Rani Patel-Williams is a purpose-driven Business Director who we placed at youth creative agency The Digital Fairy. She is passionate about helping brands generate cultural and social change through insightful strategies and compelling creative work. With years of experience at established names such as Iris, Fold7 and Ogilvy our Creative Achiever walks us through her career so far and fills us in on life as a Fairy.
What was your first exposure to the creative/advertising industries? Did you always know this was the job you wanted?
At school I remember being obsessed with TV shows and the ads in the breaks. I had one art teacher in particular who was always really encouraging. She could see that I had a keen creative eye and worked to expose me to a world of artists and creativity I might not have otherwise discovered.
When I told her I was interested in advertising, she told me all about her son’s job as an Art Director in an advertising agency. A few weeks later, her son and his creative partner came into our class to give a talk about advertising, and how pursuing art can lead to roles like Art Director or Copywriter.
I remember sitting at the front of the classroom, not 100% sure about this new world or how to navigate it because it seemed so foreign to me. But I felt inspired, and knew instantly I wanted to get into it and make adverts like the ones I saw on TV.
Tell us a bit about the skill set you have that makes you great at what you do?
Communication is a key skill I pride myself on. Working in creative comms you’d be surprised how little this skill is exercised! My role requires me to lead the business both internally and externally - good communication is vital to that.
This industry is tough, there is no doubt about that, so resilience is another skill I had to learn very quickly. The creative industry is currently undergoing the biggest shift it’s seen in decades. In such an uncertain environment – socially and economically – brands need creative agencies more than ever before. Part of my role is forming partnerships with our clients that are able to weather these seismic shifts, all whilst adapting and responding to their ever changing needs.
Being collaborative is definitely another one. Just like it takes a village to raise a child, I believe it takes an entire agency to make a piece of great creative work. At The Digital Fairy, a lot of the time it also means collaborating with our wider community. The creative process to me is an iterative one based on input and feedback from various people and places. Collaborating is what makes my role so enjoyable.
Who are your biggest inspirations?
That is a hard question to answer succinctly as I am inspired by so many people in so many different ways. But two inspirations I’d call out would be one from the past; artist and activist Frida Khalo, and one from the present; my close and dear friend, artist and director Jenn Nkiru.
Anyone who knows me knows I’m obsessed with Frida. Every exhibition, every documentary or film – I’ve seen it. I’ve even been all the way to Mexico to see her home! I love how she challenged and provoked a response to contemporary ideas around gender, class, race and identity. Sadly, her work and the messages she promoted through it are still so progessive and provocative, nearly 70 years after her death. As a female disabled artist of mixed heritage she pushed so many boundaries for her era, many of which she would still face today. I’m also inspired creatively by her story-telling through magical realism.
I met Jenn through my husband eight years ago when she was starting out as a director. Like Frida, Jenn plays with realism and these dream-like states in her stories. Her work focuses on the black experience, Afrofuturism and the diaspora, and has seen her collaborate with artists like Kamasi Washington, Nene Cherry, Beyonce and Jay Z (Ape Shit), as well as write and direct a Frieze commissioned film “Black to Techno” for Gucci.
What Jenn continues to show me is that the impossible is possible. Black female artists are still almost invisible in the art world, but Jenn’s doing a lot to change that narrative at a global level. Her idea to create work that is accessible for all, but with the black community front and centre inspires me a lot.
I think that as creatives we can feel afraid to put work out that is 100% real, true and vulnerable to who we are in fear of it not being accepted by the world. Jenn creates despite that and reminds me to keep creating authentically.
What’s the day-to-day of your role as Business Director at The Digital Fairy?
I have to wear so many hats as Business Director – there’s not necessarily a typical day-to-day! Having said that, the focus is always leadership and driving our business and client relationships forward. From hiring for our growing team, developing new and existing client relationships, working iteratively on our strategic and creative product, running the P&L, training and development for our talent, and connecting with new collaborators or the wider community, my role is vast and varied.
As a result, I approach whatever I’m doing through the lens of “team first”. This means that everything I do is underpinned by giving those I manage a safe place to express themselves and create, empowering them with projects that develop and nurture them, and working to inspire and act as a role model in the business. I strive to give those things because they are things I unfortunately didn’t have enough of coming up in the industry
Your previous roles were in agencies like Iris, Fold7, and Ogilvy – what makes The Digital Fairy unique?
First of all, we are a brand in our own right, which not all agencies can claim outside the bubble of the industry. The Digital Fairy has grown a cult following over the last seven years, with a strong brand personality and ethos that has attracted a community of young people who we create for.
Whether it’s our monthly Miss Vogue column, Digi-debate events, Podcast, Digi-digest trend reports or our merch line, we act like a brand everyday. This unique offering means we have a depth of understanding about what it means to be a brand, living and breathing in the age of social and interacting with the youth of tomorrow. Our years of understanding, testing and learning means we can provide our clients with invaluable insights to help them make their own brands cult today.
Secondly, we are a social and female-first youth culture agency – we stand for something. That sets us apart from the older, legacy agencies in the industry. We are not working to the ad agency model set 50 years ago, nor are we limited by being “one-skill” creatives.
I feel like the industry as a whole has been held back in its tendency to be an echo-chamber, continuing to value the same assets and people that were en vogue 10, 20, even 30 years ago. For us, the best way to reach an audience has always been by being part of, and co-creating the cultural space that they inhabit - not looking down and trying to pull strings from on high.
A lot of the traditional shops are currently scrambling to disorganise themselves into smaller units in order to better serve changing cultural landscape. The problem is, they are still viewing it from the outside in.
In contrast, The Digital Fairy is intrinsically agile, collaborative and diverse in our approach. Shape-shifting in time with the real world isn’t a big deal for us – it’s just who we are.
What have been the career moments you’ve been especially proud of?
The creation and launch of cancer charity Coppafeel!’s #TrustYourTouch campaign is something I will always be proud to have been part of.
I think what made that particular campaign all the more empowering was the fact that we delivered it with a team of just three women, and with such little resource (as a pro bono project, we had to take it on in addition to our day-to-day). We were so passionate about the mission to change behaviours and perceptions around checking for breast cancer that it made it feel worthwhile, even when we were powering through long nights!
We ended up delivering a TV ad and some Out-of-Home posters, with no clue where they would end up (with no media spend). The step change in the creative process came when we decided in the editing suite to showcase a full naked breast. We felt it was essential if we were to land the message that the audience should “trust their touch” and validate their own breast check-ups as equal to medical scans.
A naked breast in a pre-watershed TV advert had never been shown before in the UK, so I knew it was going to be tough convincing ClearCast to approve the creative. Luckily, I had enough experience with ClearCast to argue the case for why showing a full naked breast was key to the campaign. Once approved, the campaign went viral, demonstrating how creative conviction can be the difference between delivering a campaign and delivering a change-making moment.
Since being at The Digital Fairy, I’ve also been especially proud of the work we did for Adidas London, championing female visibility across social media for International Women’s Month. This campaign challenged the idea of who deserves to be acknowledged in the spheres of sport, art and culture, shining a light on incredible women such as Amika George, the architect of the #FreePeriods movement.
Part of your role now is managing a team of super creative Gen Z women – what are some of the things you’ve learned from each other?
I often describe the team as being like lightning. Because they grew up in the age of the internet, and are social media natives, they digest and respond to information at pace. Not only does this mean that they keep me on my toes, but it also means they’re always teaching me new ways of doing things – one of the most rewarding parts of my role.
One thing I would say though is that Gen Z isn’t just a demographic, it’s a mindset. Having such a young team means that to a large extent that mindset has infiltrated the whole agency!
How do you get the best out of your team?
I try to work out what motivates and demotivates them first of all, which inevitably takes a lot of time and communication.
Every team member is different, so it’s important that as a leader I give the team structure but am also able to be adaptive in my approach.
I forged my career in agencies which almost all had the same cookie cutter approach to management; top-down leadership which, at best, stifled individualism and, at worst, created a fear culture.
The silver-lining to that experience is that it’s helped me identify the type of leadership I want to steer clear of, and move towards a leadership style that is productive, progressive or motivating for me and my team.
The clients and campaigns you’ve looked after throughout your career have had quite a female lean to them – has that been intentional?
To a certain extent. After leading the Coppafeel! #TrustyourTouch campaign, I had something like a Eureka moment - I felt I was driving real, tangible change. No other creative work had made me feel like I had created with such purpose. I felt full!
As a result, I decided that female-led category work was something I wanted to explore further. It may seem obvious now, looking back at my portfolio, but at the time it wasn’t something I’d ever thought about meaningfully. Once it clicked it felt very instinctive. As a woman it’s a subject I know so well, and one I want to share with the world truthfully and create better visibility around.
However, that isn’t to say I want to exclusively create for a female audience, and at The Digital Fairy we are always open to taking briefs from male-led brands. For me, the most important thing is creating purposefully and truthfully, no matter the brief or audience.
Best career advice you’ve ever received?
My first agency boss once said to me “This is YOUR career Rani, not anyone else’s”. It stuck with me – this idea that only I hold the key to my own success. They were letting me know that the only limit is yourself. It took a while for me to really own my career, but what I know now is that we all own our destiny. It’s an empowering thought.