Adland must find its maternal instinct

campaignlive.co.uk, Thursday, 24 May 2012 08:00AM

The advertising industry should come together to hammer out a better deal for working mums, Gail Gallie argues.

Multitasking mothers

Multitasking mothers

The first premise of this article is this: having children is monumentally inconvenient all round. It is an earthquake of inconvenience, generally with the mother at the epicentre, but, pretty fast, it spreads and takes everyone with it. The father, other family, friends, colleagues, employers, the state, the planet, domestic pets - pretty much anyone in the vicinity ends up feeling the aftershock.

The second premise is that having children is necessary. Maybe not having as many as we collectively do, or having them as carelessly or as young or as old or as unenvironmentally as we do, depending on which paper you read. But each country needs its share of children to carry the torch forward, and therefore it needs its share of parents.

The third premise is that working parents are necessary, in a fiscal sense, but also, according to many studies, as a positive benefit to both their businesses and as role models to their children and therefore future generations of happy workers.

The fourth is that, from here on in, I'm talking working mums, not just because I am one, but also because it is generally acknowledged that even when both parents are working, the maternity pattern in this country sets the woman up to take the brunt of organising childcare on her return to work.

But back to that first premise. I'm writing this to ask whether we as an industry can do something together to make the issue of children a bit less inconvenient all round.

I don't suppose it is any less inconvenient to be a working mum in any other industry - the City, law, journalism, medicine are all professions that are just as antisocial, just as client-facing, with just as long hours as ours.

But compared with other industries, advertising ought to be a positively nurturing environment into which to welcome back a returning mum.

Tech-enabled, "always on" anyway, with a direct customer base that also tends to have children at some point and, crucially, an end user base of the general public who are far more likely to be in the eye of the same storm. There's no excuse, really.

Becoming a parent also gives you an insight into the lives of the majority of the country - and it's a life that, before children, you were blissfully unaware of. I look back with a sort of bitter nostalgia at the time I didn't even notice school holiday dates, care at what age you can give Calpol and realise that they raised the legal age of Medised to six. I now actively select my shopping and dining excursions based on whether they have toilets that are large enough to change a nappy in. It's a glamorous existence - but it's one that also helps us to understand our clients' target audiences.

And as working individuals, mothers often return to work with a more focused, calmer and more balanced perspective than their childless peers. "Has anybody died?", uttered calmly, is a pretty good first response to most situations that look problematic on the face of it.

But a returning mum does need support. Amanda Mackenzie wrote here a few weeks ago that women generally need a bit more encouragement to succeed in business. This goes tenfold, I'd say, for a returning mum, at least while she's getting herself up and running and back in the land of the sane rather than the sleepless.

Women are masters of creating a guilty atmosphere in their own heads (Professor Robert Winston said that if a woman's place is in the kitchen, a mother's place is definitely in the wrong). Some of the support needs to come from colleagues.

Sixty-six-and-a-half per cent of mothers now work, which is a million more of us than in 1996. Look even further back to how different things were when we were being cared for by our (more commonly) part-time or non-working mums.

Despite dramatic changes in society, employment and equality in that time, the school terms and hours remain pretty much exactly as they were then, and so something, or rather someone, is clearly taking the strain.

Governments have tried, notably under Tony Blair, with initiatives such as Sure Start, after-school clubs, tax credits and childcare vouchers, to improve the childcare situation for working parents. But it barely touched the sides, and is all being dismantled now that there's no money left.

So I think we should take it into our own hands. We are a decently profitable and suitably small industry, so surely we can make some sort of inroads into an enlightened childcare policy?

We are also led, from the IPA president down, by a pretty strong representation of working mothers, and so we are both enlightened and empowered enough to make a difference. And while I know that flexible working and four-day weeks are, if not commonplace now, at least no longer as outlandish an idea as they once were, the fact remains that they are still hard to negotiate, particularly for client-facing employees.

At Fallon, we try in our own way to make a difference. I'm sure there are pockets of good practice in every agency. Where I think improvements could be made, and where we could earn ourselves some stars on the behaviour chart versus other industries, is at a hard-policy level centred around childcare. And it's tough because if we are going to achieve anything, it's going to take a bit of collective investment.

I wish I knew the proportion of our total workforce that has children - my hunch is that it's a relatively small number, which could make it difficult for an individual agency to accommodate policy shifts in this direction. But if we got together, perhaps we could do it and take on, you know, Scandinavia in this area.

Can we get together and invest in some shared on-site creches? I'm game if anyone else is (Nikki Crumpton, I know you're keen). Can we commit to creating a free coaching/mentoring scheme for mothers led by the most successful working mothers in our business? Or perhaps we could challenge the best creative minds in the business to come up with a solution that works for us all?

Anyway, pass me a sandbag - I feel another earthquake coming ...

Gail Gallie is the chief executive of Fallon London. She is about to have her second child

HOW AGENCIES CAN HELP

- Don't question a mother's need to leave on time

- Don't question her commitment if she can't make a meeting because it clashes with a previous arrangement or if she suddenly disappears because a child becomes ill

- Offer flexible holiday arrangements based on the school holiday calendar

- Have people working threeor four-day weeks

- Offer childcare vouchers and a generous maternity scheme

- Run workshops helping the working mothers among the staff to deal with the constant juggle that is inevitably at the centre of their lives.

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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