The CEO of a top advertising agency has a dilemma. He wants a woman on his all-male management team but can’t find the right candidate. He thinks female leadership would banish any lingering misogyny from his boardroom, but doesn’t want the candidate to be a token hire. Finding the right person is so hard, the CEO said, that he’s “given up the ghost on finding the right female leader because the pool [of talent] is too small.”

The executive, who spoke to Digiday on condition of anonymity, knows he could look harder for senior women but argued, “If there isn’t the talent that is either right for my business or good enough, then why should I be punished for a [gender inequality] problem that is far bigger than just advertising?”

It’s a conundrum the agency boss shares with many of his peers, with misogynistic corporate culture in the spotlight. The #MeToo backlash against sexual harassment has rightly put workplace inequality in sharper focus. It’s also making agency bosses nervous about how they recruit women for senior roles.

Several male senior managers from agencies have expressed their concerns about having an all-male leadership team, said Helen Kimber, managing partner at headhunting firm The Longhouse. The worry about those discussions is how easily hires can turn into “tokenism” rather than best-in-class hires. In many instances, the woman hire is a valid one. “But if she’s not, there’s a huge concern that agencies settle for appearances rather than making the best hire,” she concluded.

Hiring’s double-edged sword
The M&C Saatchi situation illustrates this dilemma. Prior to M&C Saatchi London’s chief creative officer Justin Tindall’s claim that he was “bored” of the diversity debate in October, he had presided over a male-dominated creative department, according to two separate sources. Industry condemnation followed, which led to more women being hired in the creative department and chief marketing officer Kate Bosomworth, head of culture and inclusion Sereena Abbassi and chief strategy officer Raquel Chicourel filling senior roles across the wider M&C Saatchi group.

M&C Saatchi’s female hiring catch-up didn’t get the company off the hook entirely, though.

“Diversity isn’t only about women, which makes the agency’s recent hires even more of a joke,” said an M&C Saatchi executive, who spoke to Digiday on condition of anonymity.

“When you become aware that you’re really out of kilter, then of course there’s going to be a remedy put in place, and part of that may be that the next X number of hires make you more mindful about some of them being female,” said Kathleen Saxton, the founder of executive headhunting firm The Lighthouse Company. But the agency can’t lose sight of what skills are needed to support the business. “You can’t just hire more women because you need more women,” concluded Saxton.

Agencies have a responsibility to look out for their businesses, so they need to hire on merit, said Zaid Al-Zaidy, CEO of creative agency Above+Beyond. “We would be doing diversity a huge disservice, and it would only serve to patronize women, the LGBTQI community, the disabled, the socially disadvantaged or people from BAME [black, Asian and minority ethnic] backgrounds to hire people who aren’t up to the job simply because of their gender or background,” he said.

Of course, a counterargument is that companies created this dilemma for themselves by not ensuring their workplaces were diverse in the first place, and fear of tokenism shouldn’t be an excuse for not remedying imbalances. As Saxton explained: “Where [agency] CEOs are leaning into the [gender inequality] issue and asking if [headhunters] can provide shortlists that are filled by at least 50 percent of female candidates, I think that’s a good instruction because it makes us look harder and be more conscious of the differentiation on those shortlists.”

Expanding the hiring pool
Some agency bosses navigate that complexity by thinking more broadly about the sectors they recruit from and the senior leadership roles they create. It’s easier to find female chief strategy officers than female CEOs, for example. The Longhouse has compiled several CSO search lists recently, and most (70 percent) have been dominated by “brilliant women,” said Kimber. There’s a prevailing wisdom among some recruitment consultants that senior-level women overindex in strategy and production roles because they lend themselves to flexible work schedules, and women don’t lose momentum after returning from maternity leave.

When one agency boss, who asked not to be named, searched to fill the roles of president and creative chief, one thing stood out on each candidate list: The list for the president position had a mix of male and female candidates, whereas the one for the creative role had no women.

Whether it’s true or not, agency bosses believe there’s a shortage of women available for senior roles. Less than a third (30.9 percent) of C-suite roles in the U.K. ad industry were held by women last year, up from 30.3 percent in 2016, according to the trade body Institute of Practitioners in Advertising. But the numbers don’t tell the full story.

Women-friendly HR policies
Part of the reason there aren’t more women in senior roles is because many feel they are overlooked should they want to start a family.

When creative agency Quiet Storm recently sought to hire a business development director, most of the applicants were male, said managing director Rania Robinson. Robinson suspected the shortage of women stemmed in part from women being held back for promotions due to maternity leave.

“I never really felt held back in my career until I started thinking about having a child,” she admitted. “I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that men of a certain generation think that women will deprioritize work and won’t be as driven or committed as they once were now that they have children.”

Not every ad agency struggles to hire senior women or achieve gender equality across their business.

Mother and Livity, two independent agencies, point to good maternity packages and how they invest in junior executives and recruit talent from beyond the advertising industry as reasons why they don’t have the same problem with diversity that some agencies do.

Mother’s creative shop is led by Ana Balarin and Katie Mackay-Sinclair alongside Hermeti Balarin and Chris Gallery in the U.K., and 67 percent of its department heads are women. The agency’s challenge is making sure its staff is diverse enough. Both Mother and Livity claim they’ve always had a suitable woman ready and waiting in the wings when they have a senior role to fill. Alex Goat, for instance, joined Livity in 2012 as client services director, became managing director in September 2015 and ascended to CEO last year.

At Livity, there are a lot of women known as “boomerangers” — people who leave for a short period before returning once they’ve reached a senior level — “because they know we’re a company that provides a good environment to be challenged and excel,” said Stacey Stollery, head of people and culture at Livity.

Since it launched in 1996, Mother has always had “runners,” people who haven’t gone to college but are brought in to work effectively as assistants across the business. It is in the early phases of working with schools close to its Shoreditch, London, office so that students come into the agency for a week as part of their final year. These moves can help attract people from diverse income backgrounds. Furthermore, the agency started working with Jolt, a diversity-training and internship initiative, last year.

“The management team at Mother has never sat down and thought, ‘How can we bring more women in?’” said Mackay-Sinclair. “We’ve never had to. There are women leading departments and moving up into senior positions because we have a diverse pool of talent of both female and male at all levels. … Mother isn’t macho. That’s always been part of the natural culture here.”

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