How to stage a creative comeback

The lack of women at the top of many agencies serves to highlight the industry's traditional inflexibility but a new breed of business leaders is proving that motherhood is not a creative full stop, Nicola Kemp writes.

How to stage a creative comeback

"Advertising is such an all-or-nothing game and, at times, I can’t see how this will possibly work." With brutal honesty Clemmie Telford, creative director at Grey London and founder of the Mother of All Lists blog, explains the tensions women feel while attempting to pursue a fulfilling creative career without outsourcing huge swathes of their children’s lives.

Diversity may currently top the "thought leadership" agenda but against the rhetoric is the economic and emotional reality of attempting to thrive as both a mother and a creative in an unforgiving industry. Many a mother’s professional aspirations have disappeared down the gulf between aspiration and reality.

Ali Hanan is the founder of Creative Equals, which has just launched a "returnship" scheme to help mothers who have taken time out of the industry get back to work. She believes motherhood remains a huge drop-off point for female creatives. 

"When the war for talent is at the top of the business agenda, it should be a complete business imperative to retain talent. But there are lots of biases at play when women have babies; they are sidelined and made to feel they lack value," she says.

It is a situation that, according to Helen Calcraft, founding partner at Lucky Generals, has caused some of the most talented women to exit the business – and not return – when they had their children. This, she says, is a disaster: "In my experience, motherhood can often make you better at your job. The culture of long hours and the demand for total flexibility at a moment’s notice needs to be addressed – as does the idea that this is an industry best suited to the young and childless."

Maternity discrimination

Last year, the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that 54,000 women a year were being squeezed out of work in the UK, a number that has doubled since 2005. More than three-quarters of the women it surveyed said they had been discriminated against because of pregnancy or motherhood. While a study published this summer by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that mothers who return to work end up earning a third less than men because the birth of a child cuts their chances of being promoted and getting pay rises.

In the creative industries, this bias is often not discussed because the non-disclosure agreements that accompany many settlements have effectively stopped women naming and shaming some of the worst offenders.

An anonymous survey from The Industry Club is one way in which these silenced voices can be heard and the tales of mothers being sidelined and undermined make for uncomfortable reading. Agencies are not even meeting the legal requirements to which mothers are entitled – 98% of respondents said there were no breastfeeding facilities at their place of work.

In an industry so wedded to promoting agency culture and putting the best foot forward in the "war for talent", the survey respondents’ stories reflect a toxic environment. One respondent notes: "Management and colleagues are less supportive of working mums. The worst offenders are other women, who think that working mums have it easy or that we should be made to work twice as hard to prove we’re still 100% committed." 

"The language surrounding work and motherhood remains emotionally charged; if women are "dropping out" of the industry, the implication is mothering is not valued"

Another cites the "lack of understanding from management as to why I would want to spend quality time with my child rather than work on their project until the early hours. Men are apparently not expected to want to be effective parents. I’ve had this from many agencies."

Despite much hand-wringing about the lack of female creative directors, it is clear that maternity discrimination is not only holding back mothers but is effectively pushing some women out of the door before they are even ready to start a family. After watching the erratic hours and undermining and sidelining of mothers at her agency, one woman admits:  "I have not started a family yet but the prospect has been enough for me to consider quitting my job entirely."

The honesty complex

The shortage of female role models in the industry is well-documented but, when it comes to the lack of role models with children, the issue becomes more complex. 

Caroline Keylock, a freelance strategist and founder of lifestyle blog Masters of Many, says that for a long time there have not been enough women at the top of advertising and those who have reached the heights have not always embraced some of the specific benefits of being women. "If aspiration is about what I want my life to be like, while I admire these women I don’t know if what they have is what I want out of life," she says. 

The language surrounding work and motherhood remains emotionally charged; if women are "dropping out" of the industry, the implication is mothering is not valued. 

Anna Hickey, managing director at Maxus UK, believes the dialogue surrounding career breaks needs a radical overhaul. She thinks women are already doing all they can to give themselves the best chance of reigniting their careers. "The onus is firmly on those with responsibility in the industry – the agency leaders – to create the conditions, equal policies and workplace ideology that empower all parents (indeed, all people) to live their lives fully and excel in their careers," she says.

This conversation can be particularly challenging for a new mother who is returning to the fray. At a sensitive stage in her career, she may be more easily hurt and a thoughtless joke or remark could offend in a way that would not have worried her at an earlier time of her life. 

But by failing to have the conversation at all, everyone loses out. "Everyone shared the ugly birth stories but no one told me about going back to work and how I would feel," Cressida Easton-Lloyd, creative director at GreyShopper London, says. "Yes, as women and mothers we have to be resilient in our own way but as an industry we have to support women and not alienate them."

Trailblazing women in the creative industries, such as Amelia Torode, chief strategy officer at TBWA\London, who advocates flexible working, are starting to shift the conversation. According to Torode, the problems lie in the fact that it is often difficult to articulate the challenges you face as a mother in the industry.

"There is a shift in the definition of what leadership is," she says. "People look at the top of the industry and they don’t aspire to be that. There is a big and hard conversation to be had because outsourcing childhood just doesn’t sit well with people."

Easton-Lloyd says we need to move away from the cliché of "having it all" towards being more accepting of imperfection. Looking back on her experience as a creative director and freelance with three children, she wishes she could have been a bit kinder to herself. She explains: "You do lose your confidence. You feel people are looking at you in a different way. It can be terrifying when you feel like you are on an island on your own. I wish women were more honest about the challenges but, if you are really committed, you can do it."

Flex appeal

The fight against "presenteeism" is at the heart of the shift towards more family- and life-friendly working practices. Rimi Atwal, managing director at Netmums, says women are having a more empowered debate about how to work on their own terms. She explains: "The most creative industries are led by technology and, if you really harness the power of that technology, you can be very successful as a culture, a business and a brand." This is an approach that enables parents to juggle the many different aspects of their lives. 

However, Nikki Cochrane, co-founder of Digital Mums, believes there is still a stigma about motherhood and an old-fashioned mindset that needs to change. She explains: "The confidence drop that comes from being out of the workforce needs to be addressed. Enabling people to feel they have ownership of their life is crucial. It isn’t always reasonable to expect to have it all but being at peace with the duality of the two roles is the key to happiness."

Many in the industry are successfully navigating this duality and providing a blueprint for future success. Lucy Devin, creative director at Possible, works a four-day week with one from home and has been "pleasantly surprised" by her smooth transition back to work. She says women must stop apologising for their requests for flexibility and should challenge the "bums-on-seats culture".

However, the advertising industry has lagged behind brands when it comes to introducing flexible working patterns. Jo Arden, head of strategy at 23red, says the ad industry remains one of the least flexible sectors and that has to change: "Women and employers mustn’t be apologetic and reticent about women returning to work flexibly. We need to scrap that approach. If they were not committed, they wouldn’t be there."

Susan Fonseca, co-founder and executive vice-president of strategy and growth at She Works!, which matches jobs to talent via cloud technology, believes a revolution in working practices is coming. "As women we need to change the models and structures of work to fit our lifestyle, our family, our needs – not the other way around because it just doesn’t work," she explains. "So instead of trying to convince the industry we can do it all and successfully fit into old models, it is time for us to create new ones."

A growing tranche of agencies are also creating their own agile model for success. CJ Morley, director for global talent and development at iProspect, is adamant that many of the flexible-working issues that women in the industry face are legacy ones: "Agility and having the ability to control your own time is key to engaging our millennial workforce. It really doesn’t matter when or where you do the work as long as it is delivered."

Play the long game

While the pace of change may feel glacial, the industry is beginning to move in the right direction. Compare the brilliant diversity agenda set by IPA president Tom Knox with the recent comments from Institute of Directors chairwoman Barbara Judge. Her divisive declaration that "long maternity leaves are bad for mothers" simply served to reinforce why many critics dub the organisation the "Institute of the Dead".

Liz Nottingham, who is working with the IPA to launch a series of workshops for women returning to work, says agencies should look to match the core working hours of corporations such as Unilever and Procter & Gamble, which only schedule meetings between 10am and 4pm. 

Rather than starting from the perspective that flexibility is an imposition, agencies should see it as an opportunity. "I took the approach of never turning down a flexible working request; why would you want to lose the talent?" Nottingham explains. According to her, aside from the emotional and morale-sapping cost of turning down these requests, the cost of replacing a mid-level creative can top £150,000. 

Meanwhile, Nabs is supporting working parents through workshops and training. Diana Tickell, chief executive of Nabs, urges organisations to better understand the pressures modern families face. She says: "The old model is gone. Quite often we see two parents both working in the creative industries and we have to encourage networks to support them."

At Grey, this support includes dedicated maternity coaches and networking groups for mums. Sue Higgs, group creative director at the agency, says she had to actively hide the fact she had children when, as a single mother, she began her career nine years ago: "I didn’t tell people that I had children and my male [creative] partner got a bonus and I didn’t because I wasn’t perceived to be as engaged. The industry was dominated by men, drinking all hours, and it was easier to opt out than put up with the bullshit." According to Higgs, a woman had to "act like a man" to succeed. Today, however, she sees a significant shift, driven by clients who have no shame in talking about their children or working flexibly.

This is not to say challenges no longer exist but if you see your career as a lifetime, taking time out to have children is not something to fear. Lisa Unwin, co-founder of She’s Back, says women need to look beyond seeing their career as a linear trajectory: "When you are exhausted, it is easy not to be able to see the wood for the trees. But knowing you have a plan and can navigate the difficult years is crucial."

The industry has a part to play in helping mothers play this long game. Deb Khan, the other co-founder of She’s Back, says: "The responsibility also lies with the agencies. If someone has added value to a company over many years, you need to redefine their role to support them and allow them to consolidate their careers." It is a shift that means agencies will actually be modelling behaviour that engages their staff. "It is a very short-sighted leadership model to not have a sustainable approach to talent," Khan adds.

The loss of mothers from the workforce is a huge missed opportunity for the industry. The evidence of the creative firepower of mothers is evident in the growing ranks of women who have exited advertising to launch their own businesses on their own terms.

Anna Whitehouse, who launched the successful Mother Pukka lifestyle blog, worked in Amsterdam as a copywriter at Tommy Hilfiger before returning to London for a similar role at L’Oréal. After having her daughter Mae, she felt she had little choice but to leave the industry to get greater control of her own time. She explains "the structure of companies is holding women back, without real change many women are immediately discounted from many roles". She puts the explosion of digital influencers and entrepreneurs in London down, in part, to its industries’ "skewed priorities and inflexible working practices".

"It’s very short-sighted not to have a sustainable approach to talent"
Deb Khan, She’s Back

It is a situation that has led many creative women to go freelance to enable them to work and also be present in their children’s lives. According to Keylock, creative women are dropping out of the industry when they have their second child because of the astronomical cost of childcare and the rigid ways of working. She explains: "It seems insane that the advertising industry is so behind the curve but it’s very much accepted by the old guard, who want to keep things as they are."

Mother disruptor

Maintaining the status quo in an age of constant disruption is an increasingly difficult business position. However, as it gets caught up in the buzz about disruption, is the industry guilty of glorifying the cult of the entrepreneur, who achieves the seemingly impossible by working 24 hours a day, seven days a week? There is perhaps nothing more disruptive – emotionally, physically and creatively – than motherhood. However, when it comes to the narrative of what a successful creative life looks like, mothers are conspicuous by their absence.

Back in 2014, when the conversation about the lack of women in senior positions was just getting started, Nils Leonard, outgoing chief creative officer at Grey London, waxed lyrical about why he thought the perfect modern creative was a woman. In doing so he unwittingly brought an underlying tension to the surface – because a woman who is "a radiator of energy and a believer in the genius of 3am tequila" is unlikely to be able to leave the office in time to bath the baby.

Courtney Sikes, global planning director at J Walter Thompson London, is just a few days back from a year’s maternity leave. She offers a nuanced perspective: "When you move to another country, you have a fresh view. The same thing happens when you have a child – you reassess everything. When you step out of the fog, you look at the world in a very real way, which is so separate from the industry hype and is very powerful." 

Considered in this context, the very notion of "making a creative comeback" becomes obsolete when major brands and holding companies want their senior staff to work in multiple markets to gain the scope required for leadership roles. Business needs to talk about motherhood as an experience that broadens horizons. 

"There is a big and hard conversation to be had because outsourcing childhood just doesn’t sit well with people"

Of course, the issue of how to combine work successfully with caring responsibilities extends to all industries. For decades there has been a consistent denigration of the skills of mothering. 

The values gap

Psychotherapist and author Naomi Stadlen writes: "The guilt that so many mothers describe today is unprecedented. It seems that mothers might feel more deserving if mothering were appropriately valued." 

When so much of the work of mothering is wordless, it is understandable – but nonetheless unforgivable – that the industry has been slow to realise its creative halo effect. 

One female creative director confides: "It’s brutal at times and there are so many reasons why I’ve felt like I’m having a creative crisis of confidence since coming back to work. I’m almost staying here, hanging on, because I believe so passionately about women being in the industry and having new role models. But I don’t feel my skills are recognised or rewarded."

As Devin explains, the pursuit of balance is an often futile one. "You have your ego and what you want and then you have your child, who is your world. We have to recognise there is a value in being a mother. I focus on what impacts I can make and what I can control, rather than the perceptions of others, which you can’t," she says.

Ironically, the invisible skills implicit in motherhood could create a profound impact on industry culture. Skills such as patience and empathy are the cornerstones of civilised behaviour. Stadlen writes that while a new mother often expresses a feeling of "losing herself" after having a baby, a few months later she may realise that she has "discovered more of herself". It is a creative evolution that requires an industry entranced by the new to take a more long-term view of talent.

There remains an inherent problem in the ad industry’s all-or-nothing game. The stakes are too high even for those who, on the surface, appear to hold a winning hand. By playing along and maintaining the status quo, we cheapen ourselves in the process.

Read more: Three top strategies for working mums

Maternity Reprieve
Motherhood as a creative renaissance

Sarah Hesz’s second period of maternity leave was the launch pad for Mush, the app that brings mothers together.

"Maternity leave can be a really beneficial experience. I spent ten years in advertising with my head down, not thinking beyond the next pitch," she explains. "Maternity leave is actually quite a liberating experience and I do feel very lucky."

Hesz, who had worked as deputy managing director and new-business director at Mcgarrybowen, to which she returned after her first child was born, says the transition had its challenges: "When you are trying to do emails during bath time, it can all feel too much." 

However, Hesz says she has become far more effective and efficient at managing her time since having two children.

The Mush concept came about after a chance meeting with another mother, Katie  Massie-Taylor, in a rainy playground: "Katie and I met in a playground with our toddlers and newborn babies. I asked her for her number and we went on to become great friends. A few months later, we were having lunch in Pizza Express and the idea came to us."

The free app connects mothers with others in their area, sidestepping that awkward "Can I have your number?" moment. The app has already garnered a money-can’t-buy spot as one of Apple’s top picks for the iOS App Store but the launch was not all plain sailing. "Meeting investors and breastfeeding a small baby at the same time had its challenges," Hesz says. And the fact she only had ad-hoc childcare while the company was getting off the ground did not make things easy. Mush’s success is a testament to her commitment and drive while  deprived of sleep and juggling work and family life. 

It also provides a reminder of the skills and sheer willpower that can easily be overlooked  or sidelined once women have children. While the industry is in danger of seeing maternity leave as a blot on the creative copybook, Hesz counters that motherhood can usher in a creative renaissance. "I used to be a perfectionist but, when you have two children under two, it is impossible not to have a more healthy approach to getting things done," she explains.

It is clear that Hesz retains a great affection for the industry that gave her the skills to launch her own brand (her husband Alex is also in the industry, being executive interactive director at Adam & Eve/DDB). But she also believes it needs to embrace change. "I think working late is a big challenge," she says. "I would love to see more men saying they are leaving at 5.30pm  to spend time with their children. I think it is getting better but agencies have to challenge the existing culture."