Embrace neurodiversity: It's time to unleash the power of different

At a time when the industry needs different minds and thinking to come up with different solutions, we must embrace neurodiversity, writes Sam Phillips, CMO at Omnicom Media Group UK.

Embrace neurodiversity: It's time to unleash the power of different

When our son Max was born 14 years ago, with a hotchpotch of disa-bilities, the neonatal doctor said: "Different doesn’t have to mean worse, you know." 

It has been those few encouraging words that have turned out to be more predictive for Max, and those who have come across him over the course of his life, than his dastardly diagnoses.

With his life-enhancing exuberance and offbeat slant on life, my son has changed my perception of what people who are "different" from the norm bring to life. He looks at the world through a different (but not worse) lens, approaches conversations differently (but not worse-ly) and he adds to life (not worsens life). My world got bigger, not smaller, when I got thrust into the world of disability, to the extent that I have been known to jest since that every family should raise a child with a disability so they too can unfold more of life’s less-explored but fascinating layers.  

Last year Campaign’s A-List asked: "What’s the one thing our industry should be asking itself but isn’t?" My response was: "Where are all the disabled people?" 

I didn’t mean this just in regards to the industry’s employees, but also how we portray "real Britain" in our outputs, given that about two million people are registered disabled or as having long-term ill-health issues, and they have an estimated spending power of £80bn. 

It was this response that triggered Penny Mordaunt MP, minister of state for disabled people, health and work, to invite me to become the advertising sector representative for the area of disability. My role in this regard is to amplify the voices of disabled customers and employees within the UK advertising sector and to challenge inequality. 

So – with thanks to Campaign, which is proving its staying power in relation to our industry’s diversity debate – here I go. A woman on a mission to get you thinking about an area of inclusion and diversity that I suspect many of you will have placed in the "too difficult" box until now (in the UK, charity Scope’s research shows that 43% of the population has never spoken with a disabled person): the area of neurodiversity. 

Let me define neurodiversity for you. The term covers a range of people who have difficulties with organisation, memory, concentration, time, direction, perception and sequencing. 

People who fall under this moniker include those with autistic spectrum disorder (including Asperger’s syndrome), AD(H)D, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia and Tourette’s syndrome. The term incorporates those who have intel-lectual difference from neurotypical individuals (chromosomal disorders such as Down’s syndrome are classified separately but, given that they are learning disabilities, I have included them in my thinking here too). 

"Come on, readers of campaign. it is 2017, and we have the power today to change a lot of people’s tomorrows while enhancing our own businesses"

Most of you will have colleagues who are dyslexic… in fact, you probably have more who are dyslexic, dyspraxic or dyscalculic than have ever admitted to it (either to you or their HR teams). But there are other people these descriptors – such as autism – apply to that many companies will never have never gone anywhere near thinking about employing. Why not? 

Reasons will vary individually and corporately, but we have to face up to the fact (as flagged up by Scope’s "End the Awkward" campaign) that a lot of people are simply scared of disability and unsure of how to relate to a disabled person, let alone contemplate employing one. Or the lack of engagement could be due to "affinity bias" (we are all drawn to work and socialise alongside those who are like us; who "fit in" more readily). 

Alternatively, it could be because companies are not au fait with employment programmes such as St George’s Hospital’s brilliant Project SEARCH initiative or Mencap’s work in this area on the concept of "job-carving". Or it could just be because people think to themselves: "Frankly, we’re busy enough already without having to contemplate the adaptations we would have to make." 

Or perhaps employing people who are neurodiverse – or showing them in our outputs – has never even crossed our minds. 

My challenge to our industry, then, at a time when we need different minds and different thinking to come up with different solutions – in a world where it has been proved beyond doubt that difference leads to improved business performance – is to imagine the richness that could come through changing the narrative both within your workforce and in your comms outputs. Maybe, just maybe, by starting to think about what disabled people can do, not what they can’t do, or through reflecting real Britain, rather than idealised Britain, you can play a key role in composing our industry’s new musical score. 

We are uniquely positioned to change the narrative. Maltesers and Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO’s brilliant campaign featuring disabled – albeit not learning disabled – people has made glorious inroads into bringing disabled people to the fore, received plaudits galore, driven sales growth of 8.1% and brand affinity growth of 20.8%. Brilliant, brave and business-driving. 

If I have not moved your thinking, then maybe John Elder Robison, scholar in residence and co-chair of the neurodiversity working group at the College of William & Mary in the US, can shift your dials. He says: "The idea that there is one ‘normal’ or ‘healthy’ type of brain or mind or one ‘right’ style of neurocognitive functioning is no more valid than the idea that there is one ‘normal’ or ‘right’ gender, race or culture", and that "the classification of neuro-divergence as medical/psychiatric pathology has no valid scientific basis, and instead reflects cultural prejudice and oppresses those labelled as such". 

Wow. Don’t you love it when you are forced to look at things through the other end of the telescope?

So come on, readers of Campaign. It is 2017, and we have the power today to change a lot of people’s tomorrows while enhancing our own businesses.  

We are uniquely positioned to change the narrative

Got groupthink? Try tapping into the different perspective that a neurodiverse brain can proffer. Short on data analysts? Then why not try to secure the mathematical brilliance and software development prowess of someone with Asperger’s syndrome. Got repetitive tasks to be done? Why not try to employ someone with Down’s syndrome, to whom repetition can be Nirvana-ville. 

As the recent Harvard Business Review article "Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage" attests, SAP, HPE, Microsoft and EY are now actively recruiting neurodiverse talent, and "though the programmes are still in early days – SAP’s, the longest-running among major companies, is just four years old – managers say they are already paying off in ways far beyond reputational enhancement. This includes productivity gains, quality improvement, boosts in innovative capabilities, and broad increases in employee engagement". 

Separately, it has been proved that HPE Australia’s neurodiverse testing team is 30% more productive than its non-neuro-diverse teams. Closer to home, at Omnicom Media Group UK we have employed an adult with Down’s syndrome and have exciting future plans to do more in this area. 

It’s time to unleash the power of different. 

Because different does not have to mean worse, you know. 


Sam Phillips is chief marketing officer at Omnicom Media Group UK, managing director of OMG Ethnic (UK), and assistant dean at Omnicom University