What a difference a year makes. International Women’s Day 2017 saw the ad industry slap itself on the back with a slew of right-on, female-focused campaigns. This year, in the shadow of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, a series of high profile departures and some embarrassing revelations about the gender pay gap in agencies the atmosphere is somewhat conflicted. There’s some great work popping up – and more to arrive in coming days – but a great deal more introspection too. On the one hand, the industry has had to confront some very dark and difficult truths – but on the other it finally seems that real, substantive change is afoot. Blind eyes are no longer being turned and, instead of bland platitudes, people are increasingly empowered to talk about the crunchy, hard and sometimes painful issues.
So with all that in mind, LBB's Laura Swinton caught up with some of the women running global ad agencies to get their perspective, ideas and advice. Susan Credle, Global CCO at FCB Global, Val DiFebo, CEO at Deutsch NY and Kate Stanners, Chairwoman and Global CCO at Saatchi & Saatchi shared their thoughts. From engaging in 'unconscious bias training' to understanding that the conversation goes far beyond gender, our interviewees share lot of practical things to be done to capitalise on the current momentum. And in the spirit of optimism we also spoke about the great female role models who inspired each in their career as well as hopes for IWD 2019.
LBB> The mood approaching this year’s IWD is so different compared with 12 months ago. On the plus side we’ve seen the likes of Free the Bid make substantive strides on the other hand, the post-Weinstein fallout in the agency world has shown just how deep the rot goes and how much still needs to be done. Reflecting on all of that, do you think we’ve reached a tipping point in terms of how inclusive and supportive of women the industry is… or not?
Val DiFebo> Right now, we are at an inflection point in the discussion surrounding gender; where it is not acceptable to NOT consider women for big opportunities. However, we shouldn’t be picking women because it deflects criticism or because it fills a quota. This should not be the equivalent of a tabloid topic—here today, gone tomorrow. People need to internalize that women are not only capable of doing these jobs, but they are in many cases the best choice and can succeed when not oppressed or thought of as less-than. Gender and the discussions about women are at the tip of the iceberg here, but we are seeing that women of colour and people of colour are being left behind. I think we as leaders in the industry need to be committed and aggressive about moving this conversation beyond just gender.
Susan Credle> Women literally found their voice this past year. It was angry, hurt, apologetic, vindictive, accusatory, demanding, regretful, sad and strong. What I haven’t heard so far is optimism. My concern is that the negative emotions will drown out the positive steps that are being taken to evolve our industry. We have many women in powerful positions who can now legislate policy. We need to move from agitating for attention to action. We need less looking back and more looking forward. We need to define the change we want to bring about and make it happen.
LBB> How can agencies harness and capitalise on the momentum and strength of feeling that’s been built over the past 6 months or so?
Susan> Every single person in an agency should go through unconscious-bias training. Seeing the world through someone else’s truth is sobering and is the first step toward healing and evolving. When a person feels other employees can relate to them, they find it easier to express themselves when they are uncomfortable in a situation. We also need to make sure agencies support anyone who has a complaint. HR must shift from protecting the company to protecting the people in the company. If people feel safe, the company is stronger. It’s a win/win.
Kate Stanners> We need to keep communicating. We’re in the business of communications and it’s imperative that we continue to speak up and listen to each other in order to drive tangible change. We have a responsibility to each other and to our future employees to use this moment in history as an opportunity to reflect and implement policies that ensure healthy and respectful work environments for all employees, everywhere.
LBB> When you were starting out, were there any women who had a lasting impression on you or inspired/supported you in your career? Or did you find you didn’t have any such figures?
Susan> As a young woman from the South, I didn’t know any women with careers. When I looked at the advertising industry, I was inspired because it seemed there were many important women. In hindsight, there were probably fewer than I realised, but I still had women I looked up to. When I was a secretary, my creative director was a woman. Some of the coolest creatives in the group were women. I was lucky that I didn’t start my career thinking the industry was against my succeeding. Having a positive attitude and believing I was welcomed probably had something to do with my success. Looking back, I do realise I had to fight for opportunities, and I probably put up with some behavior that might have kept me from finding my voice early on.
Kate> My dad was a creative director at Leo Burnett so I was in a privileged position to know about an industry that was relatively foreign to many people. Then while I was at Liverpool Art College I met a fabulous woman called Carol Thompson. One day she told me she had sent my portfolio to an ad agency called BBH and that I had to join her there for a two weeks project. At that point , I wasn’t planning to focus on advertising however I immediately fell in love with it. Thanks to Carol’s persistence and the BBH project, I found a career full of fascinating people, using the art of creativity to solve business problems for brands.
Val> When I began working in advertising, women who were in positions of power were few and far between. However, when I came to Deutsch 25 years ago, female leadership at the agency was well ahead of the curve. We had an incredible foundation of strong female leaders, among them former Deutsch Chairman Linda Sawyer, CSO Cheryl Greene, Chief Customer Data Strategy Officer Bobbi Casey-Howell, COO Erica Grau, and Nina Werner our CFO, each of whom I have been inspired by and learned from over the years. In that regard, I was incredibly lucky to be part of an inspirational and supportive team.
LBB> What advice do you have for women to help them fulfil their potential in their advertising/creative career?
Kate> In advertising you will be told “no” a lot. But you will learn that it’s perfectly normal and you can pull positivity from it. So, teach yourself to be resilient and be persistent. Believe in yourself. Have confidence in your ideas and respect other people’s ideas. Don’t lose your sense of humour or your ability to be honesty. Understand you’re part of a larger team and it’s not just about you. Ask for help. Be collaborative. Know that you will suffer rejection, a lot, but that it’s an important experience for growth and there’s so much you can learn from in those moments.
Val> I give men and women the same advice. Be a creative problem solver for your client’s business. Stay curious, collaborate and have fun. Additionally, it is imperative to surround yourself with people who not only believe in you but support you publicly 100 percent. Embrace advocacy, get an advocate and be an advocate.
Susan> The one thing that I have found to be the great equalizer is the work. When you create work that people admire, agencies want you. When you solve problems for your company, people want you. When you demonstrate positive leadership skills, the company will pay attention. Today, if you do these things and you are a woman you are even more valuable because you are a critical part of creating a more diverse industry. From that perspective, there has never been a better time to be a woman in our industry.
LBB> What would you like to see change in the industry by International Women’s Day 2019?
Susan> By 2019, I hope the sobering stories of the #metoo movement will have permanently changed everyone’s definition of what is unacceptable behaviour. I hope we will have created lasting foundations for an industry that is supportive and just. People need to believe that the work place is evolving and that past behaviours are no longer blindly accepted. My worry is about the massive fragmentation of opinions out there right now. This is no time to be divisive. We need to come together and create a work environment in which all talented people have a chance to thrive.
Val> I would love to see equality for all, not just women. I think the idea surrounding female leadership needs to change. It is not just about making her conform to the way a man runs a business, that’s not progress. Instead, it is about valuing and realising that women may have a different way of running things, and that’s more than just okay. As we empower and embrace female leadership, it will be critical to let go of the bro-culture and patriarchal norms that are frequently the yardsticks for success.
Kate> Days like International Women’s Day provide a moment for us to reflect and check ourselves to ask if we’re really doing everything we can for women and giving each other the right opportunities.
In the next year, I’d like to see more tangible changes within the culture of advertising. Meaningful policies like flexible working are the sort of principled actions we should propose and adopt. We need to work on removing the stigma attached to flexible working and celebrate it. If you are a parent who needs to be in late or leave early, that’s something we should be celebrating. It’s also not a lesser job if you’re working part time and it’s not a lesser job if you’re freelance. We need to create environments where people feel comfortable and heard so they can be fearless in their thinking and their work.
We also recently joined Free the Bid movement as a global network and I’d really like to see similar initiative’s continue to be a priority for our industry.