Interviews

“We are an incredible power to be reckoned with, it's our time”

Sue Higgs, Executive Creative Director at dentsuMB, on the magic of the second act, tackling bullying and breaking the cult of busy.

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director

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“My late father always used to say to me ‘look for the adventure’ and I believe we all need to start writing our own futures.”

Sue Higgs is on the precipice of her next adventure as the newly appointed joint ECD at dentsuMB. The agency’s UK Chief Creative Officer Simon Lloyd hired Higgs alongside adam&eveDDB’s Paul Cohen. A genuinely exciting hire in the midst of a broader agency ecosystem in which business as usual involves ‘innovative’ new agency launches accompanied by the obligatory all male management line-up, dished up with a somewhat baffling side dish of briefings to trade journalists to confirm that they did indeed ‘ask all the women’.

It’s an ecosystem which makes dentsuMB’s new hire, all the more interesting. The agency set its creative sights on the trailblazing Higgs, who confesses that at the time she wasn’t actually looking for a job. As she shares her experiences of remote onboarding, she is missing “unscheduled chats” and not knowing how tall her colleagues are.

Yet she is brimming with excitement both for the creative opportunity and the people at the agency. Successfully readjusting to working from home now her teenage son is back at school, her working day is no longer peppered with futile efforts to get him out of bed. While her older two daughters are off at university, she is in possession of those two most powerful yet often elusive tools: time and energy.

So, how did the agency persuade Higgs to ditch her burgeoning freelancing career and return to employment? “For me the decisions I have made have always been about people. I met Simon and it means so much to me to leave the industry in a better place. There isn’t enough empathetic leadership and I really feel I can make a difference here.” She continues: “The limitations of freelancing is you don't get the opportunity to apply your principals to people on a daily basis. Building a culture of people, where everyone has a voice, can keep that voice, can have a life and can make work that matters. Creating that kind of culture is everything to me.”

Lockdown allowed people to reconnect with their curiosity.

Sue Higgs

Breaking the silence

At a time when it’s all too easy to roll your eyes at the notion of ‘leaving the industry better than when you found it’ Higgs is someone who is not just genuinely focused on achieving this change but has already made a huge contribution to breaking the silence surrounding bullying. The combination of her trademark self-depreciating style and the kind of glorious energy which means you can’t always get a word in edgeways, she delivers a unique honesty to the industry mantra, build back better.

Having spoken openly about her own experience of bullying, Higgs has urged the industry to utilise lockdown as an opportunity to challenge toxic cultures, a drive she spoke movingly about at BITE LIVE 2020.

The positive ripples of Higgs sharing her own experience of bullying on LinkedIn and in trade magazine Campaign continue to be felt across the industry. Yet she remains clear-sighted on the scale of the problem. Barely a day goes by without someone in the industry reaching out to her for advice, or to simply unload their own experiences. “It’s an ongoing everyday issue and daily I hear from people who are having a terrible time. It’s still going on and I’m going to keep being vocal about it otherwise it will be swept under the carpet,” she adds. 

Banishing the cult of busy

Creatively and culturally Higgs starts at dentsuMB at a unique moment in time to take a leading creative role at an agency, a time when so many of the fundamentals of consumers’ lives have been upended by the pandemic. “There is a reappraisal going on,” explains Higgs. “We all got lost a bit and when people talk about going back to ‘normal’ we need to remember that not a lot of people actually want that.”

Higgs’ typically straight-talking style underlines the gravity of the moment we collectively find ourselves in. “Lockdown has given us an opportunity to question everything and creatively that is a brilliant place to be because it gives us the opportunity to be curious about things rather than just being busy all the time,” she explains.

It’s a typically astute insight. The ‘cult of busy’ has long been a drain on the ability of the industry to be creative in its output and on the people within it maintaining the energy and enthusiasm necessary to remain curious and outward looking. “Lockdown allowed people to reconnect with their curiosity,” adds Higgs, who points to the outpouring of honesty that accompanied the global pandemic.

Who you are is your value. If a job makes you feel lesser than that, don’t change, change your job.

Sue Higgs

The power of the second act

As the industry emerges from the global pandemic the latest IPA census makes for difficult reading. The number of employees over the age of 60, which was already small, has fallen significantly from 240 to 187, a drop of 22%. The IPA's study found that the average employee age in a media agency is 32 years, compared with an average of 36.4 years in creative and other non-media agencies.

The number of women employed full time in member agencies fell by 13% from 13,088 to 11,411, while the number of men employed full time was down 8% from 11,700 to 10,752.

In the midst of this generational roll back on equality it is difficult not to look back at 2020 and see the price of the lack of wisdom, and particularly the wisdom of older women across the creative industries.

Yet, a more hopeful trend is also emerging, namely a growing awareness, understanding and hotbed of innovation from women entering the ‘second acts’ of their careers. From former Times supremo Eleanor Mills’ launch of Noon, a media platform for women in their midlife to the anticipation surrounding the launch of industry leaders Claire Beale and Soono Singh’s Creative Salon, it’s increasingly difficult to ignore that creatively and culturally, the second act is where the magic happens.

“You become unstoppable and what we are starting to see is the possibility of that second act,” explains Higgs. Pointing to the mantra ‘if you can't see it you can’t be it’ she notes that the growing number of success stories highlight the optimism around the fact that many creative women, far from being done when they reach their fifties, are just getting started.

Higgs continues: “We are first generation women, women entrepreneurs. We’ve been there, we’ve seen it and done it. The evidence is coming through that we are a potent force. Just look at Starling Bank; they are using that experience to solve problems and change a sector.”

While noting the growing conversation about menopause, led by women, but impacting the entire industry, she adds: “We are an incredible power to be reckoned with, it's our time.”

It’s a time that couldn’t come soon enough for an industry which has a long-established blind spot when it comes to creatively representing one of the world's most powerful consumer groups: older women. “Empathy, experience and energy is a really potent mix,” Higgs explains. “I still feel excited, I’ve got that energy and curiosity and there is a beautiful intersection of experience and energy”. 

A question of experience

Yet, for Higgs this opportunity to challenge the status quo isn’t just about age. “Experience is about being valued,” she explains. “It’s too linear to see it about age. Age is a number. We need to be thinking about experience and what we can bring to the party.” It’s a challenge, she notes that is particularly gendered. “I think there are too many stereotypes around women and age. A man gets to wear his experience, but all too often women are supposed to hide it,” she adds.

For Higgs putting that experience to work includes dedicating a huge amount of her time to mentoring. “I have all this accumulated wisdom and now I can give something back. Women have been cheated out of role models because female leaders have always been modelled on a very male, patriarchal version of what leadership looks like,” she explains.

Yet, she points to the ultimate evidence that this narrow lens is finally widening: the success of the industry’s trailblazing creative women. “Look at Chaka [Sobhani, Chief Creative Officer at Leo Burnett], Vicki [Maguire, Chief Creative Officer at Havas London]. The evidence is there, they are killing it and there is joy in celebrating it.”

This joy, the ability to ‘have a laugh’ is something Higgs holds onto tightly both in her life and in her work. “Time is precious and it’s liberating to recognise that. Your job isn’t supposed to be a ball and chain,” she says. It’s a fact that means she believes not just in the well-worn language of ‘self-care’ but rather in the implicit belief that it should be possible to pursue both a fulfilling creative career, whilst also having a life full of joy.

So, what advice does Higgs have for the next generation of creative talent seeking their own slice of this creative joy? Her advice is a simple, yet easily neglected truth: don’t compromise yourself. She explains: “It sounds very Clinton Cards but ultimately you can only be yourself. Who you are is your value. If a job makes you feel lesser than that, don’t change, change your job.”

It's a commitment that focuses not just on making the work better but supporting and safeguarding the people who make it. It's an approach which underlines not just the fact that Sue Higgs is just getting started, but the industry is a better place because of her.

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