumbo Feather

Discussed in this Story

KATE BEZAR: So, how long have you been doing TIE? Do you have an official start date?

PHILIPPA WHITE: Well, the official … I’ll start right at the beginning. I worked in the [communications] industry for a good five years before I set this up. I worked at a small boutiquey agency for a year, then I worked at Leo Burnett, well D’Arcy, but it turned into Leo Burnett, and then I worked at BBH [Bartle Bogle Hegarty]. I was at BBH up until November of 2005.

You were a creative or a suit?

An account person. I loved it. The thing is, I loved the industry. I think it’s an absolutely fantastic industry, full of phenomenal, super-intelligent, really creative people. I got a buzz when I was at work. I’d thought hard about the kind of industry that I wanted to work in before I decided on advertising. My whole family was in medicine or environmental engineering or social work, but I wanted to go into the [communications] industry because I love seeing things through. I love seeing things from beginning to end. I like the fact that we can be creative. I love the conversations that you have at the office. It’s never boring. It’s brilliant and I love that. I didn’t leave because I hated the industry at all. I left because I saw an opportunity for us, within the industry, to do something really good with the skills that we have. The only opportunities really, then, were to go and build a house in Costa Rica, or go and meet orphans in Cambodia, or whatever it might be. What I wanted to be able to do was to look at the skills that we have and say, “Hold on a second! I should feel pretty proud that I’ve worked for X years and developed some skills that are really needed. I don’t actually need to go to medical school to do something good, or to give back. Instead I can use the skills I have and do something good.”

This story originally ran in issue #25 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #25 of Dumbo Feather

I was also tired of people apologising for working in the industry.

Why do you think that is?

I think it’s really complicated. I think there are a lot of reasons. I think society tends to look at advertising and think that you’re just selling things to people that they don’t necessarily want and that it’s all about consumerism, especially in this current age, certainly after the economic crisis. I think there are a lot of questions about the economy, consumerism, the private sector’s role in how this world is developing and what advertising’s role is within that. I think a lot of people question whether advertising is working towards the right aims. I think they’re questions that need to be asked, but I think that advertising does have a huge role to play in the way this world is going and could be used in a very positive way. I think that we, as professionals within it, need to understand the various elements that are creating this new age so we can work towards improving the way society is working. Anyway, I’m not going to go into that. I’m actually working on a project at the moment around the social and environmental responsibility of advertising and why it’s important for our industry to think on the front foot and thinking proactively, rather than always reactively, when people question our industry as a whole. In short, we do see TIE as a solution for a sustainable future as it helps our professionals understand these dynamics and the rapidly changing context for brands and companies. It’s important for them to be able to understand how interconnected the world is and the various challenges that we currently face. The idea is that the future leaders of our industry will need to be able to lead this change – and TIE will hopefully help them do that.

So you saw that other people within the industry also wanted something more?

Absolutely. People want to have the opportunity to say, “Okay, hold on. That’s fine, but there’s so much more to life than selling butter.”

I can understand why people get itchy feet and feel like there’s more to life. I recognised that because I was also feeling that. In many conversations I’d have with people, they’d voice that frustration. It happens after about five years of being in the industry, because you’ve ‘made it’. You’ve gone from account executive, to account management, to senior account management, to potentially account director. Then it’s like, “Okay, is that it? Am I just going to keep going up the ladder and selling more butter?” A lot of people do dream about “the another great job out there.” Of course there could be, but the reality is that it’s really hard to find the same kind of atmosphere and the same kind of people as there are in our industry so we need to have the opportunity to realise a lot of things that we want to do within it. So that’s why I came up with TIE initially, because I thought people shouldn’t need to quit their jobs and leave the industry to be able to do something good and to make a difference. As well, I think it’s important to note that there should be opportunities to not only develop the skill set of the professionals within the industry, but to help them think in a more sustainable way and help them understand the broader evolving context for brands and companies and provide them with the skills needed to play their part in a world where brands and companies are going to have to take responsibility seriously.

Was there something that happened at that five-year mark or was it just a natural evolution of thought?

I was at BBH for about half a year before I started developing TIE. At that time, my uncle died. He was a big figure in South Africa. He was the doctor for Nelson Mandela during his presidential campaign so he was really involved with the anti-apartheid movement and he really stood for something. It was quite a turning point to go to his funeral because there were a lot of really interesting people talking about him. He had such a vision his entire life and he really fought for something. I felt that I wasn’t fighting enough for what I believed in. I guess that started my thinking. Then I went to Brazil on holiday with my partner – he’s Brazilian and we met in London. I was born in South Africa so I had seen poverty and I had seen inequality, but Brazil was very different. It was a lot more apparent. South Africa is … I don’t know if you’ve been, but it’s a funny place. You can quite easily live in Cape Town and live a very white middle class existence. You can almost remove yourself completely from the reality of what is going on unless you drive through Crossroads, a huge shanty town. Brazil isn’t really like that; the poverty and inequality is pretty much on your door step. There is no getting away from it. So when I visited there I felt really inspired. I felt there was so much to be done and there must be a way for us to do something.

After I got back from that trip, I took a mental health day from work. I stared at my computer and was like, “I have to figure this out. I know that I’m sitting on something, I’m just not sure what it is.” Eventually, at the end of that day, I cracked it. I remember it so clearly. It was the beginning of TIE. I spent a year from then on, developing the business plan and talking to people who also found it interesting, but it needed a lot of work before it was actually something more tangible. Then, in November 2005, I quit BBH because I felt the business plan was in place enough that I could move to Brazil to research the Brazilian side of the equation.

What was the concept you came up with?

The concept then is actually pretty much what it is now. I didn’t know the model of how it would work, but the idea was to provide people within the communications industry with the opportunity to use their skills to help NGOs in developing countries. It’s a leadership development opportunity for communications professionals. It’s really important to focus on the leadership development aspect because there’s so much in it for the communications companies themselves. For example, BBH … I’m getting ahead of myself a little bit, but BBH have always given one percent of their profits to charity, right from when they started out; that’s what they’ve done. So, that’s amazing, but it’s always been sort of ‘cheque book charity’. What they’ve now said is, “That’s great, but the world’s moved on a bit and what we need to be doing is getting a return on that investment”, which makes total sense. TIE is a chance for their staff to work in challenging, ambiguous situations that are completely out of people’s comfort zone. They see their involvement with TIE as a great way of retaining and recruiting their people, improving morale, but also as a fantastic way of developing better employees – employees who have a much better understanding of the global environment, global business, multi-cultural environments, and emerging markets – and develop an improved confidence and self-belief.

And … humanity.

Absolutely. There’s a real business case for it from their perspective, as well. So, that’s how we developed TIE into a possible business model, whereby agencies would pay TIE to provide this opportunity for their staff. Then, when I moved to Brazil, I spent six months developing more of the business plan from that side of things; understanding what it is that the NGOs needed – do they even need communication support, for example? The last thing that I want to do is set up something and it be just a complete waste of time because they don’t really need the support. The great thing is that communication is so desperately needed in the development arena. Actually,

a lot of NGOs are realising more and more, that communication is absolutely vital for them to be able to raise awareness of their projects, their organisations, and to give a voice to their beneficiaries.

So there was a real need. We had lots of conversations with different NGOs and secured a couple of partners for the pilot. Then, at the end of June 2006, I came back to England and knew that I had those organisations secured. All this time, it was my own money that I was spending, so I had to come back to freelance for, it must have been a year and a half I suppose. Then the pilot happened at the end of 2007. Another thing that came out of my research in Brazil was the realisation that we needed the support of local [communications] agencies to make a lot of these projects possible. You need the knowledge, obviously, of the local culture. You need knowledge of the language. You need the knowledge of communications in Brazil. It’s a really great exchange because you’ve generally got the person from abroad, the local agency and the NGO, and they work in partnership to make the project happen.

So, it’s not just as easy as shipping someone over and saying, “Here, have an amazing time for a couple of months and see what you can do?”

Well, no. That’s the thing. Before the person goes out they need to have a really clear brief. We spend a lot of time up front working with the NGOs and we match the people to the appropriate project that fits them.

Have you had individuals approach you and say, “I’d love to do this. Can I do it through you guys?” rather than …

Through a company? Yeah, that happens a lot, a lot, a lot. We get so many emails a month from people. It’s hard because there’s a large cost involved because there’s so much involved even before a person comes out developing the project and giving them training … You’re not selling

You’re not selling Coca Cola, you’re potentially trying to change behaviour towards a certain group of people, so the kinds of communications that you might do have to be done in a certain way … There’s so many examples of ads out there that possibly do more harm than good, because of the way they’ve been executed, and it’s important for people to understand that you have to be careful about the communications that you do. So, we have training before hand, we have training in the UK and then we also have an orientation type session in Brazil, before the project starts. So there’re a lot of people involved, and because of that there’s obviously a cost involved. The way that TIE works at the moment, individuals wouldn’t be able to afford it. There’s a huge benefit to the agencies and it’s been designed like that. I’d have to create a completely different model type of thing for individuals and we need to develop our core product before we start doing that.

So, do you tell them to go back to their current employer and ask them to be part of the programme?

That is the answer. It’s so hard for me to be saying no to these individuals, because it would be great to have more people, but I just can’t risk it, because I just think, at the moment, our product for the NGOs is so good. It’s really important that it stays good and that everything they get is as good as it can be.

How many placements have you made so far?

Okay, let me just think … At the moment we’ve done nine or ten, and by the end of this year we will have done 13, we’re on 13.

Have they all been from just a couple of agencies in the UK?

Well, our big partner, which sends three people a year, is [communications services group] WPP. Then we also have Leo Burnett. Leo Burnett’s been involved right from the beginning. They send one person a year, at the moment. Wieden + Kennedy have sent two people so far; DDB Tribal have sent one person. Glue Isobar are now on board and they’re sending somebody this year. We’ve also got BBH on board and they’re sending somebody this year as well. So those are our clients at the moment. I’m having a lot of different discussions with different organisations, different agencies, and it feels like the client list will be growing over the next year, which will be very good for Brazil.

How long have you lived in Brazil now?

When the pilot started, it was the end of 2007, so that’s when I packed my final bags in England and moved the rest of my stuff over to Brazil. So, that’s my date, even though my dad was sick for a while, he died last year, and I spent a lot of time in Canada with him. I mean I haven’t spent that whole time in Brazil, but I’ve called Brazil home since 2007.

And you’re still with the Brazilian guy you met in London?

Yeah. We’ve been together for nine years or something.

That’s amazing, and he’s moved back to Brazil, as well?

He owns a restaurant in Brazil and so for a year and half it was really hard because I was back and forth a lot, and that obviously puts tons of pressure on a relationship. It was hard because in my head I needed to, basically, set up a company with the biggest advertising agencies as clients to make my being in Brazil, and therefore with him, possible.

At times it was like, this is ridiculous, this is not going to work, what am I trying to do?

But, I believed so strongly in it … Thank goodness he’s from where he’s from, because it is such a perfect place to be doing TIE and it inspired me to develop TIE. Our relationship helped drive it and make it happen, because obviously I wanted to move back there and be with him there, but it’s not like I shoehorned something in. The northeast of Brazil is the poorest part of the country, but it’s also the fastest growing. You see the disparity of income, the discrepancies, the poverty, but you also see this incredible wealth that’s growing, this energy in Brazil. For people coming from England it is a situation that is just completely different from their own reality … learning about a new market and also seeing just how unequal this world is and understanding their place to, hopefully, try to make a small change to make it better. So, it’s perfect. It really is good.

I haven’t been to Brazil. Is the northeast an area that people would traditionally go to if they were traveling there?

That’s another really good question because to select the areas that we will expand to, I’ve got a checklist of things that are really important. One of the things is that it needs to be a place that really takes people out of their comfort zone and puts them in a situation that’s quite different from what they’re used to or had the experience of previously. So, for example, as I said, I was born in Cape Town in South Africa and before I went to Brazil, I really did sit down and think, Okay, is this really the right place to be doing this, maybe Cape Town would be better? The answer for that was, no. So many people, certainly within the industry, go to Cape Town on shoots and it’s a popular tourist destination. A lot of people have been to Sao Paolo, and certainly Rio, but the northeast of Brazil is very different. It’s not really a big place that people will have gone to before, unless they’re proper adventurers and they’ve sought out the crazy places in Brazil to go and visit.

You’ve made a life there for yourself okay? You’ve fitted in alright?

It’s been hard. If I was having this conversation with you six months ago I would have been … It’s actually been a very hard couple of years.

Especially with your father dying.

Yeah, with my father, who was really ill; that was really hard. He had a brain tumour and it was exactly a year from when he was diagnosed to when he eventually died; a year to the day, it was quite crazy. That was obviously very difficult, because we are a very close family. It was nice to be working for myself because it meant that I was a little bit more flexible and able to fly over and spend months at a time with him and my mother. So yes, that was hard. There were a couple of really hard things about the move. Where we live is a place called Olinda. Olinda, it means ‘beautiful’.

It’s an absolutely gorgeous colonial town. It’s stunning: cobblestone streets, beautiful colourful houses – pink, blue, and yellow, and big old churches. It’s stunning and it’s right off the sea on a massive hill. You’ve got these beautiful palm trees and hills and the sea. The problem is that because the northeast of Brazil is a very poor part of the country, the houses are really old and they require a lot of upkeep. We had this rental house which, on the face of it, was beautiful and was a good size, but in the rainy season we had proper waterfalls coming into our living room.

That was our life for two years and it made me insane. The landlord didn’t want to help fix it. We paid out of our own pocket for a new roof, but it still didn’t work because there was structural damage to this house that needed proper work. What’s also really hard about Brazil is that, certainly in the northeast of Brazil, and I know that Brazilians wouldn’t hate me for saying this because people laugh about it, but quality does not exist here. You take your car to get fixed and it comes back with 12 more problems with it. Everything is just bad quality and nobody knows how to fix anything. That got me really down because in my life it seemed everything was expensive, or difficult to fix, or going wrong. On top of it, I work for myself. We have an intern now, but for the past two years I didn’t. So I would be working at home, in this horrible place, and it would be really lonely and I didn’t have the opportunity to meet people. I didn’t really speak the language that well. Guga and I speak English at home, which is not really that helpful, but at the same time, when you’re losing your mind slightly, it’s quite nice to at least be able to speak your native language at home. I do love Brazil. If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t be here, but it has also been really challenging. I’m happy that I went through what I did because it has made me a lot stronger. It’s made me really appreciate what I want in life and what I think is important. We’ve since found an amazing house to rent, we’re about to have a baby, and I’ve got an intern now, which makes a huge difference. She’s helping with the work, but it also helps inspire thoughts and is someone to run ideas past. My Portuguese is also getting better, so I can converse more with people. It’s taken a good couple of years to feel like this is home and that I want to be here for the next little while. It’s a wonderful place and I love the people, but it’s been hard. What’s also been really hard is the constant economic uncertainty. If I was doing this based in, well I couldn’t do it based in England, but if I had been setting up a company there, at least I would have been able to fall back on freelancing if I needed help to make ends meet. You can’t really do that in the northeast of Brazil, certainly not if you don’t speak the language fluently, and I just don’t have the same network there and advertising doesn’t work in the same way.

It’s been a bit of an uphill struggle; it’s been challenging, but it’s certainly been worth it because it feels like TIE is heading in the right direction now and we’re seeing the results of what we’re doing in Brazil, which is just so rewarding.

A lot of the people in the local [advertising] industry there tend to be quite removed from the reality of what’s happening in Brazil. They tend to be quite wealthy and don’t tend to see what’s really happening on their doorstep. What’s wonderful is that TIE is providing them with that exposure and helping them to understand what the reality is, and then providing them with an opportunity to make a difference. It’s also fantastic because having the people from abroad come over and work in partnership with the local agencies is impacting how they think and inspiring their processes and so on. Basically, it’s an exchange that everyone benefits from. That said, the main objective of TIE is to work with and support NGOs who are doing incredible work, and we’re seeing results of the projects that we’ve worked on. They’re increasing the confidence of many of the people at these organisations and they suddenly feel this renewed passion for what they’re doing. Seeing the results, the tangible results, of a campaign that’s gone out into the local community and seeing how it’s transformed …

Can you give me an example?

Yeah. One is GTP+, an organisation that’s run by people who have HIV and/or AIDS. It tends to be primarily gay, transsexuals, transgenders and transvestites that work in this particular organisation. They have a kitchen, well more of a restaurant kind of thing, called The Solidarity Kitchen where they make meals for people in the local community. Everyone who works in the Kitchen has HIV and/or AIDS and the money made from the Kitchen helps pay for the rent and the electricity. The original focus was to provide a reasonably priced, well-balanced diet and meal for people in the community who have HIV and AIDS. It’s a really poor community and people can’t necessarily afford to eat well, but you need to if you’re going to be taking antiretroviral drugs. The Kitchen is a really good way of helping to educate people in the local community about what they should be eating if they’ve got the virus. What it also does is help to educate people who don’t have the virus. Anybody can eat there and the idea is to get more people from the community to eat there, because it helps people realise that you can’t get HIV or AIDS through food. So, on a number of levels, this project is phenomenal. One of the biggest problems they had was that they were only serving about 11 plates of lunch per day. They needed to up that so somebody from Wieden + Kennedy came over and developed a campaign to get more people eating there. On the final day, they did a huge launch. Television cameras were there and it was so successful that they had 60 people eat there that day and every day since. Their profile got really big and they’ve actually made enough money now to move and create a much bigger restaurant. I think that they’ve hired three more people and with some money from Pact Brazil they’ve been able to invest in a new fridge, bigger ovens and air conditioning, and it’s now like a proper restaurant, which is amazing. You talk to people at the organisation and they say it has transformed them. So, that gives me goose bumps. It’s just amazing.

The person who worked on that project, would they have gone back to Wieden + Kennedy and given a presentation on their time there?

Absolutely. We get people to write case studies when they’re in the country, so they can make sense of the experience for themselves, and when they go back, they definitely present to the company and often to their clients as well. By presenting it to other people, it’s bringing that knowledge and understanding about the area of HIV, for example, to the UK and helping to educate people there about what’s going on. I think change happens when people understand situations better, basically, so, that’s why that’s an important part of the process.

It’s such a great model you’ve set up. Are you happy for it to just grow as it grows?

Yeah, it needs to get bigger. We need to send more than six people a year. I think the nature of how it’s working, having more people telling their stories and more people going through the program, will generate more interest, and therefore more people will go through the program. I’m flying to New York on Saturday and I’m wanting get the US market on board. I don’t think that it will happen immediately, but hopefully if I at least start these conversations then we will start some momentum there as well. I certainly do want to be working in other areas, but I think we should expand within Brazil first. There’s a lot to be done in Brazil. One of the biggest problems, actually, is that a lot of the [non-profit] foundations are pulling out of Brazil and going to countries in Africa. I can understand that, because Brazil is becoming a really powerful nation and, if I was a foundation based in the UK or the US, I’d be thinking surely Lula [da Silva], the president of Brazil, should be putting money into helping he situation in Brazil, because they certainly have enough to be doing that. There are many countries in Africa which certainly do not have those resources and need a lot of help, so I completely understand why a lot of the foundations are pulling out, but at the same time, certainly where we are in the northeast of Brazil, there’s so much to be done and they’re really struggling because they don’t have the funding. There’s still the need; the need hasn’t gone away and they’re not getting the money from Brazil. It’s nice for us to be there because we can make a difference and we’re not reliant on foundations to make what we do possible. We receive our funding through the advertising agencies so that we can provide these opportunities for their employees. You asked do I want to expand. I would like to go to Africa. It feels like it would be good, but I don’t have the resources to be able to do that yet.

I have no doubt that you will get there at some point. I can hear it in your voice. If you look back to five years ago when your uncle died and how you felt like you could try to make a difference somehow, are you stoked that you actually are?

Yeah, absolutely. It’s funny, I get goose bumps and I just got them now when you said that.

I don’t get them that easily, but I get them when I feel really inspired by something, and I get so inspired by these organisations in Brazil. I had lunch with a guy the other day who has developed this idea … One of the biggest problems is, in the really poor areas, certainly within the population of people who are transgender, transsexual and gay men, that the number of people who have HIV is higher than in the general population. This guy was explaining how this more vulnerable population of people sometimes avoids getting tested because, for example, their name will, in real life, be Ricardo, but they go by Joanna. When they go to the clinic and they’re called Ricardo, it’s really embarrassing for them. They’re there in a long dress and their hair is all done nicely and it’s really embarrassing – something that people never really considered as a barrier before. Anyway, what he’s done is set up a trailer that drives around and does immediate HIV testing for this more vulnerable population. They have three people who do the testing, one guy drives and the rest of them are counsellors. They get the results in 15 minutes. It’s changing these people’s lives and it’s helping this whole situation of HIV in the area. I was just so inspired by his work and the project … Then I talked to somebody else who is working with street children and how they’ve fundamentally changed those children’s lives and their families’ lives. To even just have a small part in that, or be a small part of that is incredible.

I will never claim that we’re changing the world, or the world can’t live without what we’re doing; but, at the same time, it is making a small difference and hopefully in time, as we work more and more with these organisations, we can develop a longer relationship with them and it can be a little bit more sustainable. Basically, the more agencies that send people, the more of these organisations we can help and then, on the flip-side, the more professionals within the private sector will have a much better understanding of how interconnected the world is and how it’s so important that the private sector gets more involved with these kind of things. Hopefully then, looking into the future, it will start to improve the way that we as business people work, and how we consider our role as players who can help socially, rather than just sell stuff or consume stuff. In the private sector, we can provide a service, a social service, as well. So, that’s what makes me really excited because I just think there is so much potential there.

Kate Bezar

Kate Bezar started Dumbo Feather—and is a living legend, simple as that. Read all about her and the kernel of an idea that became a magazine.

Photography by Ana Luiza Marques

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