I had to duck out of the room during Wacl’s Gather conference last Thursday to take a call. I know, what a terrible thing to admit to publicly. But such is the life of a journalist. We have to keep lots of stories and demands in the air at the same time. When I told the person I was speaking to where I was, he – for it was a he – asked where the successful all-female advertising agency start-ups were.
It’s a thought that stuck in my head when I returned to hear Now’s Melissa Robertson interview punchy Sam Baker about her experience of co-founding The Pool. Baker spoke with passion about the sexism and scepticism she and co-founder Lauren Laverne and chief commercial officer Jo Morrell had experienced. She described how she and Morrell were told by a fund manager to bring along a man next time to help potential investors "feel safe".
In the retelling of this story, Baker’s response was: "Fuck the fuck off." But that was not what she had said at the time, despite the duo being responsible for making millions for men (and women) between them over the past 20 years. Robertson, who is chief executive of Now, said she was once asked by an industry figure what it was like to work for her co-founder, Mark Lund, despite her being introduced to them as the person who ran the agency.
Most women have similar horror stories but the pedestal you’re put on as a founder means you get it worse than most. And this has got to be one of the reasons why there has never been an all-female management team running a top advertising agency start-up in the UK. Sure, there have been collectives and consultancies doing brilliant work. But where are all the all-female shops in the top ten? Or the top 20? Or even the top 100?
Of course, we are all culpable on some level. You can’t talk about diversity without someone mentioning their unconscious-bias training these days. Baker also admitted she assumed a female investor was a PA because she’d greeted them at the door and made the tea. Virgin’s Lisa Thomas promptly told the 500 up-and-coming female executives never to play mum. Until the situation is fixed, we are supposed to protect ourselves by drinking crap tea.
But there is hope. Next up was former principal ballerina Leanne Benjamin, who talked about refusing point blank to give up her permanent role at the Royal Ballet when she returned from having her son at 39. She rejected the idea of "traipsing around the country looking for work" and spent another decade at the Royal Ballet before retiring in 2013 aged 49. Food for thought for anyone offered a paired-down "mummy route" upon returning from maternity leave.
Most inspiring was the story of Dame Stephanie Shirley, who set up a software business employing women working from home in 1962. The women programmed the black boxes for Concorde and the company (now part of the Sopra Steria group) made 70 of its staff millionaires when it floated. Maybe some of the delegates in the room will be roused to launch the first top-ten agency led by an all-female team.