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Sue Higgs and Susie Innes on Sharing Champagne and Lifting Women Up
Advertising Agency
London, UK
There’s change in the air at dentsuMB and experienced women like new Chief Production Officer Susie Innes and Sue Higgs are shaking things up. Sue and Susie talk to LBB’s Laura Swinton about ego-free leadership and why the industry needs to bring generations together
“Women in advertising who are good are diamonds. You will not get any better. They are the greatest. Women who hold other women up, support other women, they are the greatest humans in the whole world… Not all of them are like that, don’t get me wrong. But when they are, you will not get any better. ” declares Sue Higgs. The joint ECD at dentsuMB in the UK is deep in conversation with Susie Innes, the agency’s new chief of production. They’ve been talking about, among other things, their experiences as women in the advertising industry and their desire to use their position to support those still at the foothills of their career. It’s perhaps little surprise that the pair have been drawn to the only major advertising holding company with a female CEO at the helm. 

The pair have been good friends ever since being introduced to each other at a party years ago. Having come to the UK creative agency within months of each other they’re relishing the chance to collaborate and, intriguingly, help lay the foundations for what they call ‘quietly brilliant’ changes rippling throughout the agency. 

They’re also women with significant experience behind them, a measured fearlessness and a desire to pass the ladder down to the next generation of ad folk. Susie started out nearly 40 years ago, as a PA at Grey, before becoming a senior producer and working at agencies like Havas, DLKW and adam&eveDDB. Sue’s 30 year career has seen her work at the likes of Grey, Publicis, O&M and M&C Saatchi, revamping Captain Birdseye and pairing Nokia with James Bond. 

Susie’s arrival marks the first time dentsuMB has had a chief production officer. She had been working with the agency on a freelance basis, helping the leadership to shape the department and find a new production lead. Though she’d been quite happy freelancing for the past decade, after a little resistance, the fit was undeniable.

As for the title it’s a statement of intent from the agency, bringing production to the top table. And for Susie, on a personal level, it’s a mark of confidence. “We were looking at all the titles that are there and thinking, you know what, production needs to be at the same place [as everything else]. There’s always this thing about, is it a head of TV? Well, we don’t just do TV anymore,” Susie says. She recalls that while at DLKW, she had toyed with describing herself as ‘TV+’. “But we’re so beyond that in production. When we’re talking about doing work that’s different shapes and trying to be quietly brilliant about things we haven’t done yet, the big title allows production to be part of that whole team. I mean, it’s also ridiculous and makes me laugh quite a lot.”

As someone who has been working in the industry since 1985, Susie brings a wealth of experience but as a through-and-through producer, she’s never lost the love for solving puzzles that have never been attempted before. The cultural change at dentsuMB, bringing Susie and her production team’s expertise into top level conversations gives great ideas a better chance to shine. 

Sue had been freelancing when the role of joint ECD came up a year ago (she is working with former adam&eveDDB-er Paul Cohen) - and she realised that she far preferred being in the thick of things and in a position to influence work and the agency in a deeper, more meaningful way. As for the appeal of dentsuMB, Sue says simply “They’re not arseholes. It’s so nice. There’s so much ego involved in this industry. But what I see there is a bunch of really authentic people trying to do the right thing and support you to do the right thing. I’ve never actually felt so allowed to be myself.”

Both Sue and Susie believe that there’s an intent to really change things up both at the agency and across the network. “Wendy Clark is the only woman that runs a network, which I think is wholly impressive,” says Sue “She’s an incredible woman. She made 50 minutes for me to speak to her and I couldn’t imagine anyone else in her position doing that for me. To actually talk to someone who’s coming in.” 

Sue sees their commitment to diversity and dentsu International UK’s commitment to 50-50 female leadership by 2025 as a serious goal. Indeed Susie and Sue’s appointments feed into that - not only are they senior women, they’re senior women with decades of experience under their belts.

The conversation shifts to the topic of ageism, an issue that’s been getting significantly more air time as the industry’s celebrated young men have become somewhat older. There's a sense that women, who have faced marginalisation of one for or another throughout the decades, don't see ageism is anything particularly new, just a different flavour of the same shit. Thus there's a sense of pragmatism around tackling the issue.

 "I think ageism is such a weird one because I don’t feel old. That’s the weird thing. It almost feels like someone else’s problem," says Sue. "I’ve met 20-year-olds and thought ‘God you’re a grumpy octogenarian’. It’ about your attitude towards life and your state of mind. I think it’s so archaic to see you as the skin you’re wearing. It’s about what you’re doing, how you’re bringing yourself how you’re holding yourself. I think I have been fairly fortunate because a lot of people I’ve worked with have just enjoyed me for what I do."

"If you keep going, as we have, you don’t get older, you just know a bit more stuff," reflects Susie. "I don’t think you do really get older in our job. The attitude we have, the cool stuff, the music, the gigs we've had, that’s all ours. That’s something to be envied." 

Rather than view ageism as an old vs. young issue, both Sue and Susie see the industry obsession with youth as detrimental to young people making their way in the industry. It’s a problem with agency leadership’s false assumptions about age and fairly archaic ideas about how different generations interact.

“I don’t know where it’s come from but for an industry that likes to think it’s forward and progressive, it likes to put people in boxes. We put ourselves in this weird box - who says it’s for the young?” says Sue. “If you don’t guide and mentor young people it goes wrong. They’re not comfortable either, they want to be guided and mentored because they’re learning.”

Susie, is equally bemused, though she reckons that production tends to be more appreciative of experience and welcoming to older people. She says that the network of older freelance producers around London has become pretty vibrant. Nonetheless, received wisdom in agency land is that there’s some insurmountable division between the generations. “I do love a bit of nurturing, I do love my ducklings… I don’t know if I’m going off-piste here, but the young people I know love their older generation family and relate to them in a way that previous generations didn’t. They go to see sports with them, go on holiday with them, go shopping with them. So they’re already programmed to love anybody around them who is older, because they hang out with their mum.”

While technologies and platforms evolve and creatives strive for new ideas, without experienced voices and input in the mix, teams can end up wasting their time taking the long way to solutions, relearning old stuff instead of innovating new stuff.

“I feel like there’s so much richness you’re passing on because it’s almost your job to leave the place in a slightly better place than you found it, or at least your small bit. So pass it all down,” says Sue. “All you’re doing is teaching and learning and nurturing and so forth. People want to know how things worked or what things did and how, because we are constantly re-learning and re-inventing and moving and being more curious.”

There’s also a hard business question to contend with. Older women command significant spending power but the industry has been content to let women drop out of their talent pool as they become mothers. 

“I don’t think our industry does a good job of representing age,” says Sue. “I think that’s really dire. There is some interest,but it’s very rare that you get a brief unless it’s for the menopause of hair dye or something like that. I don’t think advertisers have fully embraced the wonderful liberation of being a woman in her midlife or her prime.”

Susie agrees: “We are great consumers because there’s so much we’re interested in, because we’ve been interested in an awful lot of stuff for an awfully long time. You don’t stop being interested in things, you don’t stop finding things fresh and existing.”

Where ageism intersects with sexism, the pair reflect that while the industry has changed, some challenges remain ingrained. Sue shares her experience of being a lone female creative, subject to sneering secretaries, ‘Me Too kind of behaviour’ from some of her male colleagues and condescension on set during her early shoots. Susie’s experience is a little different - as production has traditionally been more welcoming to women than creative, she hasn’t faced quite the same exclusion. 

What both do agree on is that they learned enormously from seeing strong, funny, talented women take no nonsense. According to Sue, the presence of older women in an agency creative department can provide young creatives, particularly female creatives, with a model for how to make their voices heard and stop second-guessing themselves. 

“I think you often learn that you don’t actually lose your job from speaking your mind. As you get older you learn that people lose their jobs for a trillion reasons and none of them is actually speaking your mind. You’re more likely to lose your job from not speaking your mind than speaking your mind,” says Sue. “There’s nothing more fulfilling to say to a young female than: ‘Just tell them. Just say it, your biggest weapon is your point of view. That’s why you’re here. Please use it.’”

Talking of points of view, one of the things that cemented Susie’s decision to join forces with dentsuMB was CCO Simon Lloyd telling her that what he really needed was her straight talking. “What he did say, which is important, and I bet he said pretty much the same to Sue, he said I want your honesty. That was the thing that made me think, you know what? Someone’s actually listening.”

“That’s all I had, was honesty,” rejoins Sue. “The great thing about being in your mid-life or wherever we are - the autumn, the summer - is that it’s quite liberating. We’ve had our children, we’ve lost our parents, and you move up. You’re front-of-house and you’ve got nothing to lose. The worst thing that was going to happen to me has happened. I lost my parents. They’re gone. So after that, what’s the worst that’s going to happen? What? Somebody in advertising is going to be mean to me? … it’s quite liberating, I think, to find your strength and your power and your voice.”

Having come so far, Sue and Susie both see it as their responsibility to take that fearlessness and use it to defend and enable their teams. Comparing metaphors, Sue likens herself to a curler, sweeping a path for the puck, clearing “ all the shit out of the way so people can come up with all these lovely ideas”. Meanwhile, Susie envisions herself standing in front of a fan, shielding her teams from ‘the shit’.

Sue remarks that over the past year, she has witnessed an overall supportive and nurturing atmosphere at the agency and says there's no blame culture.

It’s an approach to leadership that’s both pragmatic and low in ego. Their ambitions are collective - which seems to reflect the changes internally at dentsuMB. And if they are to fulfill that promise, that collaborative approach will be key.

“I don’t care whose champagne we’re drinking,” laughs Sue, “as long as we’re all drinking and we’re all in this together.”