International Women's Day: "my gender is irrelevant" says Lisa Thomas

Lisa Thomas, the chief executive of M&C Saatchi Group, speaks to Campaign for International Women's Day on 8 March.

Lisa Thomas: chief executive of M&C Saatchi Group
Lisa Thomas: chief executive of M&C Saatchi Group

Has being a woman helped or hindered your career, or neither?

Neither. I am proud of what I have achieved as a person. I hope I bring certain strengths to my roles as a woman, but my gender is irrelevant to the fact that I have set up and launched a successful business (Lida) and now oversee a number of separate businesses including Lida under the M&C Saatchi Group umbrella.

Is work/life balance an issue at agencies?

Yes, work/life balance is an issue at agencies; working hours are still too long, for one thing. But it is also an issue in most professional environments. It is the biggest issue for women as we continue to try and manage everything – home and work, children and a life.

What are your top three tips for women getting into the advertising business?

1. Don’t let anyone box you in or tell you something is not possible. I would tell anyone, male or female, that you have to have determination and a strong character to succeed in this business.

2. Embrace change. Our industry is changing incredibly fast and being quick to embrace those changes will ensure that you stay ahead.

3. Listen to your intuition. One of our greatest strengths as women is being intuitive and in a highly creative industry this can be very powerful. Don’t be afraid to listen to your gut.

Only 26 per cent of people in leadership roles in advertising are women (IPA Census 2013). Is this enough?

No, it’s not enough. But I believe that leadership and senior positions are earned whatever gender you are. So we need to let this situation be resolved or change naturally. It is already more balanced than it used to be, and it will become more so. There are clear rational, objective, and moral arguments for having more women in senior roles.

Who should change this and how?

We all have a role to play in making the situation better – both individually and at a corporate level. We should work to put more formal mentoring programmes in place, and increase the influence of women in senior positions to encourage and promote more women.

Numerous studies have shown that organisations with women on their boards of directors perform better financially than those without. Additionally, as businesses seek to fill their leadership pipeline, it would be wise for them to look internally at this untapped resource in place of recruiting executives from competitors.

Tell us about a woman you admire in the industry.

Arianna Huffington in the broader world of media [and the founder of The Huffington Post]. She created a media product that captured an audience and held on to that audience with intelligent and high quality content.

Another woman I greatly admire is Brita Fernandez Schmidt, the executive director at Women for Women. In her inspiring work helping women survivors of conflict to reach stability and security, she reminds us all of the fundamental importance of women supporting women in every context.

Do you think women are portrayed positively in advertising campaigns?

I think since the Mad Men days it has been a general consensus within our industry that sex sells, most of the time what they really mean is that sexy women sell. It is sad, but a fact, that for decades advertisers have been finding different ways to feature women in ads in order to entice purchase. And, it would seem, the strategy works.

But the way women have been portrayed in advertising has shifted over the decades, and it has contributed to the change in the way society views women. I think ads like the Wonderbra "hello boys" in the 1990s were the peak of sexual objectivity for women in advertising. The Dove and Nike ads of recent years have taken us into a new and more positive place for women. I think we are now on the right trajectory for women overall.