It has been almost a year since our article was published in Campaign, and Lol and I are in a much happier place now. Rather than being put on the naughty step for wanting flexibility and having the job offer retracted, we were hired somewhere else because of it.
After the article was published, my creative partner Lol and I were offered a lot of interesting opportunities that kept our career at Donut World a distant prospect. Surprisingly, our best option came not from a nimble start-up but a large network agency. Publicis London invited us in to freelance. They listened to what working pattern we needed to suit my childcare responsibilities and Lol’s other career as a comedy writer. They were "woke" to the idea of us having lives outside our layout pads.
Still baby steps
We’re now permanent and both work a four-day week. My day-to-day working pattern is 8am to 4.30pm (unless we’re in production on something), whereas Lol’s normal day is 10am to 6.30pm because that’s when her ADHD brain is at its best. Meetings are only ever scheduled between 10am to 4pm. This pattern works because it plays to our strengths and our neurodiversity.
Since we started, Publicis rolled out flexible working for its entire workforce. Hopefully, more agencies will follow suit. This move will have positive knock-on consequences for returning parents. Needing to work from home sometimes, or staggering your hours, will be more normal now as everyone can do it. It won’t be just the parents who leave before 5.30pm. Agencies are realising that if we give people a bit of freedom to create working patterns around their life, they will attract more varied talent and get better work out of them.
I often feel like if I'd been a returning parent 10 years ago, this industry would have been completely impossible to get back into unless you outsourced all your childcare responsibility to someone else. I’m so pleased we have all started to recognise the barriers that people with caring responsibilities face and that the subject is being talked about so much more openly. Thank goodness for initiatives such Creative Equals to help get more senior women into creative departments. And articles such as "power part-timers". These conversations are letting people see there are others ways of working and that you can still be a managing director and work a three-day week.
It’s no fairytale
I realise we are lucky. Not every agency is as flexible yet.
A month or so ago, I was reading the Campaign Best Places to Work 2019. An agency was listed as a top place to work because new parents were "allowed home in time for bath time". This made me really sad. I couldn’t believe that in 2019 this is considered a perk. Obviously sometimes we will miss bath time, but it would be nice if all parents did this on a day-to-day basis unless there was extra work on.
But some agencies don’t even go as far as offering their new parents anything. Some are still struggling to adapt to the idea of a four-day week. A lot of mums I've spoken to have given up on four-day weeks because they were still given a five-day workload but paid for four days.
Losing 20% of your salary is a big deal and if you’re finding yourself working really late on a Thursday night, doing an extra day's worth of work so you spend your Friday in recovery from burnout, then it’s not worth doing. You need a good project manager by your side supporting you and allocating workload accordingly.
You need to learn an art form called "the respectful pushback" – something we are just learning. When, on a Thursday evening, just before our weekend begins, a project manager says "Can I brief you on X now", you politely say: "Thank you – we actually find we work best when, where possible, we get the brief on Monday just before working on it and we can hit the ground running". Which is code for: "I’d rather you didn’t set up camp in my brain all weekend if that’s OK – our mental health will be better as a result and you’ll get better ideas. Cheers, though."
And, in return, you’ll get our best work, in the quickest time. Of course, pitches and shoots happen and then it all goes to pot, but we’re just talking about the average, ideal week.
Beware the monsters under the bed
Despite the huge strides, the nightmare stories about matenity discrimination still happen.
A fellow creative told me that her boss told her to "expect her maternity leave to set back her career". He was an executive creative director of an agency and has children of his own.
Another creative mum told me that she recently found out her male creative partner was being paid more than her after she returned from maternity leave. She recently left that agency.
The most shocking story of all was hearing about an agency making four women across different departments redundant during their maternity leave. One of them had a one-week-old baby when she got the call. They have all been made to sign non-disclosure agreements, so none of them wanted to speak further about it.
The 'pregancy pause' button
There are still so many taboos around the subject of having children. People dread having to tell their bosses they are pregnant. Why are people so hush-hush about maternity and paternity policies? Why is it such a no-no to ask about these policies in an interview?
When I was speaking to a headhunter on the phone during my last pregnancy, they were telling me about a great job opportunity and then when I mentioned I was pregnant there was a sense of: "Oh well, we can’t put you forward then, can we?" At the time, I didn’t question it. I just postponed thinking about my next career move for a few years' time. In the UK, there is a culture that you can’t move agencies if you are pregnant. But maybe we should stop thinking like this. Men don’t press pause on their careers when they find out they are going to become a parent.
Out and proud
But there are trailblazers such as Jen Watts Welsh. She challenged the status quo and went for a job interview heavily pregnant. The agency she interviewed at (Heat, owned by Deloitte Digital) was impressed and offered her a job, knowing that it would have to wait for her. But the team didn’t mind because they believed in her and thought about the long term.
72andSunny Los Angeles hired Kate Morrison Schermers to be its head of production when she was 24 weeks pregnant. M&C Melbourne recently also hired a creative who was pregnant.
It’s great to hear agencies actively hiring pregnant people into senior positions and showing their commitment in creating a diverse workforce.
What to expect – whether you’re expecting or not
It seems like the industry is getting better all the time. Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO now offers maternity coaches to support you on your journey back to work. And as anyone who has returned from parental leave knows, walking back into an office after months of being permanently glued to a baby isn’t the easiest of transitions. But we all get there.
Presenteeism is soon to be a thing of the past. Whether you have caring responsibilities or you’re just writing a novel, the nine-to-five is dead. Lol helped write this article while working remotely on the other side of the world. That never would have been possible had we taken the job at that agency that shall remain nameless. So, guys, if you happen to be reading this: we’d like to take this opportunity to thank you for retracting the job offer.
Nathalie Turton is a senior creative/creative director at Publicis London along with Lorelei Mathias, who also directs cause-driven collective Melon Comedy