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Goal of new UAE-based creative agency to prove role, value of empathy to balance humanism with capitalism: Mimi Nicklin

DUBAI: FREEDM is a new UAE-based creative agency that was launched last month. Headquartered in Dubai, the majority of its team is spread throughout the world in countries including the US, Singapore, India, South Africa, and Sri Lanka.

Backed by investors Sean McCauley and Richard Aybar of The Devmark Group, who are founding board members, FREEDM is led by Mimi Nicklin, who has worked in the advertising industry for 15 years and is the author of “Softening the Edge,” which explains why empathy is critical to turning around businesses.

Nicklin told Arab News: “When I arrived in the Middle East three-and-a-half years ago, I took over a business that needed a substantial amount of turnaround and I decided to do that with empathy at the core.

“It worked against all sorts of criticism, and we turned around to be a phenomenal small business — with empathy at the heart.”

She pointed out that empathy levels had been declining for three decades, a situation that has had far-reaching consequences, such as mental health issues.

“We have over 300 million people with depression, which is one of the heaviest costs on our healthcare services worldwide today; and anxiety issues are almost out of control — even the World Health Organization has recognized burnout as an official workplace-related illness,” she said.

The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has made many mental health issues worse inspiring Nicklin to combine the learnings of the global health crisis, her past work experiences, and research on empathy, to create a new kind of agency.

“If we don’t take the learnings of the trauma that hit our world, then we’re just going backward and I don’t understand why the business world seems to want to revert to 2019 with such ease,” she added.

On how to translate empathy to the workplace in the fast-paced agency world, she said: “It translates to elevating our people in order to balance people and profit rather than sacrificing our people in order to drive profit.”

Nicklin noted that advertising agencies have been under increasing pressure in the last two decades as client demands have increased and team sizes shrunk.

“We are an industry that doesn’t sell product, we sell creativity. And creative people need space and time that procurement can’t put a price on. As creative talent is being deprioritized, creative effectiveness is suffering.”

Today, creative businesses contribute to 3 percent of the world’s gross domestic product, employ 30 million people globally, and are the biggest job providers for workers aged 18 to 25, according to the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.

“That basically makes us the industry of tomorrow, and my belief is that the industry of tomorrow cannot function as it did yesterday,” said Nicklin.

FREEDM’s vision is to create an environment free of biases and restrictions that allows creativity to flourish. That includes recruiting talent from all walks of life regardless of age, gender, or economic background.

“We are not a particularly strong industry when it comes to diversity and inclusion. And this business is set to change that by being founded in a very different way,” she added.

For clients, it does not only mean access to exceptional work that addresses their marketing goals, but also being able to fulfill social and personal goals by “directly impacting human beings by creating freedom for them,” she said.

“I believe that we are all people before we are employees, leaders, or executives. And I think the last two years, particularly, have created a shift in society where we are all more aware of our collective role in improving and sustaining the world around us.”

The results speak for themselves with the agency receiving a phenomenal response within one month of its launch and winning new clients every day for at least an entire week. As of September, the agency already had nine clients with more in the pipeline.

From the outset, FREEDM has aligned its business with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and UNESCO’s International Year of Creative Economy for Sustainable Development.

UNESCO believes that the creative economy needs to accommodate creators, through careers in the creative industry that are “viable, and characterized by dignified working conditions, decent pay, and growth opportunities.” In order to fulfill this goal, it has called on policymakers and global leaders to conduct an exhaustive policy review that includes employment, intellectual property, and education.

“That means we have to reformat our entire business and our industry. So, it’s an incredibly big challenge, but at the same time, I believe you can’t create change without discomfort,” Nicklin added.