Why Omar El-Gammal is investing in what makes him different

Despite a busy few weeks working on some rewarding projects (watch this space), we’ve always got time to hear some inspiring stories from the industry experts. This month, we’re very happy to announce Omar El-Gammal who follows the only one Leng Montgomery in our Unmistakable Character.

We chatted to Omar about identity, career and all the things which make him Unmistakable. Read the full interview below and see why we’re such fans.

Omar

What’s your name and what do you do (feel free to include any side hustles)? 

I’m Omar El-Gammal, Planning Director at J. Walter Thompson London. I’m responsible for the brand and communication strategy for HSBC UK and Global Retail.  

How does your identity affect your work and your life in general?  

For years, I felt my work largely defined my identity. When you put a lot of energy and spend a lot of time in a certain environment it’ll inevitably have an impact on who you are: the things you value, what you read, what you aspire to, and even ‘your worth’. Some believe you are an average of the five people you spend the most time with. So, imagine the kind of psychological impact your work has on your identity. 

One day, all of that changed.  It wasn’t the right approach for me so I started to do everything to pull the two apart.

I was born in Egypt, grew up in Washington DC, and started my career in Dubai before moving to London. I’ve been fortunate enough to have grown up in both East and West and had close friends from Chile to Palestine and back. Those experiences have always helped me better understand different people and cultures, and I sometimes feel I have a responsibility to help different cultures better understand each other. 

Gradually, I put down Campaign and picked up James Baldwin, Edward Said, and Jorge Louis Borges. 

I rediscovered my fascinations with the roots of Middle Eastern feminism and art history. I lost myself in Abdel-Halim Hafez as much as I do in the 36 Chambers of the Wu-Tang. I found boxing and art history as equal forms of meditation. 

The day I invested in my difference and individuality, was the day I started making the best work of my life. I realize now, I can’t pull my identity and work apart. One feeds the other.

I’m grateful for it. 

Who have been your roles models and why? 

My role models are as varied as my background and interests. 

Although he passed away when I was quite young, my grandfather has left a lifelong impression on me. From his work as an artist to the fond memories I have of stories he would tell me as a child. His life’s work was a constant search for artistic forms that express contemporary Arabic culture – without losing a sense of heritage and tradition. His work has always kept me rooted in my own culture and I often feel my life has been a search for a similar delicate struggle – the balance between modernity and roots. 

Malcom X has also been an incredible role model in my life, in more ways than one. Reading his autobiography shaped a lot of who I am. Seeing the rise and fall and rise of a minority Muslim man in America who drew strength from intelligence and debate was life-changing. I learnt how to construct an argument from watching his speeches endlessly on the edge of my seat.  

Finally, I owe finding my path to a career in planning to the early days of the planning blogosphere. I’ve learnt so much, and still do, from the blogs of great planners like Russel Davies, Rob Campbell and Faris Yakob. I’ve very much found my own style of planning, while learning so much from theirs. I’m eternally grateful to them all and hope to be able to contribute to the world in the ways they all have, even if in the smallest ways. 

Do you think other people see you differently to how you see yourself? 

Absolutely. At least when first meeting me. I quite enjoy the look of surprise when I speak and sound as American as a sitcom. “You speak so well” is a phrase of lowered expectations that I’ve heard so often that I’ve taught myself to accept it as a compliment.

I quite enjoy being the unexpected one and being a bit of a surprise as they get to know me. I’d imagine that’s the same for a lot of people though. Anyone you think is ‘normal’ is just someone you haven’t gotten to know well enough yet. 

Meanwhile, despite all my English colleagues’ and friends’ best efforts to anglicize me, I haven’t completely given in… I still say ‘aloo-min-num’ to their utter horror.

How do you see yourself in advertising and marketing? (both in terms of the industry and the work that is out there) 

I don’t really see myself in the ads here, but then I don’t expect to either. Sadly, most advertising isn’t reflective of real people, regardless of their background. Which is why I feel there’s so much opportunity for ‘people like me’ in the industry. There’s so much room to break things; to create work that is meaningful to culture and people of all backgrounds. To reflect and resonate with real people without having to hold a mirror up to their lives.

With regards to the industry itself, it’s rare I come across another Arab or Muslim in the UK ad industry – but then again, I don’t really look for them. So, it’s such a pleasant surprise when I come across someone who shares my background and connects. That doesn’t mean there aren’t pockets of diversity as a whole in the industry though.

There are a growing number of mentor programs, networking groups and more that have started to give people from a BAME background a lot more presence and support. Which is fantastic and I hope more people get involved. Meanwhile, I’ve been lucky enough to work with some great people from all walks of life here in the agency, and everyone has always been incredibly warm, welcoming, and open.

Are you tired of hearing about Diversity & Inclusion?  

Yes. I’d rather see much more of it than hear about it. 

Companies and brands that are truly committed will be the first to understand that diversity is an advantage, not an agenda. In an industry that is all about using creativity as a competitive edge and wanting to stand out, why wouldn’t you stack your halls with people who don’t all look, talk and think the same? 

What one thing would you say to your younger self?  

Do everything you can to fight the urge to fit in. 

Revel in being the one they didn’t see coming and stay open to learning from others around you who are just as likely to be unexpected. 

What would you say makes you Unmistakable? 

I’m an American-sounding, Egyptian with a uni-brow in London’s ad land.  

I’m pretty unmistakeable and I’m happy to own it. Unexpected, I know.  

I hope to surprise you still, nonetheless.

CharactersChris Pearce