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Chilean author Isabel Allende’s recent proclamation, “I was a feminist in kindergarten,” is a reminder of how our formative years can define us. 

As a centuries-old industry, advertising has far outgrown preschool, but there is still much to learn and action to be delivered. We cannot ignore the impact of the global pandemic in deepening the existing fault lines within our societies. It has forced us to confront lived realities such as gender and structural inequalities, alarming spikes in domestic abuse, and the intersectional complexities facing our colleagues and neighbours. 

In our social media-led world, awareness moments like Women’s History Month serve as great reminders of how far we have come from the dark ages, but also remind the industry of how far we have to go. Looking beyond the annual buzz around these moments is the compelling need to recall and be guided by our industry pledge to create equal opportunities and remember what we gain when women take their seats at the table.

Creating nurturing and inclusive environments to inspire creativity and help brands build commercial resilience requires effort from all sides—and transferable skills.

The rise of female leadership, however, can also bring a myriad of challenges. One such example is the stigma of being labeled the Queen Bee. The Queen Bee syndrome describes a woman in a position of authority that treats other women in subordinate positions more critically or refuses to afford other women the same opportunities for growth they enjoyed. This is a lived experience women at all levels have faced. Rooted in the ongoing responsibility and pressure for women to demonstrate their competitive strength and value in the traditionally male-dominated workplace, some women create a Queen Bee culture to counter a long-held perception of perceived weakness. Yet, there is also an invisible pressure for women to balance this strength with gendered expectations of portraying "feminine" traits, such as empathy, intuition, self-effacement, collaboration, and flexibility.

For Rachel Cummins, Managing Director, Manchester at Craft, Queen Bee Syndrome is a term that makes her “toes curl.” Rachel’s twenty-five years in creative production has defied many things, including a few queen bees in action. Thankfully for her, the 'Bee' eventually moved on to a new hive. Rachel says, “what we gain when women support other women outweighs my experiences”. Progression requires demystifying the stigma faced by female leaders once and for all. “Eventually, I was mentored by a woman who went out of her way to champion my career, to the point where she tried to promote me years ago.” Initially, Rachel refused the promotion; “I had always enjoyed my role in the shadows as an account handler, working in the background bringing people together and watching the magic happen.” 

In our social media-led world, awareness moments like Women’s History Month serve as great reminders of how far we have come from the dark ages, but also remind the industry of how far we have to go.

Up until that point, Rachel had never considered herself to be a leader. Instead, she “spent years admiring the creative talent of copywriters, illustrators, and designers, and often wondered what it would be like to have that gift.” She admits, “it took a long time to realise that working on the sidelines takes skill and adds commercial value.” Rachel still operates on the periphery, but just outside the support functions typically dominated by women in our industry. She currently oversees 100 multidisciplinary specialists at Craft Manchester, the integrated production capability within McCann Worldgroup. 

There are still opportunities for women to support other women despite the obstacles brought on by the pandemic. One of the most valuable areas of support female leaders can provide to other women is by showing women how to occupy their space unapologetically and with confidence through mentorship and sponsorship. In 2020, Bloom, the UK-based professional support network for women in advertising, marketing, communications, and broader media, welcomed 191 new members, doubling the number of memberships from the previous year. The network also received 260 mentee applications. 

The achievements of women celebrated in March is a clarion call for global gender equality but, more pointedly, it is a renewed opportunity for us to rebuild and create a more equitable industry. 

Sophie Chapman-Andrews, Head of Integrated Production, UK, believes the leadership style best suited to these evolving times requires leaning into empathy instead of "adopting more masculine characteristics to get into [leadership] positions à la Margaret Thatcher.” She adds, “we see this less and less often in our business as we rub shoulders with more women in senior management circles.”

What is also apparent is women's contribution not only to organisational culture but also to the challenger spirit and commercial effectiveness of a brand and business. In 2020 Chapman-Andrews oversaw the integrated production for Just Eat’s highly successful Did Somebody Say global campaign featuring Snoop Dogg. The campaign significantly improved brand recall and further positioned Just Eat as a standalone delivery provider in the pandemic. 

At Craft Spain, four out of the five studio managers are women, and they hold positions of responsibility directing production. The integrated production director, post-production director, account team director, and head of the Barcelona office are women who manage their areas of expertise with high-performance standards and lead a team of 150 people. Elena Bernad, Managing Director, Spain at Craft, shares, “I have found no gender-based differences in the delivery of the creative work either.” 

Women in the creative industry help brands and businesses deliver a competitive point of difference and ground-breaking creative execution. "Looking at the client-facing side, there are increasingly more women CMOs, whereas the appointment of women to procurement management positions is a little slower.” Bernad's team, including Lead Executive Producer Paloma Adrien, worked with IKEA Spain’s female CMO to turn around the #StayHome campaign in just four days under lockdown. Over 1 million users watched the ad on Twitter in one week, which paid tribute to the home and encouraged social distancing. The campaign demonstrated the responsible messaging and agile response hoped for by brands and institutions when the world felt directionless. 

We cannot ignore the impact of the global pandemic in deepening the existing fault lines within our societies.

Creating nurturing and inclusive environments to inspire creativity and help brands build commercial resilience requires effort from all sides—and transferable skills. Bernad is also a certified coach by the International Coach Federation (ICF) and a firm believer in participative decision-making to encourage women to share their creative and business ideas to see themselves as brand-builders. Women are equally ambitious as men and have an appetite for business, so providing an empowered and safe space to demonstrate this is important. 

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IKEA – I Stay Home

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Just Eat – Did Somebody Say... ft. Snoop Dogg

This appetite is at times obscured by the traditional caretaker vs. provider archetypes subscribed to women and men respectively. The pandemic's impact has proven not to be gender-neutral and heightened the disparities within the home. More and more women have had to tackle increased unpaid care work, including childcare, while working from home. In light of this, “a growing number of dads are rolling up their sleeves and tackling the more arduous aspects of parenthood, no longer just being Funtime Frankie,” Sophie says. With a renewed focus on work-life balance, women no longer have to be abashed by the disproportionate caring responsibilities they may face daily. Bringing their authentic self to work is not as quick of a change as the switch to remote working has been. The transition can prove challenging but organisational support will go a long way as companies seek to enhance workplace culture to support greater women’s wellbeing in the workplace.

Women continue to fight against entrenched conceptions that their commitment to the growth and proliferation of any business is intrinsically linked to family planning and that two are in opposition of each other. Women are dedicated to business growth and are integral to delivering a diversified range of marketing services to different industries. At McCann's office in Spain, women hold 80% of executive positions. “We have female creative designers working for clients from the financial sector, from insurance, from technological sectors which traditionally used to fall more within the world of men,” Bernad explains. 

Long-term measures and responsive policies such as this will continue to set the cultural tone for an agency and make conscious inclusion the new normal. 

The ambition exists; the lingering question is the amount of support offered to women in general. In 2016 the IPA set a target to employ women in 40% of senior roles. In 2020, the goal date, this ratio was unachieved; it points to the great work needed to resolve the complexities faced by women rather than a lack of ambition on their part. “If flexible working can be achieved for working mothers and fathers, the commercial benefits are undeniable,” says Cummins. 

“In production, there are many female producers, but you start to see men outnumber women in the more senior managerial roles. One of the contributing factors is the traditional issue of supporting female producers with children who have to juggle going on shoots with arranging childcare beforehand.” Chapman-Andrews acknowledges this has started to change over the past few years as women are extending maternity leave, sharing parental leave with partners, and the business has become more sympathetic to finding balance alongside family life. “Remote shooting has also become more commonplace over the past 12 months due to COVID travel restrictions which may have helped women in production returning to the workforce after having a child.” Long-term measures and responsive policies such as this will continue to set the cultural tone for an agency and make conscious inclusion the new normal. 

Women are equally ambitious as men and have an appetite for business so providing an empowered and safe space to demonstrate this is important. 

As an industry, we are more than aware of the far-reaching impact diverse teams can have on our industry’s creative output and reputation, and the betterment of our world. According to research conducted by MW Truth Central, 83% of people globally believe that gender equality is just as much the responsibility of men as it is of women. The achievements of women celebrated in March is a clarion call for global gender equality but, more pointedly, it is a renewed opportunity for us to rebuild and create a more equitable industry. One year into the pandemic, it is time to take the broad steps to pay the contributions of women forward. 

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