"There is no glass ceiling in our industry."
In a 2015 interview with Campaign, Sir John Hegarty explained that the biggest problem for women advancing their careers is taking career breaks to have children, then struggling to rejoin an industry that has moved on.
Drawing parallels between sportspeople and creatives, Hegarty – perhaps not a fan of Jesscia Ennis-Hill – argued: "The thing about a creative career is that, if you are not doing it every day, you are not getting better every day."
Fast forward four years and 58 women (48 in London and 10 in Manchester) have graduated from the #CreativeComeback scheme. (Creative Equals originally had 35 places before it expanded the scheme.) A scheme which underlines that it is the industry, not the women taking career breaks, that is playing catch-up.
Ali Hanan, founder and chief executive of Creative Equals, believes the industry must stop treating female creatives as if they have a used-by date. As she explains: "What we know from our cohort is those CV gaps are creativity's gifts."
The role and importance of these women returners – who took time out of the industry for a variety of reasons – was clear to Diageo, which both sponsored the scheme and provided a live brief to the creatives taking part. Alison Falconer, consumer planning director at Diageo-owned Guinness, says the initiative provided a "flood of creativity", explaining: "We got unexpected ideas, powerfully and simply expressed, with personality and flair."
The appetite for the scheme is clear – 200 women applied for a place on the scheme. But the industry still has a long way to go.
Women returning to the industry after career breaks – whether to look after children or undertake other caring responsibilities, tackle health and wellness issues or simply have time out – often find themselves at the intersection of two significant diversity issues. First, a lack of female talent at the top, and second, the absence of older people. Research produced by Campaign in partnership with MEC revealed that experience is undervalued in the industry, with 79% of respondents agreeing with the statement: "I think the industry I work in comes across as ageist." Meanwhile, 35% of women polled have experienced ageism in the workplace.
Speaking at the graduation of the #CreativeComeback class of 2019, which took place at Wavemaker's office last week (pictured, above), Dame Cilla Snowball lauded the initaitive as "fast-track diversity at its best". Urging the industry to embrace this model to deliver "tons more progress for women together", Snowball noted that the programme shows just how much can be achieved, quickly, when women work together. "Change happens because individuals decide to do something. But it gets magnified at scale and accelerated when we act together," she said.
So what’s next for the returners? "Jobs," Hanan says simply. "For us, that will be the proof our work is done. We want at least half of these women to find a job – not just a placement or a freelance gig – within a month with our partners. Ideally, these jobs will be fully flexible and they will be retained. So, if you have a role, drop us a line. The talent is here – and waiting."
Are women returners gifts to the industry? The industry speaks
Natalie Graeme, founder, Uncommon Creative Studio
Never mind the gap, embrace it. "Returners" is such a funny term. Returning from what?! How about that very important thing… life.
During my relatively short year out from the industry before starting Uncommon, I learned just how much of a benefit having distance away from it all helped for when you do decide to come back. It allows time for greater clarity on the real differences you want to make and fuels a deeper passion for the industry.
Being a returner to our business should be seen as a superpower on CVs. This period of life spent away, heaped on top of all that existing industry experience, is a third-eye insight into what really matters to the world – something that the rest of us in the thick of it might otherwise be more blinkered to.
For an industry sometimes high on its own air but surrounded by incredible opportunities for where we take things next, returners offer a much-needed fresh perspective – one which we should all be grabbing with both hands.
Xavier Rees, chief executive, Havas London
You only have to spend a few months outside this myopic industry to realise how much there is to gain by not being in it for a while. You meet real people, live real life and form a much broader perspective on what we do than is possible by just sitting in another agency working on another brief for another client.
Returners bring diverse and valuable new experiences with them. They might bring a new-found ability to project manage multiple critical timelines to within an inch of their lives. They might bring an entirely different set of cultural references. And, most likely, they’ll bring a better understanding of how advertising really works (or doesn’t) than when they left the industry. If you don’t want these people in your business, that’s just weird.
Tim Duffy, chairman, M&C Saatchi
Returning women are more than a gift to the industry, they are essential. By shining a spotlight on returning women and creating supportive pathways back to work, Creative Equals are ultimately giving all of us the opportunity to make better work, create better organisations and a better industry. And that’s why we are supporting the programme. Simple. Essential.
Anna Panczyk, chief exexutive, Grey London
Making sure women can return to work after a career break isn’t just a good idea, it’s a necessity. However, our industry moves quickly, so it’s no surprise that women who take extended career breaks – often for family reasons – can feel daunted about coming back. Upskilling them to ensure they achieve their potential is a brilliant way to bring fresh perspectives and creativity to the industry. However, it’s also about creating the right environment. At Grey London, we have returning mums in pretty much every part of the agency and, as a mother myself, I know the importance of providing supportive and flexible environments to meet the needs of people coming back to the workplace.