Why competing agencies are joining forces to give parents more time off

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Twenty shops, including Co:Collective, Wolff Olins, and 72andSunny, have signed onto the Pledge Parental Leave coalition since March

The competition for creative talent has never been steeper. But even as agencies and tech firms battle it out to recruit the best and brightest, offering ever more competitive perks and benefits, a handful of firms are working together to collectively raise the bar on parental leave.

Earlier this year, 11 creative companies announced the formation of the Pledge Parental Leave initiative, an ambitious effort to increase parental leave for creative employees across the country. Last week, nine more companies signed the pledge, bringing the total to 20. Among the current pledge takers are Co:Collective, Wolff Olins, frog and 72andSunny.

Jules Ehrhardt, co-owner of digital product studio ustwo, is the driving force behind the pledge, which he hopes will soon become industry standard.

Most parental leave policies "in our view are not quite satisfactory," he said, "If you’re offering six weeks paid leave, that’s just simply not enough."

To be part of the initiative, all partners must promise four things: three months of paid leave for primary caregivers, three months of medical insurance, six months of job security and a commitment to transparency (all pledge takers are expected to post their policies online).

Ehrhardt said that of the 20 partners, some enacted policies for the first time, some improved their policies and some had already exceeded the policies but simply wanted to lend their names to the campaign.

Co:Collective, whose clients include YouTube and Aldo, was one of the group’s founding members. While the six-year-old agency already had a three-month paid parental leave and insurance policy in place, it added the job security portion and placed its policy online for the first time.

Kit Krugman, Co:Collective’s chief curator, said the agency decided to work with its competitors on this issue because it was important to establish a "sustainable, creative community" — emphasis on sustainable. As it stands, the work-life balance inherent to agency life is one of the main obstacles to women reaching senior levels of leadership, she believes.

"What often ends up happening is you reach a fork in the road where you have to make a decision between lifestyle choices and working at a creative company," said Krugman, "It doesn’t have to be about your age or life stage in order to work here."

But the pledge — unlike many parental leave policies in the US — goes beyond protecting women. Central to the pledge is that employers offer equal paid leave for fathers.  

In too many workplaces, "dads are especially encouraged not to take the full leave and come back to work as soon as possible," said Casey Hopkins, head of community at ustwo New York.

Under federal law, employers must provide 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a newborn, but no paid leave is required. Currently, only four states require companies to offer some paid parental leave. Among creative agencies, policies vary widely, with some offering the state minimum and others going above and beyond. Last year, Brooklyn shop Huge introduced a "phase-back program" for mothers that allows them to negotiate a smooth transition back to work in the six months following parental leave. The current policy is that mothers receive 12 fully paid weeks off and fathers receive six.

A common standard for parental leave unifies agencies, even while they compete for clients. But, as 72andSunny's COO Evin Shutt said, "It's less about competitors coming together and more about like-minded companies and leaders coming together to improve the lives of people in our companies, the industry, and hopefully, with enough momentum, our country."

Though many employers believe they can’t afford more generous parental leave policies, Ehrhardt believes such thinking is short sighted, and that better policies can ultimately save money for companies that rely on creative talent. The Pledge estimated that it would cost $20,000 more to recruit and train an employee with a salary of $100,000 than it would to offer that employee paid leave. Plus, training a new employee would take around 500 hours, approximates Ehrhardt.

"Those are information gaps we need to fill," he said, "We really want to raise that level of awareness. it’s not only a moral case, but a strong economic one."


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