How the ad industry can change the future for female founders

Agencies have a role to play in helping female founders overcome the confidence gap

From securing investors to launching and then growing a start-up, the odds seem stacked against female founders in business. Yet, there is more we can do to support the growing numbers of women-led start-ups, and much of this revolves around confidence.

We all know the numbers. Female-led businesses secured just 2.17% of VC funding in 2016. While women entrepreneurs start a business with a median cash fund of $8,000 (£6,000), the comparable figure for male entrepreneurs is $30,000.

Only 17% of US start-ups last year had a female founder despite the fact that women-owned firms account for 31% of all privately-owned firms in the US. 

This gender gap is not just bad for women, however, it’s bad for business and the British economy.

According to research from BNP Paribas, companies helmed by women entrepreneurs had 13% higher revenues than those run by men and finished 9% above the average for all entrepreneurs surveyed.

Furthermore, a study commissioned by Facebook indicates that one in 10 women now want to start their own business, and the UK economy would benefit from a £10.1bn boost by the end of 2020 if just one-fifth of them did. 

It is therefore in all our interests to encourage and support female founders in business – especially as we celebrated the achievements of women in science technology engineering and maths on 10 October, Ada Lovelace Day.

To do so we must acknowledge, understand, and tackle the confidence crisis that holds so many women back.

As someone whose job it is to connect clients with technology partners and start-ups, I have lost count of the number of times I have encountered female entrepreneurs who undersell themselves and their businesses – especially when making financial projections, but also when talking about their skills (notably in the areas of technology and finance).

The same can be said for the number of times I’ve witnessed male entrepreneurs overselling their capabilities and financial potential.

Yet, in terms of skills, I see little, if any, inequality in ability between women and men. Rather, the difference seems to lie in women’s tendency to admit their limitations (where many men won’t), and their reluctance to big themselves up.

What then can, and should, the ad industry be doing?

Well, the good news is that adland has already begun to react positively.

Back in March 2017, the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising unveiled its 10-point pledge and accompanying comprehensive toolkit for agencies to sign up to, implement, and share with start-ups to demonstrate their commitment to "an open, fair and jointly beneficial partnership". 

That move followed another initiative the year before when the IPA unveiled a scheme to better the way agencies and tech start-ups collaborate.

Then, in June 2017, the IPA announced a first wave of agencies to have signed up to its start-up pledge. These included MEC, along with Brothers & Sisters, Geometry Global, The Iris Nursery, Karmarama, McCann Central, Publicis Media, and MediaCom.

But, while the achievements so far should be lauded, there is still more we can all do. 

Earlier this month, business change consultancy Utopia co-founder Nadia Powell wrote in Campaign about innovation in agencies "becoming a ghost town". 

Her point was not that innovation within agencies is dead – far from it. In fact, she was arguing that agencies need to work harder to integrate innovation throughout agency culture, rather than allocate its responsibility to one individual or team.

They also need to be more willing to change, she pointed out. They need to find new and better ways to work with start-ups, including understanding how best to work with female entrepreneurs.

That explains why MEC Tonic recently partnered with Zyper, the ad tech start-up created by Amber Atherton, the entrepreneur and TV presenter. This will boost MEC’s capabilities in areas including visual and influencer networks that are vital to our clients. And we’ve also struck a partnership with AllBright, a funding and education network committed to making the UK the best place to be a female entrepreneur.

My expectation on joining MEC Tonic was that, as innovation lead, I should bring in lots of different start-ups to show people across the business lots of different things. However, it soon became apparent that this wouldn’t leave me enough time to work in partnership with the start-ups, which is critical in helping them develop ideas that work for our clients.

Instead, I decided to help everyone within the agency look at start-ups operating within their respective areas, enabling me to focus on four or five key businesses that are most likely to be game-changers for our business and the clients we work with.

I work closely with each founder, including Amber Atherton at Zyper, to help them tailor their offering so it suits our business challenges. Some will need support to further develop their technology, others will need to modify their pricing. Additionally, a significant proportion of female founders will need confidence mentoring or to build on certain skills, which we will also discuss.

To facilitate this, I am now building a Chatbot the rest of the agency can use to search for start-ups, according to their own particular briefs to find more relevant start-ups to connect with. We are now supporting AllBright’s 12-week digital programme for women entrepreneurs by bringing in experts and contributing to the various learning modules to help women fill skill gaps and progress further with their businesses. 

Our aim is to provide support through a partnership that all of us can, and should, be doing to encourage female founders. Not just because we like the idea of female founders, but because any day and every day, gender equality in start-ups makes solid business sense.

Sarah Salter is director of innovation at MEC Tonic

(This article's main image is of Salter [far right] speaking at a Female Founders event on 10 October. The panellists from left are Amber Atherton, entrepreneur and founder of Zyper; Laura Onita, business reporter at The Sunday Times; Anna Jones, founder of Allbright; William MacQuillan, partner at Frontline Ventures; and Liz Earle, founder of Liz Earle Wellbeing)

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