Interviews

Emma Perkins, Head of LEGO Agency EMEA

Busting the myth of the ‘boring’ in-house creative and championing the next generation of female creative leaders, Emma Perkins lifts the lid on the future of creative work and the importance of mentoring.

Nicola Kemp

Managing Editor, BITE

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Creatives choosing to work in-house will end up working “with the most boring creative people you will ever meet.” This is if you choose to believe Sir John Hegarty, who took aim at the rise of the in-house creative model at Connect: London last year.

Hegarty has perhaps never met Emma Perkins, who heads up the LEGO Agency for EMEA, a regional hub of one of the world’s largest in-house creative agencies. With a twenty-year career in advertising, including stints at Saatchi & Saatchi and MullenLowe, Perkins has a unique insight into the highs and lows of building a creative career and a life, in traditional agencies and beyond.

Far from being a "boring" career choice after 20-years in agencies, moving brand side was a decision which came from Perkins focusing in on how she might want to spend the next 20 years of her working life.

“Moving brand side wasn’t about being less ambitious,” she explains “it was actually about being more ambitious.” It also came from a desire to work in a different way, as she explains: “My desire was always to run an agency. I joined LEGO as a Creative Director two years ago but now run the EMEA agency hub. Not enough Managing Director or CEO positions are held by creative people. If the industry is going to innovate and change, there needs to be more creatives at the top table helping solve business challenges, and we need more women in senior leadership roles to help implement new ways of working. LEGO understand the importance of creative leadership and do not see creativity as a department.”

If the industry is going to innovate and change, there needs to be more creatives at the top table helping solve business challenges.

Emma Perkins

Culture clash

For brands, Perkins believes that creative people are often seen as "a bit of a risk". Yet when she saw brand marketers from LEGO speaking at South by Southwest in Texas, she knew it was the kind of creatively driven organisation she was looking for. “LEGO Agency sits within the product marketing and development team. I now work in an exciting, fun and creatively diverse business; alongside advertising creatives, packaging and identity designers, comic book artists, toy designers, social media creatives and digital platform builders to name just a few of the skillsets we have across the team” she explains. Her experience has given her a unique perspective on the cultural and structural challenges facing established agencies and the cultural differences between brands and agencies.

“One of the challenges facing external agencies is the culture of pitching; it places the biggest pressure on resources because agencies aren’t charging for their time. They often can’t afford to bring in freelance talent to support,” she explains. It’s a system that can lead to both burnout and unpredictable working hours as standard.

One of the challenges facing external agencies is the culture of pitching; it places the biggest pressure on resources because agencies aren’t charging for their time.

Emma Perkins

Bridging the flexibility gap

Privately many agencies point to ‘client demands’ as a reason for not being able to offer flexible working conditions, a response Perkins describes as “something that needs to be challenged”. Of course, creating change is not always easy, and Perkins notes that these conversations need to happen at the top of agencies and brands: “I have interviewed many CMOs as part of the ‘Token Man’ initiative, who told me that having diverse agency teams working on their brand is a priority for them. Knowing that inflexible working conditions are a barrier to that means that’s something that senior stakeholders from the agency and the marketing teams need to discuss."

“At LEGO our team is built around more contemporary ways of working,” she explains, pointing to the fact that operating in a global organisation of over 17,000 people, means working from different offices or with colleagues based in other countries every day. This means flexibility is built into LEGO's ways of working, and even its office structures where a desk ratio of eight desks to every ten people underlines the emphasis on flexibility. She continues, “Leaders are very clear on expectation; your success isn’t based on your presentism,” she adds. “Technology and video conferencing mean we have the infrastructure in place to support flexible working. The challenge agencies face is working with multiple clients across different platforms.”

Changing the narrative

Perkins is a trailblazer in the truest sense of the word for, as well as not adhering to anyone else’s notion of what success looks like, she invested considerable time and resources helping set up the Who’s Your Momma mentoring programme with Rachel Gott and Casey Bird, which runs as part of She Says, the global organisation for the advancement of women’s creative careers. Now in its fourth year, the programme has matched thousands of women across the globe with both mentors and mentees.

Leaders are very clear on expectation; your success isn’t based on your presentism.

Emma Perkins

Overcoming overwhelm

Perkins is refreshingly honest in sharing the overwhelm she felt at certain points in her career as a creative and a mother. It’s a pressure exacerbated by her desire to have a positive impact on the industry she loves, by helping to get some of the barriers she faced out of the way for the next generation of female talent.

As an Executive Creative Director, with two young children and a partner that worked full-time, she could feel herself approaching a wall. It’s a wall that many women in the industry still face, with data from Creative Equals showing that 12% of women in the creative industries plan to leave within the next two years.

“I thought it was important to spend time on panels, to be more visible and represent female creative talent. But what I learned from being mentored was that you actually need to say no to more things. The key is to choose wisely and focus on where it is you can make an impact,” she says. It was a shift in approach which meant she had to “ring fence her time” and focus more on what she should prioritise to make an impact.

In an industry in which creative careers have historically been built on public profile, it was a decision that wasn’t always easy. Perkins shares an encounter with a former colleague in Cannes who told her he thought she had left the industry entirely: “Part of me thought I need to get back out there. Back then most of these events were almost always in the evening, but there are more breakfast events today which make it easier for working parents.”

LEGO being a family owned company with strong purpose and values means we can focus on long-term goals, which is quite different to agencies.

Emma Perkins

Keeping your seat at the table

Even in 2019 it is liberating to hear a female leader talk so honestly about the tension between knowing that she loved her job, yet at the same time recognising she was in the midst of an unsustainable way of working. According to Perkins, if you were to rewind five years, the conversation surrounding diversity and inclusion just wasn’t anywhere near where it is now. She explains, “I worked hard to vocalise the need for diversity and the link to flexible ways of working. I spoke to agency CEO’s to make sure it was on their agenda and to make sure that CMO’s were part of the conversation.”

She also reached out to women in the industry including Laura Jordan Bambach, Caitlin Ryan and Sarah Speake. Perkins recalls as if it were yesterday Speake telling her she was in “the eye of the storm”, urging her to hold on. It’s a piece of guidance that remains core to the advice she gives women hitting their own walls today. “Do not leave, don’t step back; it’s a phase of parenting young children whilst managing your career,” she says succinctly.

As well as connecting with peers across the industry, Perkins also spoke to women from FTSE 100 companies and it was through these conversations that she realised it was mentoring that would make a real difference to women in the creative industry: “If the average tenure in a FTSE 100 company is 12 years then investing in training and mentoring is a key focus. That’s not necessarily the case for advertising agencies where the average tenure is just two years, that isn’t such a focus.”

“LEGO being a family owned company with strong purpose and values means we can focus on long-term goals, which is quite different to agencies. The agency world has become a very reactive place [with a] short-term culture of cutting headcount if numbers aren’t hit in the final quarter,” she adds.

Creativity is part of our DNA at LEGO. We drive creative behaviours across our entire business, and it is one of our core values. That demands that we actually give people the time to be creative and curious.

Emma Perkins

Breaking the barriers for change

Having turned her breaking point into a jumping off point, first as a mentee and then as a mentor and lead on the Whose Your Momma programme, Perkins has a unique perspective on the growing conversation surrounding “bringing your whole self to work.”

She explains, “Creativity is part of our DNA at LEGO. We drive creative behaviours across our entire business, and it is one of our core values. That demands that we actually give people the time to be creative and curious.”

New creative outlets

These new ways of working demand that companies don’t use how they operated in the past as a blueprint for success in the future. According to Perkins there is something inherently fearful in the industry’s understanding of in-housing.

Many brands, she believes, get to “phase one” of in-housing where they simply save money on art work, production or creating content quickly. This is why the advertising industry can be dismissive of in-house set ups. LEGO has had an in-house agency for nearly 20 years and see’s the true value and its future in being strategic creative partners to their marketing teams, with shared values and ambitions. “As the in-house agency at LEGO we are incentivised by business performance, the same as our marketers, rather than revenue and profit margins which is what drives the traditional agency model,” she adds.

Multi-hyphen-everything

In many ways the rise of in-housing, far from simply being something the industry should be fearful of, actually offers creatives a greater range of options for their life and career than ever before. How many of the 12% of women planning to leave the industry in the next two years, could successfully take their creative careers in house for example?

For Perkins, established agencies need to work harder to identify and support women in the middle of their careers, where we see the industry lose talent, and keep them within their networks.

To this end the Who’s Your Momma network is launching a new website to partner mentors and mentees via an algorithm, a move which will allow the movement a greater reach and scope than ever before. As Perkins' experience underlines, the best way women in the creative agencies can change the narrative is prioritising what’s important; holding on and holding each other up.

As a creative leader who has worked so tirelessly not just at building her own career, but levelling the playing field for the next generation of female creative talent, Perkins proves the power not just of holding on, but showing up and pushing for progress.  

Visit Who’s Your Momma's website to apply to be a mentee. 

I can attract a diverse talent pool of creative talent because flexibility is embedded into our business.

Emma Perkins

Key Takeaways: Emma’s Guide to Building Creative Careers

  1. Focus on building leadership capabilities internally: “The amount of time spent on individual career goals and development at LEGO far exceeds any other company I have worked for; I see the positive business impact of this every day.”
  2. Training matters: “Training and development is at the heart of attracting and retaining the best talent.”
  3. Embrace the opportunity afforded by offering flexible working as standard: “I can attract a diverse talent pool of creative talent because flexibility is embedded into our business.”
  4. Building a culture that encourages fun and creativity is a business priority: “LEGO Agency is a vibrant and fun place to work, that’s what helps us retain creative talent.”

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