Confessions of a new mother in an ad agency: ‘It’s all lip service’

This article is part of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor to get an unvarnished look at the people, processes and problems inside the industry. More from the series →

Even as agencies try really hard to course-correct when it comes to diversity and inclusion, many have fallen behind when it comes to working with parents. With parental leave a hot topic across other industries, agency staffers frequently bemoan that agencies haven’t seemed to have caught up: The nature of the business itself makes it near impossible to sustain a job with long hours and unpredictable demands.

In this edition of Confessions, in which we offer anonymity for honesty, we spoke with a new mother at an agency about what it is like to come back to work after having a baby.

Answers have been edited for clarity.

What was it like when you first got pregnant?
I got pregnant sooner than I expected. You hear all these tales, and I was extremely fortunate. You’re still able to function fairly normally. You’re exhausted, sure. But the more my pregnancy progressed, the clearer it became to me that working at an agency as a new mother would severely limit me.

From being able to raise my hand for opportunities to being asked for opportunities. Fact is, everything you hear about the agency hours is true. And unless you’re willing to work really late and miss out on your baby’s life, then it’s not happening.

Is it more than just about how much work there is?
The nature of the way agencies operate is not set up to accommodate mothers or dads who are primary caregivers or even dads who share responsibility. There are dads I work with who have to pick up kids from day care. They have to leave at 5 p.m. That is noticed.

What do you mean about opportunities?
There are large amounts of inefficiencies. So, say you have a new business pitch. That’s crunch time. Agencies have usually a couple of weeks to put together something. People are working nights and weekends in those instances. There are meetings around pitches pushed to 5 p.m., 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. I’ve been in meetings for pitches where they go until 10 p.m. because people are reviewing ideas and tossing things out even when the strategy hasn’t yet been developed. It’s very chaotic. You’ve got 15 people in a meeting all offering opinions. Nobody needs that. I don’t need someone pontificating all day.

Meeting hell.
Working at an agency, it’s meeting apocalypse all day. There are legit meetings on a normal day that are scheduled for 5.30 p.m. or 6 p.m. at night. That’s fine if you don’t have a need to be home. That doesn’t work for everyone — especially parents who can’t afford to have a nanny at home all day and into the night.

How much has renewed attention on women and diversity helped?
It’s all lip service in the way of championing women and people of color. Those are extremely important initiatives. Motherhood is a huge portion of this. Unless agencies are friendlier to mothers and parents or whoever the primary caregiver is, the lack of women in leadership positions is not going change. From an official standpoint, it’s never talked about. It’s talked about among women — my colleagues and me. We’re scared about opportunities and are scared how we’re juggling it or going to juggle it.

Do women leave? Will you?
A lot of agencies are structured with a lot of junior people and far fewer senior people. Some of the more senior women are making decisions either to leave the workforce or to go contract or freelance.

What about culture?
A lot of what you read in the tech industry is that working yourself to the bone is an accepted and encouraged thing. That’s true here, too. Creatives work late always, but they’re just sitting around drinking wine. There are managers who applaud subordinates for responding to emails late at night. A parent isn’t gonna play that game. They’re not going to sit around at their computer just so they have face time and look like they’re here. Mothers are scared of that system that applauds people sitting at desks till God knows when who respond to emails at midnight. It’s an unfair success metric.

How do people cope?
I’ve heard other parents tell me over the years at agencies that they leave at 5 p.m., then get back online and work after bed. When does a person get a break? The agency world has patted itself on its back for far too long for hours as if it’s a measure of commitment to clients.

It’s all about being billable.
Yes. Because what is expected of agency employees is to be available whenever. If there is a cool pitch that comes in and I can’t work until 10 p.m. and I can’t make myself available on weekends, I know I won’t be on it. Agencies are chasing after any new pitch that comes in. Everyone is stretched so thin, it makes the hours longer. But I can’t participate as a new mother in those things because I cannot commit to the time because it’s unpredictable. We don’t get scoped for a pitch. Because of the meeting apocalypse and things being moved around all the goddamn time, it’s chaotic. At least if you’re working on a campaign that you know is launching, you can reasonably budget yourself. This, you can’t. I just can’t raise my hand for stuff. This is why women switch roles after parenthood and take on operations roles. New business or creative is crazy. But that’s the sexy stuff. That’s where you get more opportunities.

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