Nonetheless, she persisted (part two): female leaders on their biggest challenges

In the second part of Campaign's International Women's Day series, industry leaders share how they overcame their biggest challenges.

Nonetheless, she persisted (part two): female leaders on their biggest challenges

Melissa Robertson

CEO, Now

"Speak up"

My first job was at a bakery in the Midlands. All the management were men, and you had to call them "Mr Surname." It was old-fashioned and hierarchical, and very much a man's world. And now I think about it, when I got into advertising and moved to London, it was not wildly different. I didn't have to call them "Mr", but all the management were men, the group heads were men, as were the creative directors and planning directors. But that was just the way it was. I didn't know any different. Yes, there was an imbalance of power, but we didn't know to find it wrong. And there were plenty of hideously inappropriate goings on – from sleazy comments through to what would now be termed assaults (the fact that I have to write "what would now be termed..." just goes to show how entrenched and normalised it all was). We just sighed, provided hugs, tea, wine and ears, and then got on with it. But thankfully I don't have personal experience of anything nearing abusive.

Anyone who knows me knows that I'm small but feisty. I just think I know my own mind and I'm not afraid to voice it (in a respectful and polite way!). I had three older brothers and I had to fight to get noticed. It was a way of life. I never give up. So, for me, career progression has been a combination of persistence and a naturally competitive nature (I will compete against anything and anyone – even if it's my kids. Even myself!). And for me, it's not even about the winning, it's about just giving it your best bloody shot. So that if you win – awesome. But if you lose, you know you couldn't have done any better.

My biggest "obstacles", as such, have been knee operations (nine of them) and babies (three of them), but in both instances, before I went off to have them, I pushed to be recognised for my contribution. So I got promoted BEFORE they happened, at a time when it was practically unheard of for a pregnant woman to be made MD.

So my advice to other women embarking on a career in this industry is to consider two things. The first is to work out who you really are (and this can often take all of your twenties and even thirties), and then embrace it, and be yourself. It's too exhausting to pretend to be someone else. The second is to speak up. There's a new normal emerging, and you will be heard, but only if you say something.

Suki Thompson

CEO, Oystercatchers

"Be fearless"

A year after Peter Cowie and I set up Oystercatchers, I was out training for a triathlon when I felt a lump under my arm. A quick trip to the hospital followed, a mammogram, a biopsy – and they found I had Stage 3 breast cancer.

As a recent divorcee with two children and a new business, this felt devastating. But though the operation, chemo and radiation treatment over the next eight months were hard, my family, friends, business partners – and many people from the industry – made sure I could look after Jaz and Sam, my work, Oystercatchers, and get well, simultaneously.

A couple of years later, my sister was also diagnosed with breast cancer – along with one of my cousins and one of my aunts. My mum, who had been told she was BRCA positive – she had the "cancer gene" – was distraught, feeling somehow responsible for our journeys, which included a high chance of our breast or ovarian cancers returning.

I wish I had worried less, slept more and put tech at the heart of all the businesses that I have built

Three years on and I was walking the 100k Race to the Stones along The Ridgeway, which crosses North Wessex Downs and the Chilterns, with (Virgin Media CMO) Kerris Bright.

At the end of a very challenging weekend, I went to see a masseur who found a lump on my foot. The biopsy showed it was skin cancer. Part of my foot was removed, I got a skin graft from my hip and was told not to walk for six weeks – including ten days immobile in bed (probably the worst part for an exercise bunny like me!)

Since then, I have had another melanoma, a lung biopsy and thyroid biopsy (both clear). I now have a CAT scan, skin check and bloods taken every three months and a mammogram yearly under the eye of three specialists across three hospitals. 

During this time, I became a trustee for Macmillan Cancer Support helping those living with a cancer diagnosis – so that I contribute and have a positive cancer experience through my relationship with the charity.   

At a Wacl event I was asked what advice I would give my younger self. My response: I wish I had worried less, slept more and put tech at the heart of all the businesses that I have built. 

But above all, I would say: be fearless. 

To be diagnosed with cancer once could seem unfortunate and three times is careless. What it has given me, however, is a sharp awareness of just how precious life is. Too often, we don't do things because we are afraid of their outcome – even though in almost every instance, the fear is worse than the reality. Building a business like Oystercatchers has been one of the most wonderful challenges, it’s given me an opportunity to be a business woman and a mum. Now since I sold the business to Centaur I can see how we can put tech at the heart of our expanded offering.  

At the end of the day, what’s the worst that can happen? If something does go wrong, you can always laugh over a G&T with friends and try again. 

Cilla Snowball

Chairman and CEO, AMV BBDO

"We have to confront inequality head on"

Nevertheless she persisted is a pretty pertinent rallying cry for women in business, for feminism and for all of us trying to overcome barriers of all shapes and sizes. Despite all the advances of the last 100 years we are #stillmarching on many fronts. We have only just begun to drive change and there is so much more work to be done in all areas. We have to confront inequality head on.

The challenges in my early career were practical ones. Despite being warned it was "career limiting", I couldn’t travel much on international business when my kids were little. It wasn’t career limiting and even if it was, I had no choice – the kids have always come first.

Like most people I learned to beat the challenge of imposter syndrome, overload, perfectionism and a host of other doubts and difficulties with good support above and around me. There is no challenge that a great boss, a supportive client and agency team and an army of wise heads in Wacl can’t help you work through and sort out. Talking openly about challenges has to be the way through.

So my advice would always be to speak up and seek to support those coming through, recognising that barriers and challenges are often well hidden and everyone needs a helping hand.

Verra Budimlija

CSO, Wavemaker

"Training and mentoring helps gain confidence and a stronger sense of self-worth."

Like many women, I found it difficult to raise my hand for promotions and fight for pay rises earlier in my career.

Given the number of discussions that go on behind closed doors, I sensed this was something men were innately better at doing. And as a result of my inability to stand up and say "I’m worth this", I had a tendency to having already grown into the next level before asking for extra recognition for what I’d been doing at my existing one.

I struggled with this for a long time; what turned it around was having a mentor. In fact, I have worked with two mentors in my career – the first was a man, the second a woman. 

Providing a clear account for what you will do is something women tend to shy away from for fear of appearing pushy or arrogant

The great thing about having a mentor is you can lay yourself bare and be really honest – more so than you might be with anyone else.

What my mentors have helped me to do is play things out in advance of a meeting. They have played the role of a devil’s advocate, helping me hone a watertight argument for getting what I want in any negotiation. It’s hugely valuable.

Providing a clear account for what you will do is something women tend to shy away from for fear of appearing pushy or arrogant. So another important thing I learned is to overcome the tendency to talk exclusively about what I have already achieved or currently achieving, at the expense of future targets and goals.

Promotions and pay rises are a long term play rather than a one-off conversation – and this has helped me to navigate to my current position where I now work with a boss with a clear commitment to ensuring equality of opportunity.

Looking back, mentors significantly contributed to boosting my confidence, especially when I came back to work after having children.

If you’ve taken time out and come back into a business it can be daunting. Training and mentoring helps gain confidence and a stronger sense of self-worth.

Chaka Sobhani

CCO, Leo Burnett London

"Know when to fight and when to walk away"

Every single one of us has experienced some form of set back at some point in our career. And thank god. Because true to the cliché, we learn the most from those horrible times and get stronger because of them.

I’ve actually been pretty lucky not to have faced a lot of the shit of I’ve heard about – probably helped by starting a career outside of advertising.

There are two significant moments that stand out for me personally. To be honest, the specifics don’t really matter as the fallout was the same in both cases – feeling out of control, undermined, unsure, unhappy. With my confidence taking a battering as I struggled to stay optimistic, find a resolution or find a way out. 

Don’t stay silent and keep the problem to yourself

The first was a case where an individual made life unduly and unreasonably difficult – I think these days it would be called passive aggressive bullying. And the second was when I found myself in an environment and culture that fundamentally didn’t chime with my values as a human being and as a woman.

In both cases, I discovered a lot of things, mostly about myself, but these three things proved most helpful and important.

The first is probably most important – don’t stay silent and keep the problem to yourself. Gather your village of trusted friends, colleague and mentors. Talk honestly, however painful, and seek their advice and counsel. They will give you strength, comfort and courage. And there is nothing more reassuring than when you realise others have been where you are and survived and thrived.

The second is know when to fight and when to walk away. And that doesn’t mean quitting or admitting defeat. Far from it, it means getting smarter. Some things are too ingrained and inbuilt to change, and life’s too short and precious to waste. Your kin, your tribe are out there and it’s better putting your delicious energy into seeking them out than trying to turn round an outdated tanker.

And the third is listen to your gut. I know that’s trite but it’s so true – you know when something doesn’t feel right. Whether it’s a place, a behaviour or what someone says. You know who you are and what you’re capable of. So listen to what you know is right.

And go be fucking fabulous.