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Don’t be a bystander to change: Key takeaways from WACL Gather

Kindness, representation and moving the dial on gender equality were top of the agenda at WACL Gather.

Nicola Kemp

Managing Editor, BITE

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In the plethora of marketing metrics used to judge a brand and business performance, how likely you are to be ‘sick in the bin’ is a rare metric for success that you may not have heard of.

Yet speaking at WACL’s Gather conference in London last week, Sara Tate, Chief Executive Officer at TBWA\London introduced the audience to the concept after being questioned on the challenge of feeling overwhelmed leading an agency in an era of significant change.

“I have a ‘sick in the bin’ metric. When you start a job, you might feel like that 70% of the time, but ideally you want that about 30% of the time,” she explained. “If you are really anxious a year into a job then I would think about it seriously.”

Lisa Thomas, Chief Brand Officer at Virgin, urged the audience to “use the energy” of that anxiety to drive them. “Accept that everyone feels uncertainty, but ideally you are driven by it.”

Certainly, anxiety in the creative industries is not hard to find. In the midst of Brexit, economic uncertainty and the increased scrutiny on both marketing spend and agency structures, being comfortable with being uncomfortable is becoming increasingly vital. Yet as the conference demonstrated, this uncertainly should not be used as an excuse for not driving towards greater diversity and equality across the industry.

Opening the event, co-chairs Leigh Thomas, Director of Global Client Partnerships EMEA at Facebook and Claire Sadler, Marketing Director at Direct Line business, underlined the importance of the industry coming together to make change.

Thomas explained: “Gender equality is on the global agenda and change is happening, but in Fortune 500 companies there are still more men named James on the boards, than there are women.” She urged the audience not to see diversity and inclusion as just an issue for women, adding that changemakers should not sit back and allow inequality to continue.

Here are the key themes from the day:

Brands and agencies alike are struggling to evolve

© Bronac McNeill

Eat the elephant one bite at a time.

Sara Tate

The challenge and opportunity for brands and agencies alike to create an equal playing field was top of the day’s agenda. Sara Tate, Chief Executive Officer of TBWA\London elicited an audible hiss from the audience after revealing the fact that in a recent pitch loss, the female client cited her four-day week as a stumbling block. Yet, she urged the audience to ask for flexibility saying that reasonable employers will listen.

She noted how TBWA\London had identified that motherhood can hold women back and stop them from moving jobs or progressing their careers. Remarking that companies should “eat the elephant one step at a time” by prioritising the small changes they can undertake to make their culture more inclusive, she shared how the agency has changed its maternity and paternity packages so that all employees get the full package from day one.

According to Tate, this approach is paying dividends in attracting the best talent to the agency by offering four-day weeks. She urged the audience to seek out progressive leaders and companies at the points in your career where working five days won’t work for you: “Don’t leave [the industry] when you look up the ladder and don’t see what you want.”

Representation matters

© Bronac McNeill

I want to be judged by what is in my head not what is on it.

Manal Rostom

The importance of representation was another key theme of the day. Athlete Manal Rostom shared her story of launching the Facebook community Surviving Hijab and then emailing Nike to ask for greater representation in its advertising. This email led to her modelling Nike’s performance headwear in its ad, a campaign which was lauded for normalising depictions of women wearing hijabs in sports. She urged the audience to make their voices heard, adding “If you don’t ask the answer is always no.”

Pointing to the growth of the Surviving Hijab Facebook community, she said the platform gave her the power to find her voice in an ecosystem in which women are often criticised for being too aggressive, too loud or inappropriate.

The role of the media in challenging a toxic narrative was also underlined by Charlie Craggs, the trans activist and founder of Nail Transphobia, who spoke movingly about the power of being seen. She shared the fact that it wasn’t until she was 13 when Nadia Almada won the fifth series of Big Brother in 2004 that she saw a reflection of a trans reality that wasn’t being just the punchline in a joke or a punchbag. Sharing why this representation is so important, she explained “If you don’t understand something or someone, that is where the hate comes from.”

“In the media we were only being [reported on] as being murdered or as a punchline. I started to internalise that hatred,” she added. She urged the audience to not just speak into the echo-chamber and instead challenge the false narratives in the media and be considerate of the lived experience of others.

Sharing her experience of being attacked at a bus stop, she revealed that not only did no one intervene but no one helped afterwards. She explained, “I don’t expect anyone to fight my battles, but I didn’t exist to them. Allies are so important in the fight of my everyday life.”

The power of vulnerability

© Bronac McNeill

We have confused the idea of leadership with strength and confidence.

Phil Bartlett

The need for a new style of leadership in an era of change also topped the agenda. Phil Bartlett, Managing Director of CDM, said that the industry has historically confused the idea of leadership with strength and confidence. “The true leaders of the future will light a fire within, not underneath people,” he added, pointing to the need for authenticity and genuine concern for the wellbeing of the people around them.

Kindness not only matters, it is a business imperative

© Bronac McNeill

Kindness matters. There are so many micro-aggressions in a day, in a week, in a year. I choose to be kind.

Vivian Hunt

Yes, at first glance it might appear trite, obvious perhaps. But for creativity to truly thrive, kindness needs to be as important as commerciality. Vivian Hunt, Managing Partner, UK and Ireland at McKinsey, who, in a compelling speech on why change is a necessity, underlined the importance of kindness; a basic, yet nonetheless often over-looked human trait: “Kindness matters. There are so many micro-aggressions in a day, in a week, in a year. I choose to be kind.”

Hunt shared that she often gets mistaken for support staff at McKinsey, and like many women of colour, she often faces outside assumptions and outside bias interfering in what you do and who you are. She shared her view that being “an only” is an epidemic at the top of business, particularly for women of colour, as for almost half of the time (45%) they are the only woman of colour in the room. Over 80% of these women are on the receiving end of micro-aggression and women in isolation are almost twice as likely to suffer sexual harassment.

“Don’t be alone, it can cloud your judgement and keep you introverted,” she added, urging the audience to reach out and fight that isolation instinct. Sharing her advice to the audience she explained, “The most practical thing you can do in your career is to stop worrying about your career trajectory and focus on being the best at something.”

McKinsey’s research on diversity has uncovered a significant relationship between a more diverse leadership team and better financial performance. Hunt urged the audience to build diversity into their ecosystems. According to Hunt, women leaders are entering a new moment which calls for higher standards.

She urged women to “be fearless in what you ask for in your own organisations,” adding that there is still “much work ahead” in building inclusive flexible cultures and that change will demand accountability and targets. 

Yet she also compelled the audience to take themselves out of toxic work environments: “You can’t sacrifice everything. Sometimes you have to take yourself out of an ecosystem where you can’t thrive.” She added, “Have the skill and good judgement to know when to walk away.”

The changemakers are coming

© Bronac McNeill

Hope is not a strategy.

Lisa McCarthy

Lisa McCarthy, CEO and Founder of Fast Forward Group reminded the audience of the agency, not just of the companies they worked for, but of themselves in building a life and a career: “Hope is not a strategy,” she said. “In the midst of the pace and pressure and the challenge of being disciplined about your own success and happiness we sell out, settle and sacrifice; we don’t believe it is possible to thrive at home and at work.” She challenged this as a successful way of living and urged industry leaders to make sure that fear doesn’t get in the way of what they really want. “Being uncomfortable can be a catalyst for growth,” she added.

However, a vibrant discussion featuring female leaders from the Future Network, the alumni group of WACL Future Leaders’ award winners, underlined the groundswell of positive change across the industry. As Visha Naul, Co-Founder of the Futures Network and Industry Partnerships Marketing Lead at Google noted, “Surround yourself with women who want to drive change, not just for themselves, but for the generation below them.”

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