The Digitally Human founder and Future is Female judge, Salma El-Wardany explains how marketing is really all about storytelling.
Salma El-Wardany can trace her career in marketing back to an early age. At six she would leap out of bed every morning at 5am, frantically scribble down an imaginary news report, don her cardigan then deliver a bulletin out loud at 6am.
“Much to the disappointment of my whole family. They’d be like ‘shut up it’s 6am!’” she laughs. “It’s funny that I used to do that, I never realized that it was just a desire to tell stories.
Now when I do marketing for clients, that’s all I’m doing – putting on my cardigan, writing my report and telling that story to the world.”
With storytelling in her blood, El-Wardany left Newcastle University with a master’s degree in English literature in 2010 and worked as a bid writer at recruitment firm Harvey Nash before being promoted to head of content for the UK and Ireland.
Running alongside her day job, El-Wardany was also establishing a presence on social media and writing her own blog, honing skills she was able to bring into the workplace. “I was sweary and sarcastic [but] I think they clocked that I was a really good writer and that I knew how to build a platform digitally,” she says.
From there she joined James Caan’s Recruitment Entrepreneur as head of marketing and social media, crafting the digital strategy for the venture capital fund and working closely with the businesses it invested in. Then, in 2016, El-Wardany founded Digitally Human, a content marketing firm that aims to cut down on mundane business jargon and forge deeper connections between a brand and its audience.
Digitally Human has worked with clients in the UK and US, ranging from media giants like Omnicom to the wine platform Vin Social. One of El-Wardany’s favorite projects to work on was with the music label Platoon, best known for developing emerging artists like Billie Eilish and Stefflon Don before they move on to traditional label deals. The partnership saw Digitally Human produce a Platoon brand book with a mission statement, manifesto, and values. The label was later sold to Apple at the end of 2018. “They were working with incredible artists and they had such potential, but none of the vision of who they were was captured anywhere,” she explains. “I had such a beautiful, joyful time doing it – it was such a creative project.”
Alongside her work at Digitally Human, El- Wardany has also written for publications including Stylist and Buzzfeed, co-hosted The Scene on BBC Radio London and delivered two powerful TED Talks on her experiences as a Muslim woman juggling her Egyptian, Irish and Pakistani heritage. Diversity and inclusion are at the heart of her work, but she fears there’s a disconnect in the advertising industry and wider world – everyone is happy to have a discussion about these issues but there isn’t enough quantifiable action.
“I think we’re actually in one of the most dangerous times in our struggle for diversity and inclusion, because what we’re now doing is talking about it – and we’ve created this false economy of diversity,” she says.
“We’re talking about #MeToo and Time’s Up and Black Lives Matter, these huge social movements, but nothing is actually changing on the ground.” El-Wardany cites the lack of legislation put in place since #MeToo to protect women in Hollywood and the absence of female directors nominated for Academy Awards as two recent areas of concern. “What we now have is the language to talk about problems but we still don’t have the solutions to those problems,” she says. El Wardany is frequently asked for advice from women in the industry and is dedicated to “paying it forward” to others. “I’m incredibly passionate about feminism and a lot of my work is around that, and marginalized groups and voices in the workplace,” she notes.
“Lots of women will ask me if we can go for a coffee and I’m always like, ‘absolutely, yes, let’s go for coffee!’” El-Wardany will take on a judging role for Future is Female, a platform to honor rising stars of the advertising and marketing world.
After debuting at Advertising Week New York in 2019, Future is Female will continue as a year-round global initiative. “I think across the board, we need spaces that are celebrating women, that are highlighting women, spotlighting them, programming them, platforming them, whatever we can do to put them in those spaces,” El- Wardany explains.
What ingredients does a modern content marketing professional need to succeed? El-Wardany values empathy and the importance of being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. There is also, she explains, the need to marry this with “a business sense to understand how to reach audiences and how that’s going to develop into an ROI”. From that balancing act of creativity and pragmatism, “you get some beautiful work in marketing”. All roads, though, point back to those yarn-spinning 6am news bulletins.
“I think the people who are incredible at marketing and advertising are the ones who are innate storytellers. They just always feel compelled to [do that],” she says. Presumably, to get ahead in advertising, the cardigan is optional.