'We never left creativity, we just left advertising for a little while'
A view from Anna Whitaker & Bonnie Doman

'We never left creativity, we just left advertising for a little while'

What we learned on the #CreativeComeback programme.

A year ago, Nathalie Turton told Campaign about her return to work after maternity leave. It was brutal, deflating and uncomfortably real. So when Ali Hanan, founder of Creative Equals, announced the launch of the first #CreativeComeback programme, it felt like a direct – and necessary – repercussion.

The course itself offered female creatives who had pressed pause on their career a chance to be reacquainted with the industry, arming us with the tools, knowledge and confidence to find flexible or freelance roles on our own terms. Backed by D&AD, The Dots, Facebook and the Government Equalities Office, and partnering 40 open-minded agencies with a commitment to diversity and culture, the prospects were impressive. But the nagging question on our minds was how this flexibility would actually play out. Does this unicorn of a company actually exist? Could work/life balance actually be a thing in our industry?  

Spoiler alert: we’re still working that out. The rest of this story follows everything my creative partner Bonnie and I got out of the eight-day course: why we applied, what we learned and how we feel about it now we’re out the other side.

Come back to what?

To be totally honest, I felt like a fraud applying for one of the coveted 48 places. I’ve been freelancing pretty solidly for seven years now, but with the logistical nightmare that is childcare for freelancers (that’s a story for another day), lack of routine and financial uncertainty, I knew things had to change after baby number two. I joined the course to find agencies that might hire me based on my creative ability rather than the time I would spend inside their walls. Bonnie’s kids are a little older than mine and after nine years of prioritising family life, working on her own projects, mastering photography and designing treatments for directors, she realised it was time for her own ideas again instead of executing other people’s.

I guess for those reasons the term "comeback" felt a little at odds with our lifestyles. We never left creativity, we just left advertising for a little while (and, in my case, not long at all). It was exactly the same for the rest of the women we met. No-one had lived under a rock; they’d started businesses, cared for sick family, fought cancer and depression, travelled the world – and essentially discovered that life is about more than punchy taglines and 80-hour weeks.

Because before taking that break, it was the unfortunate truth for so many of us. Our twenties were a blur of cancelled theatre plans, office sleepovers and pizza for days. We were married to our jobs, then ended up marrying people who did our jobs because, quite frankly, no-one else would put up with that shit. We knew it wasn’t sustainable, but we were young and hungry and actually quite selfish. Work was everything – until it wasn’t.

But wait, nothing's changed

It doesn’t take long out of the hamster wheel to lose confidence in almost everything you’ve ever done, but that mindset was brilliantly handled on the course. Everyone was welcomed like old friends and had a chance to introduce themselves before things really started. It was comforting to know we were all as nervous as each other and could use this chance to reinvent ourselves with a new network of colleagues, cheerleaders and friends.

As the first week went on, things became much less daunting. Things that scared us – new technology, ways of working, perpetual self-doubt – were all covered. Google and Facebook blew our minds a bit, but also reminded us that tech moves so quickly that even last week’s news is old. Job titles have changed a little, from executive creative director to chief creative officer, from planner to strategist, but that’s no biggie. We can work with that. The self-doubt thing was still a hurdle, but that’s when the briefs came in.

Back on the brief

Diageo’s commitment to fast-track diversity and gender equality in the workplace felt like it couldn’t have fitted better as a sponsor. It offered two live briefs, for which we were teamed up (behind the scenes) then sent to one of 15 agencies to develop an idea. Luckily for me and Bonnie – we'd hit it off from the start and worked well together on a couple of quick-fire briefs in week one – we learned that we would be mentored by Martha Riley at Bartle Bogle Hegarty. Not only was she one of the few female creative directors involved, but she’d just returned from a nine-year break herself. Fate was clearly in our favour.   

We had three days to define the strategy, develop a solid idea and build a presentation that we would pitch to a room of about 100 people, including the Diageo clients and a room of potential employers. It’s fair to say we were bricking it. But the adrenaline on the day was enough to push us through and the "speed dating" that followed was probably the biggest confidence boost we could’ve hoped for.

This all sounds great, but something's got to give

Bonnie and I officially teamed up off the back of it and have been picking up freelance work, building our book and chatting to agencies in the weeks since. But now the dust has started to settle, it feels like a natural time to reflect on our considerations going forward and share our thoughts on how the industry can welcome this massive pool of talent back through its doors.

We need to eradicate the culture of first in, last out. It’s inefficient, soul-destroying and breeds a culture of competitiveness that should be saved for Alan Sugar and primetime TV. Once that’s sorted (and, thankfully, it’s starting to dissipate), we can stop apologising for our lives outside the office. Parents needn’t feel guilty about putting their kids to bed, creatives can soak up some cultural relevance and side-hustlers can get a couple of hours’ sleep between their double lives. They’re basic human needs that will make us better, happier and healthier employees. And if there’s too much work to let that happen, there’s probably enough money to hire some more people.  

That feels like a natural segue to the topic of mental-health issues, which, as creatives, we’re often predisposed to. While most women on the returners programme were coming back after children, there were also plenty who were recovering from burnout or breakdowns. These were often because of work and the lack of awareness or sympathy they faced. But after stepping back, travelling the world or weighing up their skillsets, they decided that it was time for a comeback. And who are we to tell these super-talented, brilliant minds otherwise? It feels like a simple ask to just treat everyone with kindness, but taking a mental-health first-aid course would get you extra high-fives.  

Flexible working is the future. We all know this. Everyone we spoke to knew this. But to make it work in reality, you need a shit-hot team of resource managers and a system in place to know exactly who’s picking up each brief at each point. Prioritise this and it’s the interview equivalent of the juiciest worm in the tin. Almost every millennial will see this as more important than the salary you offer and, with Generation Z now coming of age, it’s time to upskill your HR department if you want to bag the best.  

In the era of transparency and equal pay, we’re much savvier to what we’re worth – even after a break. Resources like Major Players’ Salary Survey are amazing for a few reasons, but for those of us re-entering the industry, they’re essential for benchmarking our rate and giving us the confidence to negotiate. They also make it harder for anyone to fob us off with "placement" rates or lower pay (which would ultimately damage the pay gap even further). Basically, be realistic with your offers and know that some of us pay more than £2,000 a month on childcare just for the privilege of working. Please make it worth our while. 

One last thing: it works both ways

Whether you’re an employer, a returner or just an average human, I guess the ultimate rule is to just be kind. Treat each other with respect – like adults. Work as smart as you can with the time you have. Become indispensable, even if that’s for just two days a week, and make sure you’re noticed for all the right reasons, whether you’re in the office or not. Be honest about your commitments, respect a hard finish, work after the kids are in bed (if you absolutely have to – it happens from time to time) and be a little flexible back. Maybe there’s a presentation or a shoot you should be at but it’s on your day off. Is that really the end of the world? Weigh it up.

And, lastly, remember that whoever hires you believes you can do the job. So believe in yourself too. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been out of the game for six months or 16 years; a good idea will always be a good idea. And as Ali put it so well in one of her motivational talks last month: "The best is yet to come."

Anna Whitaker and Bonnie Doman are freelance creatives