I'm back, pitches! A mum returns to the ad industry

Mum-of-three Sarah Shepherd got a chance to return to the creative frontline 11 years after leaving the industry.

In October, I joined the creative department of Crispin Porter & Bogusky London as the first UK placement under Creative Equals’ new Returnship scheme. For everyone involved, it was a big experiment. Was it a success? Without a doubt.

As amazing opportunities go, it couldn’t have come at a better time. My career before kids was exciting and challenging. But after our daughter was born, I prioritised being at home more often than not. Instead of returning to full-time work, I started a part-time copywriting business. That was 11 years, three kids and one gnawing sense of unfulfilled potential ago.

After several years of reading Where the Wild Things Are, separating tiny bits of Lego and selling sentences (sometimes all at once), my youngest trundled off to school in September. For me, this massive change in life-stage meant three things: a) an embarrassing, bittersweet weep-fest once I’d waved him off on his first day; b) a dramatic drop in childcare costs; and c) a whole lot more headspace for me to refocus on my career. 

Shepherd: offered placement at Crispin Porter & Bogusky London as part of Creative Equals’ new Returnship scheme

As you can imagine, I was beyond excited to be offered the placement. But it was a big investment for our whole family, so I was also nervous. On top of that, I was nervous about being nervous, because this was a creative placement, and everybody knows fear is kryptonite to creativity. 

CP&B is renowned for being full of audacious, take-no-prisoners mavericks. And the UK gang is helmed by Dave Buonaguidi, one of London’s most highly regarded creative minds. Would I fit in? Would they frogmarch me out of the building for cliché crimes? Would there be awful, cringeworthy condescension to deal with if my ideas were deemed stale (or, worse, timid)? Call me a cynic, but there was also a possibility that the whole thing could simply be a PR stunt for an agency that wanted to be seen to be doing "the right thing" – and I was the naïve mug who’d gone along with it. 

In the end, I realised that there was no room for fear or cynicism. I just had to go for it. Be brave, get involved and do my best. 

"I’m not a hip young grad. The only ‘unicorn’ I’m in contact with is my four-year-old’s imaginary pal"

After all, this open door was a one-time-only opportunity. I’m not a hip young grad. The only "unicorn" I’m in regular contact with is my four-year-old’s imaginary pal. My recent work is almost exclusively business-to-business communications. And if I once had the kind of devil-may-care swagger that inspires confidence, a decade of sleepless nights has, frankly, knocked it out of me. 

I had to grab this chance and run. Flex my creative muscles. Or at least see if I still had any. So off I trotted, in a box-fresh shirt, to day one. 

My first brief saw me working on scripts for a TV commercial. I stammered through my first creative review, apologetically pitching the ideas. I landed one to go to the client. Yay! The client didn’t choose it. Boo! But I think we all breathed a sigh of relief after that. They knew I wasn’t shite. I knew I could do it. We could all relax and get on with the work.

CP&B turned out to be a great big bear hug of an agency. Dave’s thumbprint was everywhere – from the Thanksgiving lunch he arranged (a wonderful, noisy, bring-a-dish affair) to the riotous Arty Party, which saw the auction of artworks to fund a young creative talent through ad school. 

I wasn’t sure how I felt about the fact that everybody knew I was "a mum" and what this could mean in terms of how I was perceived at work. In the end, the only real difference it made was that everybody talked to me about their kids. People love talking about their kids. (Crispies, if you’re reading this, your kids are all gorgeous – thanks for showing me the pictures.) 

Being totally upfront about the fact that I was trying to come back after several years spent in the chaotic wilderness of Early Years Parenting actually turned out to be liberating. 

"Shit got real. The kids got sick. I had to work from home. Projects started rolling in at pace"

I couldn’t hide it. I had to own it. Which I guess was kind of the point.   

I realised that a lot of my creativity now stems from the high value I place on clarity, authenticity and empathy, and that this is directly related to what’s going on in my life right now. These days, I’m more focused on solving the problem, less focused on trying to do something clever. As the month progressed, I began to see that this perspective has value, which increased my creative confidence. Win.

News travelled fast at the school gate too. At a kid’s birthday party, I was shoulder-tapped by another mum who’d applied for a similar returnship. I was also asked for advice by a former creative turned stay-at-home-dad. 

Then shit got real. The kids got sick. I had to work from home. Projects started rolling in at pace. It was busy. From last-minute executional copy to pitch work, CP&B didn’t hold back. But I loved every second. 

And in my final week, I heard the CD utter the five little words every writer loves to hear: "That’s a f****** brilliant line." For that alone, it was worth it. 

This month, I’m back for another few weeks at CP&B. Then, who knows what the future holds. But it’s time to stow the baby wipes (from ten till six, at least). I’m back.

Could a "creative returnship" change your career? Get in touch with ws-returnships@creativeequals.org or go to creativeequals.org

Subscribe today for just $116 a year

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to campaignlive.com , plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events

Become a subscriber


Don’t miss your daily fix of breaking news, latest work, advice and commentary.

register free