Agencies take pledge for better parental leave policies

The sorry state of affairs of parental leave policies in the U.S. is no secret, and agencies are not immune. But an industry coalition is trying to bring about a change.

Pledge Parental Leave is an initiative by a band of 20 creative agencies led by agency Ustwo, which aims to change the status quo in the advertising industry. The initiative was launched in March with 11 founding partners including Co Collective, Made By Many and Wolff Olins. It had nine other agencies, including Work & Co. and 72andSunny join its ranks this week.

“Our parental leave policy naturally lined up with the coalition’s mission,” said Rachel Bogan, partner at Work & Co. “It was important for us to pledge because it sets an expectation for employees working for those companies — something they can take forward with them as they move to other jobs in the industry.”

The agencies who have signed the pledge have agreed to offer at least three months of full paid leave to primary caregivers, three months of uninterrupted health insurance and a six-month guarantee that their job will be held open. These agencies have also agreed to publish their parental leave benefits online.

But for the rest of the industry, there are no set standards. As Digiday reported earlier, staffers have complained that agencies have stingy, uneven and disorganized parental leave programs in place. Holding companies like WPP and Omnicom don’t mandate any uniform policies, which vary from one agency to another. Average maternity leaves can range anywhere from two to 12 weeks. Paternity leaves are far more scarce.

Execs say recent cultural events have made the topic of parental leave in agencies an even more hot-button issue than before. After CEO Mark Zuckerberg became a father late last year, Facebook extended its parental leave policy to all employees. Other companies like Netflix, Microsoft and Etsy too have expanded their leave policies as a means to attract and retain top talent. In an industry perpetually mired in a talent crunch, such policies are just smart business.

“Ping-pong tables and free food doesn’t cut it anymore,” said Casey Hopkins, marketing and community head at Ustwo U.S. “For many agencies it is about recruitment, but it’s also really the right thing to do.” 

Leslie Bradshaw, managing partner at agency Made By Many, which is also part of the coalition, agreed. Agencies are not only competing with one another, but also with banks, startups, government agencies and Silicon Valley.

“I’d call it positive peer pressure,” she said Leslie Bradshaw. “With so many of our fellow agencies doing it, we felt compelled to emulate the good example they were setting.”

Not everyone, however, seems to think that the way to bring about change is to join a bloc. They prefer making changes internally. At Maxus, for example, a recent revamp has guaranteed that all employees get between 12 and 14 weeks with adjusted pay. Others like Huge have also instituted “phase-back plans” that allow new parents to customize a six month return to work plan with their manager, choosing between flexible hours, shorter workdays and remote work.

“Maxus is small enough that we’re able to have personal conversations with our employees about what’s important to them and what’s right for them,” said Steve Williams, CEO of Maxus Americas.

Slowly but surely, things seem to be looking up. A survey by the 4A’s management services division found that half of the 173 responding agencies had some kind of paid maternity leave policy beyond accrued vacation time and federally mandated disability. (Up from 30 percent in 2010.)

“We have to acknowledge the challenge that is parenting and not sweep it under the rug like it’s the ‘50s,” said Bradshaw.

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