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Mark Tungate 2023-05-22

"Difference can be a strength." The global executive creative director of Wolff Olins explains how her own career path has enabled her to reach out to a new generation of creatives from diverse backgrounds.


The creative industry is still grappling with diversity, so it’s always refreshing to meet a seasoned professional from an unconventional background. Emma Barratt, the global executive creative director of Wolff Olins, faced considerable challenges when she first embarked on her career.

Emma was raised by a young single mother in a council home (the equivalent of the US projects) in Manchester in the north of England.

“Mum always struggled to make ends meet – and it was the same for everyone: my grandparents, my aunty, my uncle… Mum would sometimes go without food so my brother and sister and me could eat. I told myself that whatever I did with my life, I wouldn’t find myself in the same situation. I felt it could also be a way of helping my family. So I was massively driven.”

University offered a way out, but it wasn’t affordable. She worked a couple of years and bought a car, which proved to be the key. “I didn’t live near a university, and I certainly couldn’t afford to rent or stay there, but I could drive three hours every day to get myself there.”

Once she graduated with a degree in graphic design, she couldn’t afford to post her portfolio to dozens of agencies. So she went to London and knocked on doors. “I didn’t even make an appointment – I’d just show up and ask ‘Can you take a look at my portfolio?’”

Eventually, the doors began to open. To this day, Emma is convinced that people from less privileged backgrounds have more drive. “They know they have to work harder. They overcompensate, because they start from further behind.”

Wolff Olins may be an ideal home for her, as it’s not conventional either. With offices in London, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, it straddles branding, visual identity, strategy and experience. Above all, it’s transformative.

“We don’t think of ‘branding’ or ‘brand identity’ as a wrapper, like the wrapper on a chocolate bar,” Emma explains. “We design from the inside-out. We get involved in a business and help it change from the core.”

Brand transformation can be about helping established brands reinvent themselves in order to stay relevant, or helping smaller companies or non-profits identify what they stand for, codify their values, and ultimately thrive.

“We don’t just do logos. We design a brand ethos – what is the philosophy or shared mindset that connects everyone internally within that business? It’s design-led thinking.”

Emma was promoted to the global ECD role 18 months ago. Her job has many facets, but she says: “First and foremost, I’m still a creative director. So I work with clients, mostly the biggest and most complex ones.”

For instance, she’s currently involved in the repositioning of global sportswear and sporting goods chain Decathlon. She also takes part in pitches as part of the global creative team. Separately, she serves on the agency’s overall leadership team, helping the business develop and grow.

We get involved in a business and help it change from the core.
Own your background, own why you’re different, because the industry needs that diversity.

But leadership is an external role, too, she emphasizes. You’ll often find her on awards juries, giving talks at events – and, above all, reaching out to the next generation of creatives. It’s no surprise to discover that she wants to encourage young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to enter the industry.

What’s a key piece of advice she gives them?

“Be yourself. Own your background, own why you’re different, because the industry needs that diversity. As designers, we’re supposedly ‘creating’ for wide audiences, for everyone. So if we’re only employing a very select group of people, we’re only speaking to that narrow group, too.”

It’s worth noting that on top of the challenges mentioned earlier, Emma is dyslexic. This wasn’t a problem early in her career, as design is a visual domain – but words became harder to escape at a senior level, where there were presentation decks to create and thought leadership articles to write. Emma struggled to hide the issue for a while, but eventually opened up about her dyslexia. Later she became vocal about it in order to help others.

In general, she feels that the efforts being made to incorporate “difference” into the industry are still marginal. “If they really wanted to do it, there are ways. Get into schools, talk to young people. Not just in London: get outside the big bubble. Go to rough areas in the north of England and explain to kids that creativity is a path for them. You can inspire them.”

One of her messages is that difference can be a strength. “It allows you to stand out. You’ll be bringing different references, different experiences and a different point of view – which at the end of the day will only make your work richer.”

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