How Cannes is opening the door to women in creative

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The benefit of even the smallest moment of networking for anyone who feels professionally isolated is transformative, writes the global chief strategy officer of BBH Group.

It's no secret 2016 was a transitional year for women in advertising.

On the one hand, marketers like General Mills made a point of demanding women and minorities be represented in pitches. Meanwhile, we saw the fallout of high-profile cases of workplace sexual harassment and industry sexism.

Although there's progress, it's clear sexism continues to hold sway. We can bemoan this situation, but better still we can reform the industry from the inside out. One weapon I would like to share is a program called Cannes Lions' "See It Be It."

"See It Be It" is unique because it invites 15 women right into the center of the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity to gain top-level insights and think of themselves and their opportunities differently.

In 2016, I became the inaugural "See It Be It" ambassador, a role in which I championed ad industry inclusion and acted as a program advisor. What I saw has made me an evangelist for the impact of inviting excluded minorities right into the center of the conversation. I believe we have an obligation to replicate the principle of "See It Be It" across other festivals and gatherings as well as throughout the agency world.

Here's why:

Advertising is a relationship business. Access builds relationships. "See It Be It" provides that access.

At Cannes, people drop their guards and open their minds. Industry leaders may not be making concrete plans at Cannes, but they're open to meeting new people and setting agendas for the upcoming year.

Allowing an underrepresented group—women in creative—to take part in such discussions offers a new perspective not only to the women who attend but to the powerful (usually male) industry leaders, too.

Indeed, there is talk of expanding "See It Be It" to include other underrepresented groups. This isn't just a great idea; it's a moral imperative to expand access beyond the privileged few.

How "See It Be It" raised my consciousness
"See It Be It" has caused me to reassess the state of our industry. I have always been conscious of equality issues, but now I appreciate how difficult it is to make others conscious of the issue as well.

The program has also made me appreciate the value of women in the industry. I mean this in a literal sense. Women offer a perspective that that market needs. That's why women should charge more for their services. The fact that only 11 percent of creative directors are women ought to work to women's advantage because they're a scarce commodity.

Expanding the magic
The idea behind "See It Be It" was to apply such thinking across the industry. The challenge then is to create the magic in our own offices and among our own communities.

Last year, just 15 women from 12 countries took part in "See It Be It." That means in a place like New York there is likely to be only one delegate, if that. In each of these places we find "helium balloons," the term FCB Chief Creative Officer Susan Credle used to describe herself as someone who repeatedly bounced against the glass ceiling.

To help spread the magic and the generous spirit that surrounds it, BBH NY recently hosted the first-ever NY "See It Be It" networking evening for 150 female creatives. The event exposed "helium balloon" women to one another in the hope that they can inspire each other and compare notes.

It was a bittersweet moment for me, since I handed over the duties for something that was an absolute highlight of my year. It was an honor to pass it on to the phenomenal Madonna Badger, who will lead "See It Be It" in Cannes this year.

The bottom line
I learned last year that the whole journey of being a woman in this industry is different for everyone. Different countries, cities and agencies all have very disparate situations. The benefit of even the smallest moment of networking, support or mentorship for anyone who feels professionally isolated is transformative. We all recall those moments in our career when the right words or a moment of encouragement fueled us to do what we didn't think was possible.

The power of "See It Be It" lies in those little moments. That's why we need to make a conscious effort to engineer those moments on a grand scale. Those of us running festivals, forums and networks have a duty to look around and to invite in those people whose faces are not usually represented.

Sarah Watson is the global chief strategy officer of BBH Group.

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