“I hate job titles. As soon as soon as you have a job title and a department, you get put into a box.” Danni Mohammed is explaining why the creative industries needs to focus on its people reaching their full potential in order to build back better.
“Ultimately we are all only human and there is so much potential to be unlocked, so when I approach things I purposefully remove and blur those boundaries,” she explains. Whether a job title, corporate hierarchy, brief or agency process Mohammed believes you need to be questioning and developing along the way in order to drive real innovation.
Mohammed, who was talking as part of the Game Changers interview series in partnership with global talent consultancy for the creative industries The Blueprint, believes that the future of the industry lies not in a new agency model or trend but in its ability to enable talent to fulfill their full potential. She explains: “To succeed we need to take the boundaries away and allow people to be defined by more than just their job title.”
Mohammed’s own career has been based upon that desire to move beyond boundaries and traditional linear career paths. With a career that has spanned some of the world’s leading agencies and brands from adidas to Wieden + Kennedy, she kicked off her career in advertising and communication planning when it was very much a nascent discipline.
As the first communications planning graduate that Carat ever hired, Mohammed honed her craft as Naked, the upstart communications planning agency that dominated the industry headlines, came of age.
“I did a dissertation in media neutral planning,” she explains. "I was interested in the objectivity of media back then and questioned the focus on mandatory channels."
Yet it was following this interest, rather than a traditional corporate career ladder that has rooted Mohammed’s career path into the industry: "I have always been the provocateur in any role I had, challenging, questioning and looking for better solutions."
Looking back over her career Mohammed notes how the real career defining moments can feel big at the time, yet when you look back, they are simply steps forward. Sharing how she was head-hunted and uprooted her life leaving Goodstuff in London to head to New York to work for Saatchi & Saatchi, she notes that building your career is about big leaps, but also small steps.
Working on the Tesco brand straight after Wieden + Kennedy won the business was a key moment in her career. She explains that looking at customer mindsets in a new way was key to unlocking the potential of the brand.
At adidas her role in leading digital transformation came into bloom when she identified the “massive gap” which existed in the brand’s online sneaker platforms. She says: “There was this massive gap. By attracting large audiences, the core sneakerheads felt alienated and identifying that gap was key to the re-launch of adidas Confirmed three years later.”
A natural strategist Mohammed believes that a mindset of constant questioning and curiosity is key to challenging a business-as-usual approach.
So, what questions is she grappling with in the midst of a global pandemic that has turned many of the assumptions that surround how we live and work on their head? She notes that there are three core questions for brands today: how can we live better, how can we work better and how can we connect more.
At the heart of embracing living better for brands will be tackling the climate crisis. She says that “we haven't even scratched the surface of sustainability,” noting that it is on everyone across the industry to ask, “how are we leading those conversations and taking responsibility?”
As the industry prepares to build back better in the wake of the coronavirus crisis Mohammed provides a clear roadmap for change: “Being a game changer lies not always about taking a brand in a different direction; it's about people.”
With a wealth of experience in bringing together teams, Mohammed explains that the key to success is rooted in “checking your default”. Notably, when looking to bring a team together, you have to step back and look at how you are actually putting that team together.
“Driving diversity has to start with yourself,” she explains. Having recently gone through the experience of pull together a team, she is constantly questioning the holistic make-up. She adds: "It's about going beyond the default and making careful choices across inherent, acquired and cognitive diversity. It's hard and we have to check every decision."
Just as Mohammed is intentional about building diverse teams, she is equally intentional about her own commitment to lifelong learning. Having just completed an MBA in Berlin, while at the same time working with adidas at the Nuremberg headquarters, she highlights the importance of both academic and theoretical learning.
At a time when marketing academics and practitioners are locked in an unnecessarily binary debate about the role of education in marketing, Mohammed provides a nuanced approach.
“There is theoretical learning and academic learning but ultimately there are so many different types of learning. I’ve been seeing a therapist and a life coach over the past 10 years and that has opened my mind to so much,” she explains.
Pointing to the Black Lives Matter movement, she notes that reading more Black authors has opened her mind. “We need to step outside of current networks and keep pushing,” she adds.
This commitment to pushing forward underpins Mohammed’s career. “I lead with being an idealist,” she explains. “We are in this world that is progressing and if we stay fixed, we will only know our past. That is why we need to challenge the status quo.”
For a leader who believes that inspiring others is rooted in helping them to look ahead, pushing for progress is a state of being, rather than just a job title, for Mohammed.