'I want to level the playing field': Wolff Olins' first female CEO

'I'd like to see the intensity of public debate and scrutiny continue. While it may be uncomfortable, it will ultimately fuel our progress.'

Are we there yet?
Sairah Ashman
Global CEO
Wolff Olins 

Tell us about one thing that’s happened recently that leads you to believe there’s still a problem.

Sadly, it’s all too easy to find examples. Look at the Booth of Truth in London – in which women in the creative industries could confess to sexism they had experienced in the workplace. Some of the anecdotes are so grim and the scale disheartening. 

To make matters worse, the outpouring of these experiences has apparently made men less likely to want to mentor female creatives. The problem in our industry isn’t just for women, either – look at the recent stories of those who have faced redundancies thanks to their age that have emerged due to the work of Madeleine Morris and her Society of Very Senior Creatives.

I think we can all see there’s a gap between good intent and rhetoric around diversity and inclusion, versus tangible actions required to support sustained change. The key thing is to keep pushing and holding ourselves accountable. We need to see a greater variety of people in leading positions and we definitely need to see more women in Creative Director positions. 

If women aren’t seeing role models they can relate to in senior positions and being championed, it’s far less likely they will climb the creative ladder. Or worse, they will opt out and do their own thing, robbing us of vital talent and energy. 

Our industry is still living with the legacy of the (mostly) male, (traditionally) charismatic and dominating leader – I look forward to a time when leaders and their styles are as varied as the audiences they market to.

How about something that proves we are making progress?

In terms of the wider media, Edward Enninful, Vogue UK’s editor-in-chief, has powerfully put diversity at the heart of Vogue’s agenda, in a bid to ‘normalise the marginalised’ for its readers and sales are up, so there’s a clear business imperative and advantage.

Closer to home, it’s promising that Cannes announced it will introduce diversity screening. Meanwhile, the #TimeTo campaign has resulted in an industry code of conduct that helps to close the gap I spoke of earlier. Perhaps most importantly, clients are urgently asking what our industry policies and credentials are in this area, which is a sure-fire way to motivate rapid progress.

On a more personal note, I’m very conscious of being the first female CEO at Wolff Olins and I certainly don’t want to be the last. This is why I want to make sure we’re promoting practices at Wolff Olins that ensure a level playing field for all, and why I participate in initiatives designed to help others rise (such as Omniwomen within our network – thank you Janet Riccio, Sam Phillips and Emma Sargeant).

What else needs to be done to get there? 

Annual metrics, league tables and transparency are all proving useful in promoting change. As are increasingly standardised practices such as unconscious bias training, blind CVs during the recruitment process and shared parental leave policies. 

More fundamentally I worry that talented people never make it into our industry simply because of their financial circumstances. The barriers to expressing our individual creativity have never been lower due to technology, yet access to training, opportunities and sponsorship are still out of reach for so many. This is especially compounded by the reality that funding for arts and education is under intense pressure and scrutiny.

Finally, I’d like to see the intensity of public debate and scrutiny continue. While it may be uncomfortable, it will ultimately fuel our progress.

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