Bias is a serious barrier to creativity and agencies must take conscious steps to overcome it, according to speakers at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity this week.

The panel – Jo-ann Robertson, CEO Ketchum UK; comedian Deborah Frances-White, founder of the award-winning Guilty Feminist podcast; and Oliver James, leading psychologist and author of They F*** You Up – shared their personal stories of overcoming socio-economic and gender bias in their respective industries.

Robertson said: “We talk about ‘bringing your authentic self to work’, but then you hear that someone doesn’t fit in. We say we want diversity but the minute someone steps outside what we consider to be our agency culture, they get spat out again.

“It needs to be modelled by leaders that it’s OK to be different and it’s actually a benefit to employers and clients. In the society we have created where it’s all about being accepted, people often want to hide the very things that makes them different and enable them to create something new.”

Frances-White said she had also encountered bias in the male-dominated comedy industry, and this had until recently been a barrier to creativity: “The landscape for women in comedy is still difficult – people literally tell you to your face that women aren’t funny, and I get all sorts of signals that I’m not expected to do well. It’s often dangerous to be better, especially if you are diverse, as you are seen as a threat.

“But my industry is more creative than it’s ever been, because the workers have taken control of the production. People who ran broadcast networks used to be the gatekeepers, and now with podcasts we’re free to make our own work, as many episodes as we want. Five years ago I was going to quit comedy, and I’d never do it now because I’ve created my own landscape.”

James agreed this was a constant tension in organisational structures from businesses to families: “It’s about trying to make sure there’s a challenge, at the same time as feeling secure. The vast majority of exceptional creativity, and creating something new, comes out of adversity.”

And he noted that accepting everyone’s “authentic” self in the workplace was not always easy: “We all know there are complete shits in every organisation who are a nightmare to manage, who are Machiavellian, narcissistic or psychopaths. Managing that dark talent in a creative industry is a major task, because these people are often the most creative.”

The article is authored by Maja Pawinska Sims for the