Jet Swain and Jen Dobbie on empowering creatives

By Ruby Derrick | 24 April 2024

How does the industry get the voices of the entire creative industry in the boardroom? 

Not as a tokenistic or guest voice but as a really impactful part, says independent human CX manager Jet Swain.

“For a lot of my creative friends, even as designers, our client relationships are too far down the food chain to really have an impact,” says Swain as a guest on Mikhaila Warburton’s Creating Her Way podcast.

She wants strategic design to start to be used to inform policy reform, to solve some of the world's wicked problems. 

“We already know about women in advertising. Let's just think about that. Where are the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in advertising? How do we solve that?,” she says.

The way the industry could help, believes Swain, is for every intake of AWARD each year, five spots are reserved for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, and men.

“They're not going to be coming forward because they're not in our industry, so we have to go and find them out in communities, set them up with scholarships, and seek those emerging elders in art, culture and language. Imagine bringing the wealth of 65,000 years of knowledge from the oldest storytellers on the planet into our field,” she says.

That's strategic design; taking a multidisciplinary approach. It's not knowing everything, it's saying, ‘I'm going to come in here and bring all the right people, including those that are touching it every day’, says Swain. 

“That would be past, present and future AWARD, it would be people from the advertising industry, elders from around the country, clients that value creative, and they would all be in a room and we would workshop this until we solved it,” she says.

"That’s strategic design, it's not me coming up with it. It's me putting the right people together, that know it better than I do to come up with it. What I bring is the toolbox to get it done.”

The industry doesn't need advocates in the room, it needs champions and fighters, she says.

When she was just made redundant, as the only senior woman, Swain needed a man in that room saying, ‘She's the only woman in the room, if we have to lose one person in the executive team, it can't be the woman’, she says.

“Where was that champion? When you're making 15 people redundant and half of them are women, where's the person saying wait ‘We're already underrepresented in women, we can't get rid of eight of them’. I'm considering equity, transparent pay, equal pay. I just can't keep talking about it; I have cupcake fatigue for IWD. Every year we get together and talk about what we can do. And I'm saying ‘no’ this year, I'm not doing it anymore,” says Swain.

For Hotwire creative director Jen Dobbie, one of the most powerful ways to call out misogyny today that she’s heard is by simply asking somebody, ‘What did you mean by that?’.

“And then just leaving the silence to sit there and really owning the power of that silence. If it was unintentional, you give the person an opportunity to reconsider and say, ‘Oh, God - I didn't realise how that came across, that's not okay’. And if it wasn't, you have that moment of the entire room just joining you on the journey of not okayness,” says Dobbie on Creating Her Way.

One of the biggest things Dobbie has had to unlearn as a creative director is her own doubts in what she can do and achieve.

“I've had a couple of really strong champions in my career who’ve called me when I’ve said I don't think I'm going to be able to do that, or I don't think I'll be able to learn that, or that isn't a skill set that I have. They’ve called me up on it and reminded me; what's the worst thing that could happen? Lean into this, give it a go. That's been really powerful,” she says.

Warburton and Dobbie place an emphasis on finding the right workplace, culture and mentor to report to.

Another thing Dobbie has had to unlearn is the questions.

“When you’re in a situation talking to people who are looking for a new role, it's about the questions that you choose to ask when you go through that process of getting to know the team. Believing that if you’re in the interview…you’re good enough to be there. From that point on, you are interviewing them as much as they're interviewing you,” she says.

“Ask the questions, get straight to it. If you say you have a flexible work policy, what does that actually mean? Can I drop my kids off and take a zoom call from the car? Is that going to be problematic? Ask the literal questions you need to know, get into the weeds on it.”

Stereotypes of females in the creative industry are sadly still prevalent, says Dobbie. 

“Most of us have experienced some form of them throughout our careers. After I had my first child, I had some comments made. Somebody said to me; ‘Why don't you bring your sandwiches tomorrow and make a day of it?’.

“The context of that was, I started my working day at 7am, they didn't rock up until 10am. I could have said the same thing to them, but I didn't. That's a good example of why hopefully now we have a slightly more evolved working system.”

The role Dobbie is currently in, the team lives by a process called thoughtful working, which is based on accountability and trust. 

“It was set up 21 years ago, way before COVID. It’s as simple as those two things, accountability and trust. As long as you do the work that is agreed to the deadlines we all bought into to the standard that we all bought into, it isn't really an issue where you do it or when you do it,” she says.

On how creatives can call these stereotypes out in the workplace, Dobbie suggests leaning in in a genuinely curious way.

“Ask the question about whatever it is you’re facing. Could you help me understand why working an earlier working day or needing to is an issue? Could you help me understand how the business is set up in which that may be impacting my KPIs?,” she says.

“It might be an assumption that's been made and you can offer some examples which proves that that’s not right and won’t be an issue. Conversely, you might discover that this role isn't for you or this manager is someone you need to have a deeper conversation with.”

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