The truth about trying to return to work in advertising after maternity leave
A view from Nathalie Turton

The truth about trying to return to work in advertising after maternity leave

"I asked to leave the office three times a week at 5 and the job offer was retracted", writes Nathalie Turton.

"I asked to leave the office three times a week at 5 and the job offer was retracted."

Carpet Right Sales Assistant. Avon lady and DonutTime Team Member.

These were just some of the part time jobs I scrolled though, after a headhunter told me if I wanted to pick my son up from nursery, I should look for another career outside advertising. After a few hours of wondering what the DonutTime uniform would look like, I realized that I couldn’t let 4 years at Central Saint Martins and 14 years of experience as a creative go to waste.

Baby steps

What follows is the story of my first attempt to re-enter the industry after having my two-year old son. During ‘Nat Leave’, my creative partner Lol had set up a global brand championing marginalised comedians (Lemon Comedy), so a 4-day week role suited us both. It meant that she could look after her business and I could spend the day overheating in soft play centres.

A headhunter approached us about a job at a great sounding agency. We told him we needed an agency that offered flexible working and were open to us doing a 4-day week. He said that they loved our work and wanted to meet us. After the interview with the chief creative officer and a very kind reference from our old boss Trevor Beattie we got offered the job.

We were excited to start. The ‘head of people’ called to talk about the contract. I mentioned to them that a few times a week I needed to leave at 5pm to collect my son from nursery but would start extra early, work through lunch and carry on with work after my son had gone to bed. I also made it clear that Lol would always be able to stay in the office in the evening if need be.

Computer says no

A few days later they called to retract the job offer. Their explanation was that our situation wasn’t going to work for them due to the size and structure of their company. They needed creatives that could always be in the office in the evening. If I left at 5pm it puts pressure on him and everyone else and that wasn’t fair.

If we really want a more diverse workforce, agencies need to rethink the old fashioned notion of core ‘office’ hours and agency structures

I then proposed the notion that if I hired a nanny and promised I didn't have to leave the office by a certain time would they reconsider the job offer. They said no again. Their reason being that me compromising not seeing my son for them would make them feel bad as they were parents themselves.  Either way, I couldn’t win. And people wonder where the senior female creatives go and why only 11% of creative directors are women. The ‘head of people’ also said unlike someone that worked for them before maternity leave, because I hadn’t built up any loyalty within the company they couldn’t consider hiring someone new that needed to leave at 5pm.

It was a shame that the loyalty Lol and I had shown the industry, the awards we’d got, and our references counted for nothing.

The night after the phone call, I had a dream I was in a boardroom doing a big presentation. At the same time as presenting I was stocking the office cupboards with nappies and bum cream and trying to assemble a highchair. My subconscious was obviously trying to come up with a solution to my current situation - bring my baby into work! Win Win. No rushing home for the nursery pick up then. It reminded me of the receptionist in the old TV series Mr Brittas who kept her baby in her stationery drawer.

On the naughty step

The morning after, I was rung by the headhunter for a stern dressing down. Rather than apologize for the agency’s blatant discrimination, and his misunderstanding of our requirement for ‘flexible working,’ he made me feel the job retraction was completely my fault. I was being very unreasonable asking to leave at 5pm (even though he could have passed on that information to the agency right at the beginning, three months prior). His reaction made me feel as if I was asking something ridiculous, like only wanting to come to work when the moon was rising in Jupiter. He wished me luck finding an agency that would meet "all my requirements" and suggested I stop thinking of my own needs and instead consider that of the business.  

Time to lawyer up

A barrister friend was quick to give me a legal perspective on the job retraction. Job applicants are protected from the same discrimination laws as employees. According to him, what had happened was sex discrimination in two forms. One was indirect discrimination because I had childcare responsibilities, and the other type was direct discrimination, which is simply treating someone less favourably because I was a woman. What shocked him the most was the reason they gave to my offer of getting a nanny and not needing to leave the office by a certain time. By saying that they wouldn’t want me to compromising not seeing my son was clear direct discrimination based solely on my sex.  They’d never say that to a dad. There is no justifiable defence to direct discrimination.

The mother of all support

I shared my story on a Facebook group run by Clemmie Telford called ‘Mother of all Meet Ups’. It’s a group set up to support creatives that are also mums.  I wanted to get their opinion on what had happened and ask the group if leaving at 5pm was an unreasonable request. It seemed it wasn’t at all. Kimberly Gill, Creative Director at BBH said "I carved out working hours that suited me, leaving work at 5.15 most days. I don’t apologise nor do I make a fuss about it, and I carry on with work when my daughter’s in bed. Having a couple of hours in between to sing ‘Let it Go’ several times does wonders for the grey matter."

It was great to hear about the agencies making it work for mums. Lottie Nusca, Senior Creative at Cheil also said "I've got a 4 day contract and I leave around 5pm to do nursery pick up. When I have unfinished work I just take my laptop home and do it once my baby is in bed. When my baby had a fever and I had to go and pick her up at lunchtime, they didn't bat an eyelid. I'm not saying this to gloat. It's just too depressing to think that I'm a solitary positive case. Why do employers cling to this prehistoric view that you can only do your work at your desk? Of all industries, advertising should get it the most. We have our best ideas on the train, in the shower - why should we be micromanaged into sitting at a desk for x amount of hours a day to do a good job?" 

Lottie hit the nail on the head. Why was it that the agency Lol and I almost worked for insisted on being in the office to think of ideas. It was so archaic. Have they heard of smartphones? Video conferencing? Of course if I was needed in the office in the evening, provisions could be made, but it shouldn’t be the norm. 

"Being a mother and a creative doesn’t make you a second class employee. Agencies need mums in the creative department and clients want mums working on their business. We’re valuable."
Kimberly Gill, Creative Director at BBH

Charlotte Adorjan, Creative Director at AMV BBDO summed it up brilliantly. "Flexible working is the future for everyone, not just mothers. Pretty soon agencies will find no one wants to work at companies that refuse to let you have any kind of life or responsibility beyond the job. The ideas in those agencies will dry up because everyone is chained to their desk staring at the same miserable faces."

I wanted to get an employer’s perspective on the matter so I spoke to Alice Tonge, Head of 4Creative."4C is super supportive. For creatives, brilliant ideas don’t need to come from someone being sat at a desk. I’m very pro flexitime. I’d rather people play to their strengths in a supportive environment, surely you get the best work in return?" 

Kimberly Gill, put it perfectly again. "Being a mother and a creative doesn’t make you a second class employee. Agencies need mums in the creative department and clients want mums working on their business. We’re valuable."

She’s right. Since mums make the majority of the purchase decisions surely having some real mums working on your account makes sense? Not to mention mums are super-efficient, have exceptional time management skills and are fine-tuned negotiators. There is no better lateral thinking training than when you have five minutes to get your toddler dressed and out the house and they insist on wearing nothing but their swimming costume.

Out of office

If we really want a more diverse workforce, agencies need to rethink the old fashioned notion of core ‘office’ hours and agency structures. We need to rethink the ways in which people present and share their work. With Google docs you can share your ideas from anywhere. People in the office can comment within the doc and feedback can be acted on immediately. With Google hangouts you can chair a meeting and present work from anywhere. You’re still working, you’re just not in the office. What’s important is that you are present.

Who’s to say that the team still in the office at 8pm grazing a dead pad thai from Deliverance are actually present in anything more than physical form? They could be scrolling their Facebook feed thinking about their taxi home.

In 2018, for an agency not to hire someone because they aren’t physically present in the office between 5-6pm is nothing short of Jurassic. If agencies genuinely want to attract diverse talent, and fill the gaping chasm of women over 35 in creative departments, it’s time more agencies starting using these digital collaboration tools.

As a case in point, Lol’s business ‘Lemon Comedy’ is run across Toronto, Melbourne and London. Her team have never once all been in the same room. Using solely Facebook messenger, Google drive & docs she led an entire design overhaul and programmed the Melbourne comedy festival. There wasn’t an office in sight.

Whilst I’m not suggesting remote working for the entire ad industry, adopting this way of working alongside being in the office could be a really practical way of helping parents with childcare responsibilities. Whether that’s carrying on with work once the kids are in bed or on those days when you have to work from home because your child is poorly. Thanks to technology, there is no such thing as out of office anymore.

Could do better

So, how can we make change happen sooner? In our industry nothing exists yet to show how companies compare to each other in regards to parental leave packages, return deals and flexible working policies so Lol and I contacted Campaign about an idea to publish ‘Nursery School Reports’. In this we would rank agencies against each other in terms of their parental provision. Or perhaps, like Creature’s fantastic ‘Placement Poverty Pledge’, we get agencies to sign up to a scheme that shows they are a parent friendly agency. That way the ones that don’t meet the criteria will be exposed. Campaign responded by saying that they had actually just teamed up with Duke and were about to launch a comprehensive survey about the experience of mothers in the advertising industry. This was great to hear. I hope that by celebrating the good agencies, it will force some employers to pull their (baby) socks up and be as good as their counterparts, thereby creating real change in this area.

Keeping mum

Ultimately, for the situation to continue to improve, it’s important we have more mum ECDs. Only a mum that has returned to advertising really understands how it feels to go back to work after being out of the industry for a number of months or years with a baby. Having that empathy at the top means they’ll know the best ways pathways to support returning mums in their department and therefore how to get the best work out of them.

Lets hope that in the wake of ‘Times Up’, where 180 top female ad leaders have joined up to rid the industry of out-dated agency structures and attitudes, change is on its way.

Please make it come our way soonbefore you see me handing you a donut in Westfield.


Nathalie Turton and Lorelei Mathias are an award-winning CD team (Ex AMV, Mother, BMB, Glue, BBH) now available for hire.  lollyandnat.com