We, The People

In this conversation I speak with Marlon and Kian from The People a company that works with brands that are interested in reaching younger consumers and attracting younger talent in the workforce.

Kian Bakhtiari and Marlon Opigo founded and work for a company called The People, which is a creative company powered by a global community of over 150 young creators and changemakers. We’ll be talking about diversity and inclusion and what they do with young people and how they work with brands to connect with younger people.

We got started with Kian introducing himself as well as telling me a bit about why he founded The People agency.

‘Thank you, I am delighted to be on the Inclusive Growth podcast. My name is Kian Bakhtiari and I am the founder of The People. We’re a creative consultancy powered by a community of young creators and changemakers from diverse backgrounds. Our mission is to unleash the creative potential of young people because they all have talent, but not everyone gets the same opportunity to showcase their talent or develop their potential.

I decided to start The People because I used to work in the world of marketing and media and I noticed working in insights, research and strategy roles was that there was a lot of time, effort and money being spent by a lot of smart people to create these ads and campaigns. But on the other side, when I was with my friends just chilling on the weekend, they couldn’t care less. There was this big disconnect between how much it mattered in those rooms compared with in ordinary people’s lives they had other stuff to think about.

I was quite young and naive enough to just ask the question, “What if you involved people, and especially in this case, young people in the creative process from the very start?” So rather than create a six-month campaign and push this ad, what if you involve them from the very beginning? In a way, the work we do has reverse-engineered the creative process. And that’s why we’re called The People. Always start with The People.’

I like what Kian is saying. It’s similar to what I say in my book, actually, where I talk about taking a human-centred design approach to diversity and inclusion and involving people in that process. I’m glad that we’re on the same page.

I turned to Marlon next to ask him about his role in The People agency and background.

‘My role is Business Development Executive at The People. This mainly entails me setting up meetings, having calls with senior members of our company, having interesting conversations around D&I and a lot of the issues that we’re currently facing at the moment which greatly impacts members of my ethnic minority community.

As we’ve got the cost-of-living crisis going on, we feel we need to be representing the voices of young people because they’re bearing the largest brunt of a lot of these issues currently going on at the moment. As to my background, I have a degree in finance and economics and I was working for a small brokerage firm in central London. Once I left university, I wanted to get involved in real estate and property and I started my own investment company. I’ve also worked in sales and worked for a consultancy company called Global University Systems. That was a good experience, but I felt like I wanted to make a bigger impact. Getting involved with the work with The People allowed me that opportunity and allowed me to also make sure that we are having those conversations around diversity and inclusion and just being open and honest with each other.

That’s why I’m grateful that Kian gave me this opportunity to be involved with such an amazing company. So, that’s my role and that’s pretty much my background.’

I turned to Kian to find out what kind of projects The People are working on at the moment.

‘Just before I go into it more, I’d like to think I’m the lucky one to be able to work with talented people like Marlon. We met Lewis from the Mildon team briefly, so I know you will agree, Toby, that the job is much more meaningful when you work with great people that share the same mission. So, I just wanted to note that.

In terms of projects, we work on a variety of projects. I would say the three main areas we focus on is insights, so understanding how the community thinks and feels. So, it’s some of the stuff that Marlon talked about representing the voices, but also sharing the lived experiences of different communities. We also work on co-creation; that’s working with the community to develop ideas and programmes. Then the third one is amplification. That’s about working on something meaningful and being able to work with creators to expand and amplify the message.

In terms of specific projects, we’ve just launched our latest report, which is around young Muslims called the NextGen Muslim report, which covers the experiences of young Muslims in the UK. This one was important for us because internally, when we were having conversations as a team, it felt like a community that wasn’t really covered when it comes to the diversity and inclusion conversation. But also thinking of brands and media, it feels like no one is really having that conversation with Muslims. What we did is we started having conversations with our community, asking them about their experiences and what they would like to see, as well as their challenges.’

I know the report Kian mentioned is one of their latest thought pieces. I asked what some of the key findings were?

Kian said, ‘I think it’s been fascinating. In terms of headlines, 97% of young Muslims don’t feel accurately represented by mainstream media and popular culture. If we think about that, I know one of the things you do really well, Toby, is you also make the business case of the lost opportunity. If we think about the lost opportunity in that, there’s this whole community of people. We’ve just had the England and Wales census come out and there’s been a 44% increase in the Muslim community which means1.2 million more Muslims in England and Wales. And no one’s really investing or speaking to the community. On the flip side, you’ve got 84% of young Muslims who identify as British. So, we have these, I would say, stereotypes and thoughts of what it is to be a Muslim. Then you have the realities of a young Muslim growing up today who doesn’t feel represented and no one’s really engaging with them outside of the community.’

I asked Kian how they help organisations or clients connect with that audience?

‘The first step is to understand where they are in the journey. Have they done work around this before? If not, what are they hoping to achieve? Then I think the thing we do, again, is in the name of The People. We try to share some of those voices, some of those experiences. There’s an education piece to be done to understand what challenges are facing the community and then working together to see how businesses can be part of the solution.

A great example of a really forward thinking, progressive organisation is Pentland Brands. We’ve been working over the last year with Pentland Brands on the Pentland Collective, which is a mentoring programme which gives young people from underserved communities access to mentors from senior backgrounds working in everything from like shipping to marketing to finance. Without that programme they wouldn’t have that. What’s amazing is when following up with a lot of those mentees, they’ve found new confidence. Some of them have found jobs. What we want to do, as Marlon talked about, is make a real impact. And I think businesses are uniquely placed to be working with communities.’

I turned to Marlon to find out what types of organisations are approaching him and why they ask The People to look for help.

‘The main thing for us is we want to work with ambitious brands. As Kian rightly said, the ones that are progressive, thinking forward and want to make an impact. Recently the conversations that I’ve been having are within the finance and the banking sector. Earlier I mentioned the cost-of-living crisis and it’s good to talk about financial inclusion, in that sense, because we don’t always have the access to the same level of resources. But we still want to progress in whichever way, shape or form that may be.

We want to make sure that brands are catering to all types of audiences across the board and in particular the younger generation. Not everybody comes from a silver spoon background and access to finance can be limited. It’s about asking, “How can we drive financial inclusion and push this agenda forward?” I have been trying to connect as much as I can with senior members within banking, the banking industry and the financial services industry. Really and truly, I can connect with any forward-thinking, ambitious brand that wants to have young people at the core of what they do. For me, it’s about making sure those young voices are represented. It does matter.’

I was curious to know. ‘What are some other forward-thinking progressive brands would you love to work with and which brands do your community most resonate with?

Kian replied, ‘I’m happy to kick start that one and Marlon, please join in. I think just the reality of things we try to be as honest as possible on these topics, Toby. Marlon is doing an amazing job when it comes to sharing our mission and going to companies. But the reality is, we’re a small agency. And most of the time, we’re the ones going out there and being like, hey, this needs to be done. Looking to the future, we would love to get to a position where companies come to us and say, “We have this challenge or we want to do this.” That’s where we want to get to in the conversation when it comes to including young voices, as Marlon has said, but also when it comes to building a more inclusive world.’

Based on our previous conversations, I know The People not only help organisations connect with young people, but also has a focus on young people working within the business as well.

Kian said, ‘Yes, that’s absolutely correct and I think it’s twofold. Toby, you would know this better than most, but culture often starts from within. If that mindset and those ambitions aren’t there, as outsiders, we can do as much as possible and we can consult. But ultimately, it’s the organisation that has to make those decisions come to life.’

Since a lot of the people that listen to this podcast are normally heads of HR, learning and development professionals and company directors who are interested in their inclusive company culture, I wanted to know what Kian would say to this audience about why it’s important to connect with younger people in a genuine, authentic way.

‘I would say a good example is some of the work we’ve been doing with Dentsu, which is one of the world’s biggest media and marketing agencies. We’re working with them on their amazing programme called The Code, which serves to get young people from diverse backgrounds into the creative industries and into the world of media. To do that, we’ve been using TikTok. The first point is more than ever, every company needs to attract the best talent. The best talent, however, you define that, needs to be inclusive and diverse. You can’t just have the old school criteria of you’ve gone to university and you’ve got certain experience. I think the world has changed and the way we measure someone’s talent shouldn’t be by the standards of the old world. That’s really important. I think the other perspective is Gen Z is now the biggest cohort globally and if we don’t understand the needs of the new generation, one, you won’t be able to attract the talent. Two, even if they come in, there’s going to be differences in outlooks and perspectives when it comes to engagement.’

I know from a lot of the work that I do with my clients, Gen Z people entering the workplace hold high standards for diversity and inclusion, sustainability and the environment. If a company can’t demonstrate that it’s taking genuine steps to be a diverse and inclusive organisation, they will go and find the company that is. Companies that don’t hold those values will have a very difficult job attracting and recruiting people in generation Z. It’s a real differentiator in terms of an employer brand and being able to attract talent.

I was curious to find out what Marlon would say to business leaders in terms of why it’s important to have a genuine connection with younger people.

‘When you look at us as The People, our culture is diverse and we’re young. If companies want to connect with these younger audiences, their company culture has to reflect this. So internally, what are they doing to champion D&I? How diverse is their workforce? Because personally, if I want to work for a large organisation, and I don’t see as many people as myself, I wouldn’t necessarily feel as comfortable as I would if I saw more people that looked like me. If companies aren’t doing what they need to do internally to boost representation, they’re going to fall flat when it comes to attracting the best talent, whether that’s Gen Z or people from ethnic minority backgrounds.

If they’re not making any efforts to strive towards improving their representation, young people would obviously notice this. And as far as they’re concerned, if the effort is not being made, there’s no reason why they would want to maybe associate themselves with this company because again, that’s what they deeply care about. It’s part of their values. If a company doesn’t share those values and that culture, they’re simply not going to align themselves with that company or brand. Whether that’s as a consumer, or as an employee, or in any sort of transaction, it’s not going to work.’

I agree with Marlon. Businesses need to have an inside-out mentality when it comes to diversity. If you have a diverse workforce that reflects society and the community, you’ll be able to better understand and empathise with your customers’ needs. Then, likewise, your customers will be able to identify themselves in you and want to come and shop with you, work with you, use your services, whatever your business is. It’s important.

We wrapped up our conversation with my usual question to both Marlon and Kian, ‘What does inclusive growth mean for you?’

Marlon said, ‘For me, inclusive growth means making sure everybody’s voices are represented when it comes to mainstream media and campaigns. Nobody should be feeling left out or feel like they’re excluded in any sort of way. That could just be from what they see in front of them on their TV, in a newspaper, or in any sort of mainstream media or campaign. We should be able to connect with something, whether that is a brand, a message, or whatever it is. For me, that’s what inclusive growth will be. Making sure everyone’s voice is represented, and we can see things we can connect to. You have to be able to look through different lenses to understand other people’s perspectives when you foster diversity and inclusion in what you do as a company.’

Kian responded saying, ‘That was so beautifully articulated by Marlon, I don’t think I have much to add to it. I think the point Marlon makes that it’s not just the outcome but making sure everyone can contribute to the economy and to the world that we live in is the most important.

Inclusive growth means removing all the barriers. This is one thing that’s important for us. It’s not about giving anyone anything extra, it’s removing the barriers that prevent certain groups of people from having access or participating in the first place.

Thinking about the ingredients of inclusive growth, I would definitely say collaboration more than ever. I think the fact that we’re doing this podcast, we’re all on the same mission and we’re delivering it differently. There is a need for collaboration between people that are in the same industry, big companies, small companies, NGOs, young people and old people, everyone needs to collaborate. Embracing difference too. Inclusivity is important, but we must also make sure we don’t lose the flavour and the differences that come with different perspectives.

As a more general point, I think we need to rethink what growth means and how we define it.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this over the last year. For me, I think it’s going beyond the one dimension of measuring growth through finance or GDP. I think that’s a constituent of growth. But there are also other dimensions like the environment, society, wellbeing that aren’t included in traditional growth definitions.’

I agree and that’s part of why I wrote my book Inclusive Growth. In fact, one of my clients has got a business strategy called the good growth strategy. Imagine an onion, the strategy has got different layers to it. As Kian said, those layers represent not only the financial performance of the business but the impact on the communities that they work with. I think it’s a good mindset to have when you develop that type of business strategy.

If you represent a brand that is thinking about how to attract and recruit younger people into their organisation, how to create a great working environment for young people or trying to connect with younger consumers check out The People website to learn more.

We, The People - Mildon