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Three Ways Agency “Start-Ups” Are Winning At Gender Diversity


Heidi Singleton, ECD and co-Managing Director at The New Honor Society on why gutsy, agile boutique shops are leading the way

Three Ways Agency “Start-Ups” Are Winning At Gender Diversity

Following the recent JWT lawsuit against former chairman-CEO Gustavo Martinez and the furore surrounding comments from Saatchi & Saatchi's Kevin Roberts, the advertising industry has started examining its dismal lack of diversity. But it could all just turn into desperate navel gazing if lessons are not learnt. But this is advertising and we cannot really expect our history to teach us much when it comes to gender or race equality. In order to right our history’s wrong, maybe time for the big boys to look at start-up shops and learn important truths from their culture, devoid of any sacred cows, business or revenue models.

In the face of heightened awareness and an increased appreciation about the woeful lack of diversity in advertising, this is a big hurrah moment. The fact that 80% of consumer spending is directly influenced by women, but only 11% of creative directors are female leaves me in disbelief. 


How can these huge global agencies, with offices in the most diverse, cosmopolitan cities, still have these issues? And how have I personally never noticed this kind of dynamic in my 16-year career? I “grew up” around strong female (and male) leaders as my mentors and my heroes. I never knew any different. From hiring practices to promotions to office pranks, everything was equal opportunity. It was safe to joke, to jab, to not take ourselves too seriously, because there was a foundation of mutual respect underneath it all. Did I just get lucky?


I genuinely don’t think so. 


The lack of diversity in any business is a cultural issue and should be treated as one. Smaller start-up shops have an embedded culture of creating something meaningful because it is powered by dreams and hopes and the strong desire to innovate. Therefore the reason why diversity makes sense. It brings new ideas and different solutions to problems in a world of changing markets and customer demands. Here are the top lessons start-ups could teach agency networks, when it comes to gender diversity.


1.  Agility Comes With The Territory

Smaller boutiques can more quickly evolve with shifts in society, culture and industry. The smaller the agency’s staff and footprint, the simpler it is to make significant changes in culture and approach. Leadership is more intimately involved in every aspect of the business, fewer people are needed to form consensus, and less time is needed to create impact.


2. They’re On A Mission

Let’s face it: If someone has the guts to launch a new agency in a world seemingly overrun with them, they’ll need a clear purpose in order to survive. That’s why you’ll see many start-ups with a strong desire to make real change in the industry and world, and they tend to attract a diverse set of employees who see themselves as part of something bigger than their specific role. We launched New Honor Society in order to bring “Less

Sell, More Soul” to the marketing industry, and race and gender diversity are imperatives to fulfilling that purpose.


3. Diversity Is Status Quo

Diversity is baked in to the culture of the agency start-up, rather than being a retroactive quota to fill. In our 45-person female-led shop, we have more women than men, and employees from Lithuania, Venezuela, Korea, and Peoria. Our staff make-up includes 25% Hispanic, African-Americans, English as second language, and LGBT.


But none of this was by design. We simply hire the best person for the job. But because we value diversity of thought, the definition of “best” goes beyond talent and experience and includes the person’s perspectives, attitudes and beliefs.



Heidi Singleton is ECD/Co-Managing Director of branding and marketing start-up, New Honor Society, which is working to transform the marketing industry through Less Sell, More Soul. She has helped Logitech infuse more humanity into their brand and products, worked with PayPal cofounder Max Levchin to establish a brand DNA for his new financial startup, Affirm, and is changing the global conversation around safe sex with the launch of the first FDA approved female condom.  


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