'Advertising is as powerful as religion'—it just needs more female founders
Mira Kaddoura grew up in Beirut, where she witnessed war—and death—firsthand, before moving to Toronto. A native speaker of French and Arabic with a striking head of frizzy red hair, Kaddoura learned early on how to live life as someone who stands out. Themes of inclusion and representation flow through her work. But diversity isn’t a pet project for her, it’s a rallying cry. As a female founder of her own agency—Portland, Ore.-based Red & Co.—she says she represents one tenth of 1 percent of of all agency founders.
“Everybody should have a seat at the table and everything gets better when that happens. When you can see yourself in an industry—when you can see yourself in a field, when you can see that your voice matters—that’s really important,” she says on the latest episode of the “Ad Lib” podcast. “That’s kind of why I ended up starting this.”
The “this” is Red & Co., and the “why” is in the work. In its six years, the agency has partnered with Google on an initiative to teach girls to code, and with Lululemon to take yoga out of the studio. Her shop developed global brand strategy for Netflix and created the “Make Room” campaign to boost representation of those missing in most mass media. What drives her is to push clients and brands not only more inclusive, she says, but better.
“Advertising is such a huge, powerful industry because we have the responsibility and the power to change behavior. We have the responsibility and the power to affect things,” she says. “I don’t know anything, other than religion maybe, that has that power. There’s so much money behind this industry. I feel I have a responsibility to use that money towards something that actually moves the world forward.”
Not that she initially sought to get into advertising. A conceptual artist, Kaddoura didn’t become proficient in English until moving to Virginia to attend VCU Brandcenter. One of her projects—an interactive installment that literally shredded the opinions of its audience—found its way to the desk of Dan Wieden, the Wieden+Kennedy co-founder who coined the Nike tagline "Just Do It." She would spend the next decade at Wieden+Kennedy, learning at the feet of one of the masters.
“From Dan Wieden I really learned how to do things that push things forward, do things that clients aren’t ready to go do, but kind of hold their hand and get them there,” she says. “If you don’t push your client to do something interesting, or go out there to do what’s right or do what’s needed, it’s only a matter of time and you’ll get fired. If you do push them, you might get fired. But at least you do something that kind of pushes things forward.”
We discuss her upbringing and how childhood in a war zone, not knowing what is going to happen tomorrow, teaches resilience and adaptability. In a 2018 TEDx talk, Kaddoura tells women they can change the world with the simple flip of a mindset: from “why me?” to “why not me?”
“I grew up with this thing we say in Lebanese culture: ‘Lhamdella,’ which means, ‘I’m grateful for everything that comes my way.’ There’s just something so beautiful with that,” she says. “Something shitty just happened right now. I can either dwell on it and sit in my misery and play the victim. Or I can take it as an opportunity and grow from there. I feel like I’m just constantly choosing to grow from there. Because the alternative doesn’t get me anywhere.”
That ethos is not only reflected in the work she does with Red & Co., or the yoga she practices on her own. But even in life’s daily struggles—like the surreal challenge of adapting to life during a global pandemic. In an industry that has its origins in personal interactions, boozy Mad Men lunches and relationships, she predicts a refocusing in the coming months as the coronavirus becomes a haunting constant.
“This thing is forcing us to look at how we work: Virtual work and being able to not need to be tethered to a chair or an office,” she says. “I think this industry is going to grow from this in an interesting way. We’re going to learn to trust each other more, trust who we work with more and empower them to work more … it’s very hard to micromanage people if they’re not right next to you.”