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Women forging creativity: how being a chairwoman has changed Kate Stanners

As one of the first women to become chair and chief creative officer of a major global agency network, Kate Stanners has a unique perspective on the power of female creativity, writes Nicola Kemp.

Women forging creativity: how being a chairwoman has changed Kate Stanners

It is an uncomfortable irony that the standards to which women at the top of creative industries are held are higher than those of their male counterparts. Moreover, no longer is it enough simply to have reached the top of their industry, often leapfrogging the casual sexism and unconscious bias at play on the way. Today’s female creative leaders must also take up the mantle and expectations that come with being a role model. It is a challenge Kate Stanners, who recently became chairwoman of Saatchi & Saatchi, alongside her role of global chief creative officer, is taking seriously.

"I won’t speak for every woman, I only speak for me. From the moment I became an art director, I only thought as an art director," she says. "As a creative, you are quite selfish in your thinking and focused on doing something you love and are fortunate to do." 

When Stanners took up the chairwoman position in September, she began to think more about her influence as a role model. "It was at that point I thought I haven’t had any training in PR and now I have this platform and [I’m] becoming one of the most senior creative women across the globe, and with that comes a sense of responsibility," she says. 

Being comfortable with being uncomfortable

The idea that women should be judged, or worse still, held back in their career by focusing on their work above raising their profile may well be abhorrent, but it contains a modicum of truth. It is a situation that when combined with the continued drain of talent from the industry of women at the crucial mid-point in their careers, makes a diverse range of senior role models even more important than ever. "I don’t think there is a shortage of young women coming into the industry. The challenge is women staying," she says.

Stanners confides that as a young art director it was intimidating at times. She explains: "I always worked with male directors and it was a time where I felt like a minority in a negative way. But feeling like you are a bit different is not a bad thing."

She honed her craft under Dave Trott at GGT, an agency "famous for its brutality". The names of the creative team were on a whiteboard and were regularly wiped off if it was felt the work was not up to standard. "It was a highly competitive, outrageous regime and I absolutely loved it," she says. "The new generation would probably say: ‘Why the fuck would I put up with that?’"

It was from here that she went to St Luke’s, a revelatory experience, because the working culture was so different to what she had experienced previously. "We were competitive as a collective against the world, but we could still be aggressively brilliant," she explains. However, Saatchi & Saatchi is the place she believes is her true creative home.

Creating boundaries

Refreshingly, amid the seemingly deafening chorus that women should "lean in" to reach the top, Stanners adopts a different line. Instead of talking about smashing glass ceilings, she takes a straightforward approach to creating limits. Boundaries, she believes, have enabled her to thrive personally, professionally and creatively. "When I joined the agency, I had an 18-month-old baby and I made it clear I would be going home and putting him to bed," Stanners says. 

She continues: "I would encourage women to be more open about how they make it work. There is still a machismo with the whole ‘look at me I work all day and night’ approach to challenge."

Looking ahead, Stanners claims there are significant shifts afoot in how creatives work. In particular, she notes a cultural shift when it comes to freelancing. 

"Freelancing has often been seen as a necessary evil and a less-good route, but that is changing," she says. "It is a very millennial concept that benefits us in the creative industries and is potentially a beneficial environment for people who want flexibility." In fact, according to Stanners, among some creatives, the perception is that freelancing is in fact the best choice, rather than the second choice. 

The elephant in the room

It is clear for Stanners there is a thread running between diverse creative teams, diverse judging teams and brilliant work. However, she believes that what Cannes is trying to do by ensuring there are more women in awards juries is a difficult, but nonetheless important challenge. "Often, you will sit in a room with 21 people from around the world and nearly always there is you and 20 men. I believe the problem is that the output of those juries is bias," she says.  

"I first judged at Cannes 10 years ago and I found it terrifying. I was executive creative director and every time I spoke up, I could feel myself going red." 

So what does Stanners advise that others facing this challenge do? "You just have to be true to yourself, you are there on your own merit and you have to remember that you have relevance." According to Stanners: "We all have unconscious bias."  

She warns there is an innate danger in seeing the diversity debate only through the lens of an individual career. "The reason this is so fucking important is advertising creates popular culture and what we are putting out there matters. We talk a lot about the need for women in creative jobs but we do not talk enough about the outputs. We need to focus on the work."

Stanners is hopeful about the industry’s ability to adapt and change and believes there is a growing momentum to recruit and retain more female creatives. She declares succinctly: "How great will it be when we can say we aren’t special any more."  

Three tangible ways to drive diversity 

1. Change your recruiting practices

Stanners advocates simple, tangible actions to better recruit and retain women. At Saatchi London, a women-only creative team is now responsible for hiring work placements.  

2. Put more women on award juries

Greater diversity on award-judging panels is not a "nice to have"; it is a business essential. "I believe the problem with [non-diverse juries primarily made up of men] is the output of those juries is bias. We all have unconscious bias at play." 

3. Flexible working is an asset, not a dirty secret

At Saatchi & Saatchi, Stanners explains: "We had a lunch for the women in the agency and a lot of them do a four-day week, whether because they want to run their own business or spend time with their children." Interestingly, none of the women knew the others were working these hours. It was liberating for them to find out flexibility was to be encouraged and they could be open about it.