The New Establishment: Shereen Ladha dances to her own beat

The McCann strategist balances her day job with several side-hustles.

ShereenLadha3

You’re reading about the first winner of The New Establishment: Innovators, a category recognizing up-and-coming people in the industry who are doing things differently to produce exceptional work. To read about New Establishment winners in other categories, click here.

This story originally appeared in the March/April 2019 issue of strategy.

Shereen Ladha is the epitome of a millennial with side-hustles galore.

By day, the 30-year-old is a senior strategist at McCann Toronto. By night, she’s a Bollywood-inspired dancer, artistic director and choreographer with two cross-country touring dance productions and a YouTube channel with more than 100,000 subscribers. One of her videos – a remix of Justin Bieber’s Sorry – even went viral, clocking in more than 750,000 views. She’s been profiled in national publications, was a finalist on Canada’s Got Talent, was named one of Flare’s top 100 Canadian Women, as well as a CBC top female artist and runs one of YouTube’s top 15 Canadian channels.

Throughout her studies at McGill University and early in her career, Ladha actively sought to conceal her post-work identity, believing her dance interests might make her seem unprofessional or less of a marketer. That changed when she learned to borrow from those creative talents while completing an MBA at York University’s Schulich School of Business. As it turns out, there are benefits to making worlds collide.

“The artistic side of her life is proof that Shereen is truly a creative strategist, a hybrid of both a data and research-centred strategist and a culturally attuned creative,” says Ally Dwyer-Joyce, a strategist at McCann Toronto.

Ladha has an analytics and data background, having got her start at Nielsen, before transitioning into strategy at GTB. She arrived at McCann in January 2018, shortly after it had been tasked with reinventing Suncor-owned Petro-Canada, whose brand identity had more or less stayed the same for 40 years. McCann pitched “Live by the Leaf,” a patriotic brand platform that explored the diversity and shared values underlying the Canadian identity, and helped launch it in August 2018.

Ladha is now working with Petro-Canada on a robust social plan to appear on social platforms, such as Instagram, that were once foreign to the energy company. That’s where having a strong and diverse following comes in handy. “[Ladha’s] experimented with different formats and distribution, [and it] has allowed her to gain practical knowledge of what works where and why,” says Dustin Rideout, CSO for McCann Toronto.

By being more intimately involved in the social sphere, Ladha has learned to speak to different audiences outside of Canada – about 40% of her YouTube fans reside in India – and to apply a deeper cultural understanding to her work. As a strategist on the Petro-Canada account, for example, she says she was “adamant” about making “Live by the Leaf” go beyond the Canadian “plaid-wearing, igloo-dwelling, beer-drinking” stereotypes. Creative for the campaign shows a rich cross-section of Canada today, featuring people from different cultural backgrounds and territories.

“You can’t take for granted the nuances between different cultures and even within cultures,” she says, having learned that for herself outside of her day job. For example, she says she’s learned that South Asians communicate differently in Canada than they do in India. They also “expect a level of cultural understanding” in every piece, whereas people in Canada, the U.S. and U.K. expect content that serves as “pure entertainment.” These kinds of insights help her think through strategies for clients in Canada’s growing multicultural cities.

“As a strategist, you have to have a deep understanding of humans and the context they operate in, their histories and their background,” she says. Her side-hustles also help her stay current. “I’m not just reading about the latest Instagram update on TechCrunch,” she says. “I’m living it.”