The stereotypical advertising industry CEO and the leadership imbalance

Pippa Chambers
By Pippa Chambers | 16 July 2019
Cover by Thinkerbell

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Progress within adland’s diversity realms feels at times like it has come on leaps and bounds.

This year alone WPP AUNZ revealed a target of 50:50 gender distribution across senior leadership positions to be reached by 2021; Initiative was recognised for gold standard LGBTI inclusion program; News Corp Australia launched a two-week campaign in support of National Reconciliation Week across metro and regional mastheads, and even brand behemoth Unilever committed to gender parity at managerial level by 2020.

Initiatives and gold stars are aplenty across many facets of adland as task forces rally to tackle and prioritise challenges and weak spots. CEOs seem to be stepping up in more areas beyond the bottom line and importantly, employees are demanding greater standards.

From age and education, to ethnic background, geography, life experiences, sexual orientation, values and cultural norms, we know diversity extends well beyond gender alone.

There’s no arguing that as a whole there is certainly a common archetype of CEO in the industry – many male CEOs of a similar age, with a similar education, social economic and career path/background.

“For me personally, given my background and family origins, I’ve never felt necessarily from this characteristic CEO mould, nor have I ever really thought about it that much,” says Michael Rebelo, CEO Publicis Groupe Australia and New Zealand.

“As a proud, non-caucasian Australian, it’s only been recently with the heightened conversation around diversity that I’ve started to think about myself as an example of diversity in leadership because of the colour of my skin.

“Over the past 22 years, I’ve been fortunate to work for a company where this has never been a barrier to my career growth. But that doesn’t mean that I’m naïve to the fact that this is a real issue in our industry, and in addition to seeing the gender balance fixed, I’d love multiculturalism to truly be represented in agency leadership and across the business as a whole.”

Rebelo says this is changing and cites the Communications Council Board, which he sits on, as a real cross-section of background, ethnicity, gender and age.

“I’m heartened by that, but we still have more work to do at scale,” Rebelo says.

Co-founder and CEO of The Monkeys, Mark Green, says action to address the leadership imbalance is happening and results are emerging, but stresses “at the same time it was at a pretty poor starting point to begin with.’’ He believes more can be done and it’s every leader’s responsibility to make it happen.

“Right now the mix of CEOs has a stereotype, even beyond gender diversity we have leaders that seem to have the same kind of background,” Green says.

“I don’t really feel in the box, although I’m sure as a bald, white male in his mid 40s, I tick quite a few boxes. At the same time I’ve been doing the job I’m in right now since I was 32.

“My views are absolutely for diversity in all possible ways. And I believe The Monkeys are heading in the right direction whilst recognising we still have work to do.”

Despite the many important areas within diversity that need work, an increasing amount of people claim to suffer from fatigue around the topic of diversity, much like subjects including transparency and procurement.

Some bemoan coverage on the issue of diversity, specifically when it relates to gender.

But pressure is on modern day leaders to ensure they are running a truly diverse workforce, and if change starts at the top, this means leadership and board level diversity now – not 10, 20 years down the line.

Data collected in the annual Agency Circle Diversity survey, revealed in May this year, has seen some positive shifts in gender, but the group’s Chairperson and Leo Burnett Head of Talent, Sarah Palmer, says “there is still a long way to go”.

The Agency Circle launched in 2016, in response to increasing frustrations around diversity, or the lack of it, in creative agencies. In the initial 2016 survey it noted that only 16% of chair/CEO/MD roles across the industry were filled by females. The most recent survey from 2018 has seen this figure increase to 29%.

“This is certainly a positive shift, but when we have an industry that is currently made up of 59% females (Agency Survey data 2018) then we need to see more improvements,” Palmer says.

“The same barriers exist in this area. If the CEO or chair is not making diversity at the leadership level a key priority, then very little will change.”

Palmer says diversity and inclusion as a business strategy must be driven beyond the talent management team and be a business imperative from the entire leadership team.

Speaking to AdNews, John Steedman, Executive Director and Chairman of Media Investment Management at WPP AUNZ, agees the industry is making inroads, but he recognises there is still a long way to go.

“At WPP AUNZ we know there is gender imbalance at the senior levels with only 39% of the executive roles currently being held by women across the company. Our 50:50 target shows we are truly committed to changing the gender imbalance,” Steedman says.

In April, WPP AUNZ formally announced a target of 50:50 gender distribution in senior leadership roles across the company by 2021.

Steedman says the business must set the agenda for industry change and that the barriers to improving diversity of leadership include a
resistance to change, small mindedness and in some instances, shortage of talent.

“Diversity is not a women’s issue, it is a business imperative that has been under discussion – in all its forms – for years,” Steedman says.

“The time is right to show we are absolutely committed to building a more inclusive and diverse group of companies and we need our industry to work with us and help us transform.”

Steedman argues that all networks should follow suit and set their diversity goals.

But could such a benchmark ever be possible at agency CEO level?

“We hope so, but we must also remember that any leader’s appointment is first and foremost based on ability not gender,” Steedman stresses.

“As a company when we interview for senior roles, we aim for a 50:50 gender balance ensuring we have a strong pipeline of diverse candidates when filling senior roles.”

Steedman says change takes time, which is why it has now set the 50:50 goal to initiate an industry-wide following, in order to make a difference.

For the most part, Leo Burnett’s Palmer says creating change starts with recruitment and in order to hire for gender diversity, candidates should be interviewed by a diverse hiring panel as this helps to eliminate bias at the entry level.

She also says it’s imperative agencies continue to provide equal opportunities to women for promotions into leadership roles.

“It’s certainly not about setting quotas though. Rather, it’s a belief and value that having a leadership team with a unique set of experiences and backgrounds helps to provide better ideas and solutions,” Palmer says.

“If the leadership team is all one gender, then they should really
evaluate why that is and consider what value is held on having different perspectives. Diversity at that top will also result in agencies attracting a more diverse range of talent throughout their businesses.”

Publicis to eradicate senior level gender pay gap
Rebelo said in Publicis Groupe, 62% of its agency MDs and CEOs are female versus the industry average of 29%, with examples of female agency leaders including Leo Burnett CEO Melinda Geertz; Spark Foundry CEO Sue Squillace; Zenith CEO Nickie Scriven and MercerBell CEO Julie Dormand.

“From what we can see in the industry there seems to be some positive progress made, however, we are still not where we should be and I don’t believe the industry is moving fast enough,” Rebelo says.

“It will take a concerted effort across the leadership of the business to drive the cultural change that makes a lasting and sustainable impact. However, I’m a big believer that fundamentally this must start with the CEO or chair to gain the acceleration we need to see the improvements in gender balance and diversity today.”

Rebelo also says this has to be more than just about meeting quotas, but about a genuine belief that this will drive better business outcomes, and enhance innovation and creativity from a diversity of experiences and backgrounds.

The other area that needs to be addressed, according to Rebelo, is the gender pay gap, which currently sits at 14% in our industry according to the recent Agency Circle survey.

“Personally, I can’t believe why this gap even exists. From a Publicis Groupe perspective the gender pay gap at the CEO and MD level is 1.1% which is still not good enough, but we’ll eradicate that soon,” he says.

In October 2018 Adobe delivered on its commitment to achieve global pay parity across 40 countries. It had been working towards pay equality since 2016 when it closed the pay gap between white and non-white employees.

Katie Juran, senior director, diversity and inclusion (D&I) at Adobe, leads the firm’s global D&I efforts out of the US. She says diversity and inclusion is one of the most challenging areas to work on, as not only are you having to communicate to the outside world about what you’re doing, but you also need to understand your employees mindset and be aligned.

She says the head of the organisation, a CEO or equivalent, must set that commitment and tone, adding that “ you’re never going to drive change unless it starts at
the top”.

“Our entire staff need to be responsible for D&I but ultimately all of our leadership team must be on board,” Juran says.

“It’s a very strong commitment and everybody is held accountable. It’s not just this little group over here on the side because that would never work. Even if I had a team quadruple the size, that would never work.”

Quotas drive short term change
Sarah Wyse, founder of members-only network Wyse Women, which focuses on flexible working to help increase the participation of women in the workforce, says some businesses are doing great while others are struggling.

“The big distinction between those doing well and those who aren’t, really comes down to the leadership of the business and the culture of the organisation,”
Wyse explains.

“Those who have made the most notable changes have tackled the systemic issues and culture rather than focus on the outcomes such as quotas. This is because we have seen quotas drive short-term change, but fail to address the inherent issues at the core of a business, which takes time and focus, as does any change agenda.”

Sharyn Smith, founder and CEO at influencer marketplace Social Soup, says we shouldn’t just accept that most CEOs will always be men, but we do need to invest in developing and nurturing the talents and ambitions of women as it’s still not a level playing field – and she doesn’t expect it will be for another decade.

“I have great hope when I see my 12-year-old daughter’s generation and their hunger to smash down any barriers as they have grown up in a world where this is talked about and everyone is more aware we are still living in a patriarchy,” Smith says.

“It is changing but it will take some time for a new entire
generation to come through with different attitudes and for some of the baked-in behaviours to die
or retire.”

As a result of personal experience and a desire to “solve a big problem with a different lens”, in 2016 Sydney-based Lija Wilson founded Puffling, a community
of talent open to job-share,
contract, part-time and full-time flexible roles.

Wilson said attracting and retaining top talent, and enabling more female representation at the leadership level was the focus from the start. She understands, however, that part-time remits are often difficult for businesses to manage at senior levels.

Drawing from her past experience as group marketing director at Fairfax Media and running the marketing for RSVP, she started to look to online dating principles and applied similar matching algorithms to the job share market.

Initially it launched with a pilot in the advertising industry which she says was very hard going at
the start.

However, in the past 12 months, traction is gaining and gears are shifting, which she believes is due to the future of work being discussed more widely – and creative approaches to talent attraction are more widely accepted.

Despite this, when it comes to gender diversity of leadership, she says it has still not gone far enough.

“I hate generalising in this area because there are some case studies of businesses and leaders who have displayed absolute focus and dedication to enabling more senior women to return to work and are offering flexibility to mitigate some of the challenges,” Wilson says.

“However, it’s not just the droves of women who leave advertising after kids and don’t return we need to worry about.”

She says unconscious bias and hiring patterns continue to pose a big problem in the industry when it comes to diversity – not
just gender.

She says Australian creative agencies are still sitting around under 30% female representation at the leadership level with very little diversity in ethnicity in any departments.

“Yet every single week on Puffling, I have at least two or three conversations with senior, female creatives who cannot find work, or who have taken $50k or even $100k pay cuts to get back into roles, sadly sliding backwards, typically because there is still a fear around flexibility on the hiring side.”

Ditch job share stigma
Wilson said the lack of flexibility is the key to making gains when it comes to gender diversity at a leadership level
Compressed working weeks, staggered start and end times, creative job design for agile teams, remote work and vertical job share are all solutions which will help attract and retain top talent, but can also boost productivity and delivery.

However, few agencies boast job shares at a senior level, which many feel would help increase the amount of women in senior roles.

Could a job share at a senior level work?

In response, one female CEO laughed, before saying “no it could never happen – it’s not possible”, at the idea of her role being a
job share.

If job sharing at CEO is too hard, what about a senior client lead role?

“No way, we wouldn’t offer it, clients wouldn’t like it, it’s more work managing two people and I’d be surprised if other agencies say they do this at this level,” the CEO told AdNews off record.

Wilson says the reality is that many people don’t understand the options around job share and that while a pure job share is one thing, there are some interesting takes on vertical and hybrid teams which work brilliantly at senior levels.

“Job share is tinged with so much negative stigma, usually related to either a job share at a more junior level or a scenario where two part-timers were chucked together somehow due to circumstance,” Wilson said.

She said the reality is that a senior job pair can deliver 30% more productivity as long as they sort their handover seamlessly. They solve problems with double the experience and typically with 15 or 20 years of experience each under their belts, and have access to a very large network which is great for clients.

“Global stats still suggest that women are behind 80% of purchasing decisions so as an agency, if you went to a client targeting women and offered two women in their target audience to run the account or develop creative or assess media choices instead of one, how is that going to negatively impact on a client’s view of service?” Wilson questions.

She says job shares could happen at CEO level as the more senior the role, the more successful the job share, citing job share CEOs of ASX 200 investment company GenLife, Lucy Foster and Catherine van der Veen, as “inspiring advocates and leaders in demonstrating how successful job share can be at the top”.

On the CEO who scoffed at the idea of a job share for a CEO, van der Veen says: “This reaction demonstrates a lack of imagination and creativity and that’s worrying given her industry.”

Palmer also agrees that it’s high time we “got over” company
complaints about the logistics of job shares.

“I’ve worked with many job share roles throughout my career and have always valued getting two perspectives from one role,” she says.

Name and shame
Wyse said positive change is happening with notable increases in women at board level.

Thanks to an initiative led by the Australian Institute of Company Directors, 30% of all board members at the ASX 200 companies are female.

“Targets will continue to be increased and businesses who reach and exceed will be called out and applauded,” Wyse says, adding that businesses who fail to meet these targets will also be called out.

Wyse, who is also head of media network at the Australian Football League, says she is seeing real appetite from businesses wanting to strategically develop talent pools to meet diversity criteria which has been really positive from its partnership base.

“We have also seen many men subscribe to our platform as they seek more flexible work also, showing us that flexibility and working in a business with an inclusive culture isn’t just for women,” Wyse says.

Parental leave improvements
One of the biggest areas of improvement where perceptions have shifted significantly as recorded by the 2018 Agency Circle survey was around parental support.

The survey saw a 19% year-on-year increase in people believing that their culture is supportive of women who take parental leave.

Similarly, a 9% increase also for a culture that supports men taking leave, and a staggering 30% year on year increase of people agreeing that their agency culture is supportive of parents.

This July edition marks the return of our annual parental leave benchmark survey (SEE PAGE 30) which aims to showcase a selection of adland’s businesses and what they offer.

Off the back of last year’s survey, which AdNews understands immediately sparked change among some of the competitive agencies in particular, we hope it helps set standards and create improvements.

Rebelo says one way Publicis Groupe is retaining staff and remaining competitive is through the recent launch of a new more “progressive” parental leave policy.

It’s increased maternity leave up to 18 weeks and has doubled paternity leave to four weeks.

It now also has a few instances of job shares across its agencies which are working well for all parties, including one instance with two returning-to-work mums.

The Monkeys also has job shares available and in play at the moment, with Green saying the agency would roll out a job share for senior personnel.

“Not only are the perceptions changing, but we’ve seen many agencies share details of their new parental leave policies, and it’s so good to see more action in play on this important area,” Palmer says.

“The improvements are most likely a direct result of supporting retention and ultimately, a more diverse agency.

“While not everyone is a parent, changes in parental support send a signal to every agency employee that the industry values time spent caring for children.

“And, to a greater extent, loved ones with children by importantly including the secondary carer into this. It means we are re-setting as a society on the important need for people to prioritise the care of their children and that it should be an equal responsibility.”

To those companies who still only offer baseline parental leave, Palmer says they can expect to lose some of their key talented people.

“When we have companies, like Diageo in Australia who recently announced that all of their employees are eligible for 26 weeks
fully-paid parental leave, regardless of whether they are the primary or secondary carer, agencies can’t afford to ignore this important issue,” Palmer says.

“It’s not a women’s only issue either. It’s about improving support for families overall and continuing to support flexibility and diversity in business.”

Puffling Founder, Lija Wilson:

They say that success is the process of accepting failure.

Adland is, in my view, simply not succeeding in attracting and keeping top female talent. We can’t accept this.

This should be an industry leading the way in creative hiring. This is an industry pretty much reliant on generating revenue for turning problems into solutions.

Everyone in the industry needs to get behind a more inclusive and flexible culture to fast track the changes required.

Let’s talk job shares 
Why is a job share a good thing for you and the wider industry?

Joint CEOs of GenLife, Lucy Foster and Catherine van der Veen:
Job-sharing means we are always operating at full capacity and full energy. We bring twice the experience, diversified skill sets and robust challenges to our decision making. It’s hard to find a CEO that can provide the depth of experience and energy that two people can bring. We are always mentally "on", and having days off means that we allow ourselves the space to make more considered decisions and allow information to percolate, a luxury that a full time CEO does not have.

WPP AUNZ Group Content and External Communications Heads Sandra Renowden
and Rebecca Tilly:
Job shares provide an enviable working environment on all levels. Working remotely, and part-time balances our family commitments with career. It’s good for WPP AUNZ as it provides the skills and experience of two people from different working backgrounds in the one role; and despite the part-time arrangement, job sharing means there’s always someone available and ‘on the desk’. It’s good for the broader industry as it shows that flexibility truly can work – no matter what your life stage.

Have something to say on this? Share your views in the comments section below. Or if you have a news story or tip-off, drop us a line at adnews@yaffa.com.au

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