Advertising Sector Leads the Way and calls ‘Time’ on Equality Issues in the Workplace

A time for change? 

The first quartile of the 21st century has seen a persistent challenging of socio-political norms; with the U.S. electing a president that no one thought stood a chance and Britain’s surprising vote to leave the EU. Then there was the #MeToo campaign that swept around the globe, giving women around the world both space and confidence to come forward and share their experiences, quickly followed in the UK by the reporting of the Gender Pay Gap figures. A number of high profile powerful figures fell from grace and suddenly we have an agenda filled with anything but liberal politics!

The #MeToo campaign, was initially was about giving women a voice, served brilliantly to highlight the scale of the problem but this was quickly followed by the #Times Up campaign, which began a momentum of change. Groups such as the #TimesUp/Advertising have emerged, where senior women in the advertising industry are trying to effect change from within.

The initiative began in January with a group of just 14 C-Suite women, including such high profile names as Wendy Clark, Global CEO, DDB WorldwideBeth Wade, Global CMO at VMLKate Weiss, executive vice president of human resources and partner at Universal McCannKirsten Flanik, president and CEO of BBDO New York and Debby Reiner, CEO of Grey New York. Their mission states an intention to:

“Drive new policies, practices, decisions and tangible actions that result in more balanced, diverse and accountable leadership; address workplace discrimination, harassment and abuse; and create equitable and safe cultures within the advertising industry.”

Global businesses are quite rightly looking keenly at their HR recruitment practices and the Media Industry, in particular, is having to scrutinise its affairs. This is a seismic shift for a volatile and highly competitive industry that has a largely male power-base and an almost casual acceptance of the status quo.

Problems with Retaining and Attracting Top Talent

And yet we are still fighting hard to retain top talent in this highly competitive market to give us the edge we need. So how do we align these two important business drivers needed for today’s social, economic and political climate?

Historically in highly competitive industries, top talent is sourced from within the sector and promoted quickly, in an effort to retain loyalty and keep the competitive edge. The problem is we often promote too quickly before our ‘young stars’ have equipped themselves properly with the skills needed to carry out their duties effectively and maximise profitability. Young talent may be smart and aggressive but often the speed of their career trajectory can mean they are not equipped with the emotional competencies needed for their new position. Promoting from within, or direct competitors can also lead to the regurgitation of ideas, or the ‘echo chamber’ effect and therefore limit the opportunities for fresh ideas to be fully realised.

Dare I suggest that some of the issues the industry is currently facing can be laid at the door of rapid career development, giving the candidates a sense of invincibility which might allow for poor behaviours to go unchecked? And what of the talent pool you are drawing from? Is it largely white and middle class? Have you really stopped and considered the impact of the route to C-Suite being squeezed in this way?

There are signs of change, with female representation in the UK advertising sector C-Suite growing from 23.3% to 32.2% in the 10 years leading to 2016, according to the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA). Overall, however, representation remains pear-shaped, with the most junior roles in advertising being filled by women 56.7 % of the time at media agencies and 55.4 % of the time at creative agencies.[1]

Tear Up the Rule Book?

I don’t believe the solution is a simple one, nor that we should not focus on retaining top talent but we should look more carefully at how we attract, identify, invest in and harness that talent in preparation for leadership roles of tomorrow. At the very least, the pool needs to be widened at source to give businesses the most diverse range of talent that will reflect their customer base.

And while the debate currently focuses on women in employment at the moment, let's not forget the wider issue of diversity which incorporates all manner of gender and racial identities that make up the customer base of the media industry. Facebook has 98 data points that help target advertisers to their end users[2] and feel it important to offer 50 gender options, when signing up for an account. In an era when identity diversity is so critical to advertisers, it seems strange that the same does not apply to our own workforce.

I am not arguing for special dispensation for women and minorities when it comes to seeking out talent but rather a divergence from the norm. An honest look at our recruitment and promotion practices and the ability to scrutinise what we have hitherto taken for granted. If in any doubt about the ability you have to affect change and social mobility, take a look at the outcome and reflections of a social experiment 10 years ago, where four promising black men, from single-parent families in East London (and on the fringes of gang culture), were given a scholarship to a top public school (Rugby).[3] All four of them went on to Further Education and achieved far beyond their former expectations.  One of the men reflecting on his former life commented:

“The people dying are people I have lived and laughed with. They are just as, if not more talented than me.”

Neither am I suggesting that HR Departments invest in charitable social experiments, simply reminding you that you may be limiting your business potential by sticking to the same recruitment and progression tactics.

How do Your Managers deliver feedback?

Quite simply feedback is one of the key ways in which we can develop skills in the workplace. Moreover, it is seen as a ‘soft’ skill and not given the greatest consideration. My research into feedback[4], however, revealed that women quite simply receive different feedback from men! And it is holding them back.

Men receive much greater developmental feedback, linked to tangible measures, whilst women’s feedback is often vague, non-existent or couched in emotive terms. Either way, it is not helpful and it hinders, which means that men are at a distinct advantage, when it comes to progressing up the career ladder.

Research findings from #FeedbackFirst campaign

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I have developed a rigorous in-house programme that provides organisations with the tools and the supporting internal architecture to become a #FeedbackFirst Employer of Choice Organisation. By gaining accreditation you are strengthening your Employer Brand, demonstrating with real practical measures to employees, applicants and the business world, clients and shareholders alike that you are serious about making a difference when it comes to the gender pay gap disparity, improving women’s access to leadership opportunities and serious about widening your talent pool.

The practical actions masterclass includes:

  • What types of feedback holds women back?

  • Constructive feedback or development dialogue - is the balance right and what effect does that have on women’s progression?

  • How to spot stereotypical feedback and learn how to switch track

  • The three feedback fundamentals - coaching, evaluation and appreciation and what aspects disproportionally affect women?

Expose talent to different skill sets and ways of thinking

There is increasing acknowledgement that today's talent has different employment motivations compared with their predecessors. Brand loyalty doesn't hold the power it once did but experiences and flexibility in employment are much bigger factors. The ‘millennial’ factor has to be taken into account particularly in an industry that has transformed thanks to the rise of digital, data and technology. It is no surprise then that new types of people are needed to drive this new industry.

Virgin Media have identified the issue of tending to hire from within the sector and over the last year, 10 of their 18 executives have come from outside the sector. In addition, they have hired people with general commercial acumen and moved them through different positions, using them to plug gaps in their business, without giving specific job titles. Other companies are working with growth based career models, moving talent around the business and exposing them to different skill sets and ways of thinking.

Don’t turn your nose up at flexible career paths

Businesses should be more open to driving internal lateral moves and encouraging the agility and responsiveness that the new generation wants. It is time to acknowledge that portfolio careers are acceptable in big business and that flexible career paths are a real option. You will hope of course that your best talent will remain with you but currently, employees are expected to be promoted in a linear fashion and increase seniority with every move. This is not always in everyone’s interest or best for business.

Focus on Skill Sets, rather than Job Titles

There is much to be said for an open-minded approach when looking to recruit the right person for a role. Think really what the role requires, the competencies needed and don’t be afraid to spread your net wider. Research has shown that the higher a manager rises in the ranks, the more important soft leadership skills are to their success. Emotional maturity requires strong interpersonal skills, such as patience, openness and empathy. Think about how you can best serve young talent by equipping them with these soft skills before promoting them too quickly and get them to buy into this process. 

While I fully understand the importance of talent retention, I think we are at a critical moment when we can start to do things differently from the ground up. The creative industries are full of talented individuals who embrace and thrive on change and there is a groundswell of opinion that the ‘Mad Men' era needs to be truly resigned to the vaults of history. We must continue to push for change to create those new ways of working supported with the policies, practices, decisions and tangible actions that the #TimesUp/Advertising group have called for.

If you would like to discuss any aspect of this article please don’t hesitate to contact us on +44 (0)161 905 1219 or email at





Fiona McKay