Not just the White House: Female agency leaders practice the art of 'amplification'

Women at top agencies use an Executive Branch technique to get their ideas and opinions heard.

About four years ago, Marie-Claire Barker, chief talent officer at MEC, was sitting in a meeting about diversity that included more than 30 men and only one other woman. When the facilitator asked for feedback, the men began shouting out their answers, while the other woman sat patiently with her hand up, waiting to be called on. Whether out of compassion or habit, Barker felt compelled to match the other woman’s behavior.

"It wasn’t that I didn’t feel confident to ask my question," said Barker. "I had to wait to be invited for my comment, like the other lady, whereas the men felt quite happy to shout out their answers."

For women in the advertising industry, getting in the room is only half the struggle. Even after women obtain leadership positions, their voices and opinions often go unacknowledged in meetings historically filled with men.

It’s a dilemma that many ad agencies have been trying to amend with new initiatives focused on hiring a more diverse staff, because, as Barker said, "When the numbers are stacked against you in terms of representation, it is harder to find your voice."

At agencies like MEC, J. Walter Thompson and R/GA, women in senior leadership roles have also been supporting each other by repeating each other’s good ideas and making sure the right people receive credit for them, a strategy increasingly referred to as "amplification."

But it wasn’t until this past September, when the Washington Post published an article about this method, that executives at these agencies knew there was a name for what they were doing.

The article, titled "White House women want to be in the room where it happens," featured female staffers in the White House using amplification as a means to get their voices heard in meetings. A woman would echo another’s idea and give them credit, driving men in the room to "recognize the contribution," while denying them the chance to "claim the idea as their own."

"It was good to look at it and go, ‘Oh, that’s what that’s called,’" said Chloe Gottlieb, executive vice president and executive creative director at R/GA. She said the article resonated with R/GA women when it was shared through the agency’s women Slack channel.

According to the Post article, the technique at the White House had a measurable impact. When Obama first took office, two-thirds of his top aides were men, and women in the White House found themselves left out of key conversations. But in his second term, women made up 50% of his counselors, and he began calling on them more often.

Christina Knight is one of Sweden’s few female creative directors and the founder of UKnight, a company that advises clients on how to diversify their workforce. She said amplification is a crucial practice to doing so. In fact, she brings up it up as her No. 1 piece of advice in lectures. She also highlights the strategy, calling it a "referral technique," in her book "Mad Women—A Herstory of Advertising."

"If women refer to each other in meetings and discussions, building on, developing and praising what a previous female has said, it means that idea is allowed to take up some space," she said. "It gets recognition as being something smart and worthwhile to spend time on."

The need for such techniques is real and immediate, say agency executives. Gottlieb says she has witnessed men taking credit for an idea put forth by a female colleague, intentionally or otherwise, many times in her career. "A women will say something, and no one will recognize what she says. Five minutes later, a man will say the same thing with different words and everyone will say ‘that was brilliant, what a great idea. We should totally do that.’ And it happens countless times."

Leslie Ali, an ECD at JWT, explained that it’s usually the person who expresses their ideas the loudest that gets the recognition.

"Women in general could use a little help with that for a number of reasons, from having a voice that doesnt carry to handling how best to still get their point across despite being talked over."

Once women start making conscious attempts at amplification, they are often surprised at its potency, said Knight. "Men are so unused to women speaking up for each other in discussions and meetings, that the men are often thrown off guard and feel stressed," she said. "Try it out and you will see!"

Of course, for women to truly have their voices heard, it’s not enough for other women to speak up on their behalf, said Gottlieb. Only 3% of leadership positions at ad agencies were held by women in 2008, according to the 3% Conference, and that number hasn’t improved much in recent years. "It needs to go beyond women amplifying women," she said. "It needs to be women and men amplifying people that will make the rooms more diverse, make the voices heard and make the work better."

At MEC, where 62% of senior leaders in North America are women, Barker is constantly looking for ways for female employees to amplify each other’s voices. Next month, for instance, MEC will launch an app called Reflektive, which allows employees to give public, real-time feedback to colleagues within a Facebook-like feed. The app takes the place of the agency’s annual review process, which didn’t "fit well" with a company made up mostly of Millennials. Over the next two months, everyone in the company will go through a half-day training on how to give and receive feedback through the app, according to Barker.

"It’s not just about the app," she said, "it’s about the discussion and behavior and how we actually create that culture of feedback and recognition."

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