Think HQ’s Jen Sharpe on diversity, and why it is good for business

Managing director and founder of communications agency Think HQ, Jen Sharpe speaks to Mumbrella's Calum Jaspan about her values driven agency, why this approach has been a success, and how greater staff diversity will lead to greater representation across the board.

Think HQ founder and managing director Jen Sharpe launched the agency in 2010 because she wanted to only work on projects that lead to positive social impact.

“I wanted to create an agency that was just really big on its values. So that’s why I started Think HQ. I could see that market opportunity.”

Diversity and inclusion is spoken about extensively in the advertising and marketing industry, however there are few agencies that champion cultural diversity in the way that Sharpe’s does. As a result, business is booming according to her.

The agency boasts 55 staff from 14 different countries, speaking 20 different languages and 2 in 3 are women. Rather than catering towards diversity and inclusion as a secondary thought, Sharpe says it is in the foundations of the agency.

She says that with Australia’s vastly multicultural population not speaking English as a first language, many are often excluded from vital messaging.

“It occurred to me probably five or six years ago that even though we talked about it and we ran campaigns about it, we actually had no capacity to communicate to newly arrived communities. So I started to look around and I met a multi-cultural marketing agency called CultureVerse and I acquired them in 2019. That meant we could start to go out into the market and be able to say: ‘Hey, when you’ve got a really important message, we can actually speak to not just those that speak English at home, but we now have the capacity to engage with 21% of the Australian community that don’t actually speak English at home’.”

Furthering this, the agency started to build up its in-house translations capabilities in the lead up to the COVID-19 pandemic, in order to not only further community engagement, but also to start developing engagement strategies and creative assets, sending them out as both advertising and PR.

“Traditionally in government campaigns, the mainstream creative campaign gets developed, it gets dispatched and then the translations happen and they are sent out about a month later. When you’ve got restrictions changing and happening as frequently as they were (during COVID), there had to be a different model. So we were brought on board by the Victorian Government to develop and translate all of the COVID messaging from March last year, and we’re still going.”

Professor Shane Hearn

In June, Sharpe recruited Professor Shane Hearn to the agency’s leadership team as its head of first nations engagement and communication.

“I really wanted to bring him on board because I wanted to start presenting to clients a completely different strategy model, which is about developing strategy to be able to communicate to everybody at once, rather than prioritising one audience group over another. It’s actually bringing them all together and having that multicultural and first nations lens across everything that we do.”

By focusing on this strategy to fully engage with all communities across Australia, Sharpe says it is paying dividends as the agency is uniquely capable to provide the services other, often bigger agencies cannot.

“We develop all the core creative assets for some other bigger agencies because they just don’t have the capability, and they’re also not really focused in on the opportunity, which is great for me.”

“The reason why I’m so passionate about it is that because of the values of my business, ultimately what we’re doing is leading to greater social impact. But it’s also really, really good for my business. We’ve actually grown 100% in the last year, and the year before that we grew 84%. It’s purely because I’m going for this inclusion play in the market, and there are so many clients out there that are really interested and had just been looking for this service offering to come together.”

Sharpe adds that agencies should be looking at work through this lens when they are doing audience analysis, in order to see that Australia is very different to what it was ten years ago, “never mind 20 years ago”.

“It’s an incredibly multicultural society and it should be reflected in the strategies that we develop and implement.”

She also says that there is still plenty of work to be done in this space, and while the conversation is picking up steam, there still lacks action in making this a core part of operational structures.

“I think there’s a lot of people talking about diversity and inclusion, but the actual reality of embedding it into agency practice through strategies and audience engagement isn’t quite there yet.

“People always talk about the importance of diversity, but if you actually have a look at the staffing makeup of agencies, it’s still very similar to what it would have been 10 years ago.”

She explains that having a diverse team is a vital first step, as it provides an important perspective from within the agency, which will then have an impact on the lens displayed in that agency’s work.

For example, case studies are often derived from the network of people that the staff know, or friends of friends. “Ideally you want to have lots of great networks out in the community”, says Sharpe, but this is more difficult if an office is just made up of “white people”.

“I’m sure you’ve seen it in The Age, it’s almost like families outside of Carlton and Albert Park don’t exist. Because all they profile is white families. So if there’s more diverse people working in your workplace, then they’re going to have more diverse contacts for case studies.”

“The other example, looking through a creative lens is when you put creative decks together, there’s such limited imagery of multicultural Australia that you just end up with the same type of talent being pitched, and it’s not reflective of what you see on the street, particularly in Melbourne and Sydney. There’s these really nuanced ways that the old model is constantly reinforced by having a lack of diversity in the workplace.”

In hopes to better understand diversity and inclusion across the industry, and attracting more diverse talent into the industry, Think HQ, along with the Scanlon Foundation have supported a study set to be delivered by Dr Marianne Sison in a few weeks. The study will into cultural inclusion, diversity, and representation across Australia’s communications agencies.

“I ultimately want to us to be audience agnostic and channel agnostic as well, in the way that we accept creative briefs and PR briefs. So being able to reach these audiences means you can make a bigger impact. And that’s what we’re about.”


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