Q&A: Pledge Parental Leave's founder on the state of adland

Campaign US catches up with Jules Ehrhardt on how the movement is doing two years in.

The United States is one of a handful of countries around the world that does not mandate paid maternity leave. It’s also way behind most countries when it comes to family and paternity benefits.

Jules Ehrhardt, former co-owner of Ustwo, formed the Pledge Parental Leave coalition two years ago to try to make a difference in the creative industry. While the movement is picking up steam, there’s still a long way to go - even though research proves that improving benefits is good for business and talent retention. For example, a report from Pledge Parental Leave pointed to the fact that when Google increased paid maternity leave, the rate at which new mothers quit dropped 50 percent.

According to COO and Partner of The 3% Movement Lisen Stromberg, only 39 percent of women in advertising are mothers versus 85 percent for American women overall, "which means if we want to keep the pipeline to leadership filled with the best and brightest, we must solve for motherhood."

"We are seeing significant movement by agencies who recognize the best way to stem the talent drain is to ensure they are offering competitive and meaningful parental leave programs and supportive parental return strategies," she said, adding that to become 3% Certified, agencies must offer at least 12 weeks of paid primary caregiver leave and four weeks of paid secondary caregiver leave.

Campaign US chatted with Ehrhardt to see how Pledge Parental Leave is doing two years in and what’s next for the coalition.

Why did you start the movement two years ago?
We got a group of people together at Ustwo because we saw - and I learned firsthand from my wife’s experience - that the standard parental leave in the U.S. is very low. I had my first kid in Europe and my second in America. The difficulties she faced having to choose between her career or raising a kid were huge. I realized that as an owner of a studio at the time, I had the ability to influence our immediate circle of friends in the industry, so pretty quickly we reached out to 11 companies saying, "Look - this is an issue in the states. We need to find our own policy." Within 10 seconds, the first one joined and we quickly built a coalition of companies who were willing to sign up for a minimum standard of parental leave benefits.

What’s the latest happening with it?
We now have over 5,000 employees covered under the Parental Leave Pledge and 40 companies. We have a full range – our bracket is the U.S creative industry. We have Ustwo Ideo, 72andSunny, Frog and some really iconic leaders in their fields. Some of them already had some policies that met or exceeded the standards, and others had to increase or improve their policies.

What company joined most recently?
Giphy. It’s an interesting example of what we want to do. We want to make having meaningful parental leave policies a "plug and play" thing, so we provide a policy template and the resources companies need to plug in a meaningful parental leave policy, which is minimum three months paid leave, uninterrupted medical coverage and six months of job security. And we want to publish a policy openly online for everyone – but also for women of a particular ago who ask about pay or holidays and 401ks but never ask about parental leave benefits. We want to change that and make it very public what companies are offering.

How long ago did Giphy sign on?
In the last 10 days. I reached out to Alex [Chung], the CEO, and within a week they joined and they made modifications to their existing policies. Sometimes it takes a week for someone to join and sometimes it takes six months.

The Pledge has managed to bring together some of the leading agencies in the space, including many independent shops. Where are the big holding company agencies?
Our goal is to try and normalize this higher standard in the creative industry. A lot of the talent sits within holding company groups. Wolff Olins and 72andSunny are the only ones in wider groups. To be honest, we hit a wall repeatedly whenever we’ve engaged the talent or HR departments of major holding groups and the agencies within them. It’s been a source of deep frustration for us because we’ve had a lot of success from prominent independents, but it’s sad for us that we haven’t yet been able to reach holding groups or agencies within them.

In your opinion, are any holding company agencies doing a good job?
I think as an industry in the U.S. we look after working parents terribly. And I don’t think there’s a lot to celebrate within the large holding groups. Everyone wants to be really polite, so no one has said anything and it’s just not good enough.

It costs between 50 to 200 percent of someone’s salary to replace them, so if you’re losing an employee, it financially makes complete sense to improve parental leave because it increases retention and morale. It’s frustrating that it’s so clear that the benefits are good morally and ethically and also financially and yet people aren’t getting on board. I think they defer to their holding group masters. When we have spoken to holding groups, they say, "We don’t think this will slide" - the irony being that they’re so focused on maintaining their cost base and this would actually improve that.

What have you found has been the most effective means of getting companies on board?
It’s a movement so we do have people reach out to us. The quickest and most effective route is when you meet the owner or leader of an agency and you’re able to have a one-on-one discussion with them. When it’s peer-to-peer, it’s very effective rather than a proposal going to an HR department. For me, I recognize my role as a straight while male who has a lot of privilege and the great benefits of working in this industry – I recognize that and my ability to speak to my counterparts and use my privilege where others can’t. I think my feeling is that anyone who is in that position should be wielding their privilege in the interest of those who don’t have it and this is one example of where it’s been effective.  

What does this all mean for the battle for talent?
Traditionally, there was a high level of talent and competition that used to go to Wall Street that now go to tech companies. Nearly all the banks have boosted their parental leave benefits to around six months because they were competing for the same talent with the tech companies, which all improved their benefits to be much more friendly to working parents. What the media or advertising industry doesn’t get is that they are also competing for the same talent, but their benefits are way off. If you look at finance or tech, they’re competing for talent, including their benefits, and our industry has to do the same if we have any hope of retaining the best talent in the industry.

One challenge is having a policy is great, but if you’re working culture afterward isn’t good for working parents and they’re working 12-hour days and weekends, then that’s another issue that needs to come through in the working experience – not just the policy.

What’s your goal for the next year or two with Pledge?
Obviously we want more agencies to join. We want to reach a tipping point where this minimum standard of parental leave is the norm in the industry and anyone else will be on the wrong side of history. We filed for non-profit status – it’s in process at the moment. We just want to keep the movement growing. Our ultimate goal is not to exist because this will have been taken care of, but we’re aware that in the political arena that it’s way down the list of everything else, so we believe the only change we’re going to effect is by collectively changing the industry we work in.  

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