Women are rising at agencies, but is it enough?

Erin Riley is named TBWA\Chiat\Day LA’s first CEO and Jen Costello is promoted to chief strategy officer.

Women are rising at agencies, but is it enough?

TBWA\Chiat\Day Los Angeles has promoted Erin Riley, formerly its president as its first CEO and elevated Jen Costello to chief strategy officer from her previous role as head of strategy. In their roles, they will continue to drive TBWA’s change agenda around its Disruption X methodology, which was created last year as the agency continues to invest in enhancing and modernizing its strategic and creative capabilities. 

The moves, which are being announced today, follow a sudden string of women appointments to senior roles at agencies within the last three months alone. 

Last week, Pereira O’Dell promoted Mona Gonzalez and Natalie Nymark to presidents of the agency—new roles for the bicoastal shop.  Publicis appointed Sarah Kramer to CEO of Spark Foundry in the U.S. and Danielle Gonzales to the newly created role of chief client officer of Publicis Media. Early this month, Giant Spoon tapped Christina DeGuardi as president and chief client officer and named Nikita Malhotra chief financial officer and chief operating officer.

Then in May, ex-Saatchi & Saatchi veteran, Andrea Diquez was poached to become CEO of DDB Chicago, and Darla Price was named president of DDB New York. Earlier that month, GroupM’s media company Xaxis named Silvia Sparry as its first global chief operating officer.  The month prior to that, Dentsu hired Kedma Pognon Brown as its chief operating officer for its Americas media service line and  Nancy Reyes was elevated to CEO of TBWA\Chiat\Day New York. Also in April, Edelman named Lisa Osborne Ross as its U.S. CEO making her the first Black woman to lead a PR firm of its size.

Is this a long overdue recognition of women's leadership capabilities or simply a step toward normalization in the industry that should have already existed? Some industry insiders say it's a mix of both, and it's not enough–there is still a need more women in the industry and diversity beyond gender. Others argue that calling out the number of women in senior roles actually sets the movement back rather than advances it. 

“Women are 52% of the population, so it amazes me to think that there are people that feel like they're trying something bold,” says Kat Gordon, CEO of the 3% Movement. “This is just a natural evolution of how the world should be. Sometimes I’ll meet agencies and they'll very proudly stand up at our event and say, ‘We have all women in our creative department or we're 90% women’ and I'll say, ‘That's the exact same problem in different clothes.’ We want a really beautiful mix, of all kinds of men and women to be represented, at the appropriate levels and ratios.”

But there seems to be consensus on one thing: the recent elevation of women isn't coincidental.

“I've done this for 15 years and there is certainly a greater onus now on bringing in female leadership than there ever has been before,” says Jay Haines, founder of executive search firm Grace Blue. “This was a trend that began to emerge probably three or four years ago and then really came to fall two years ago. Now whenever we take on a new leadership search, a big part of the mandate is to ensure that whenever we come back to clients there is a diverse slate of clients by every metric.”

The increased representation of women in the industry is a welcome change that has been picking up speed. An October 2020 report from She Runs It and Diversity Best Practices showed that 45.4% of executive positions at advertising, media, and tech companies are now held by women, jumping from 29% the previous year.

TBWA, has made a thoughtful commitment to increasing the number of women in leadership positions globally by 20% by the end of 2020. When its "Take the Lead" program was introduced in 2015, the company was gender-balanced in entry-level and mid-level roles, but had a long way to go with its senior positions. By the end of 2020, the agency nearly met its goal, having increased the number of women in leadership by 19.4%, with 43.7% of senior leadership identifying as women globally and 48.6% of senior leadership identifying as women in North America.

Women now lead all of TBWA’s agencies in North America, including TBWA\Chiat\Day New York (Nancy Reyes, CEO); Juniper Park\TBWA (Jill Nykolation, CEO) and Katrien De Bauw (global president, TBWA\Media Arts Lab, based in L.A).

Fishing from the same pond

“No one's getting these jobs because they're either diverse or because they're women, it's because they're fantastic leaders,” says Troy Ruhanen, president and CEO of TBWA/Worldwide. “If someone asks, ‘How did you get to this point?’ the trick is we just looked a lot harder and earlier than you. I met Erin and Nancy probably about 10 years before I hired them. So, I've had them in my mind for some time. Fishing from the same pond was getting us a whole bunch of the same type of leaders. I'm not saying men aren’t great leaders. There are a whole bunch of great white male leaders as well. We were just getting the same repeated message every single time and that's not a very creative company if you ask me.”

This sentiment rang true for Riley when she was interviewing for a role with TBWA in 2016.

“I remember when I was interviewing, I told Troy, I appreciate, what you're doing, but I want to make sure that you're hiring me for my background and skills and not because you need to put a woman in this role,” Riley says. “And he said, ‘Let me assure you, the reason I'm hiring so many women leaders is because I think they make the best change agents.’”

Cindy Gallop, a former chairman of BBH and founder of Make Love Not Porn and If We Ran the World, says this progress is due to a change in mindset among “white male leaders” that are proactively looking to hire women. She doesn’t care about the motivation behind more women being hired for senior roles because as long as it continues it will ensure more diverse hires across the industry moving forward.

“One thing that every white male leader should think about is when you look for brilliant female leaders, you should not be looking for the same criteria as male leaders in a woman,” Gallop says. “If you say, ‘We want someone who delivers all that same, good old boys’ stuff, but female,’ that doesn't work. Secondly, if you truly want brilliant women leading your creative development or leading your agency you need to hire for potential not proof. Find the brilliant woman in waiting somewhere that has not been promoted because there's a white male global chief creative officer who feels threatened by her.”

Despite the progress made there are still hurdles for women in the industry that agencies need to be proactive about says Gordon. In 2018 3% launched the “Pledge for Pay Equity” dedicated to driving momentum for closing the pay gap between men and women in the industry, which Haines says has been closing and will continue to improve as time goes on. Founding agencies of the pledge include agencies like BBH, FCB, Doner, Deutsch, Havas, and The Martin Agency.

Clearing the way

Gordon says "women are slowly being paid more equitably and that is, in large part, due to companies who undergo wage audits. Even well-meaning leadership that believes there is no discrepancy in wages are often surprised there are when they conduct an assessment."

Beyond the pay gap, Gordon believes agencies need to be proactive around their sexual harassment policies, specifically eliminating non-disclosure agreements when an employee is either bringing a claim against a company or leaving an agency under circumstances where employees felt they were treated unfairly. Other issues that need to be addressed include maternity leave and the diversity of women being hired during this movement.

“Increasingly I think it's important that maternity leave be called family leave and that its extended to men as well,” Gordon says “Until we make childcare a shared issue and not just a women's issue, women will continue to be penalized for it. We also need to ensure that the women leading in this new kind of surge are all women, not just white women. Black women are the most educated demographic in America right now with the highest state of desire to lead.”

In their new roles, Riley and Costello will also continue their focus on DE&I efforts at Chiat\Day LA. Under their leadership, the office has increased diversity across all levels and departments, with 64% of its new hires in 2021 coming from diverse backgrounds, according to a statement by TBWA.

“I think the thing not to miss is that the end game isn't about having more women in leadership roles,” Costello says. “It's about having more amazing strong leaders that come from different places, because that is what makes business tick and change, and move the way that it needs to.”