The Token Man: MullenLowe Profero's Wayne Arnold on why agencies shouldn't positively discriminate to 'make the stats look better'

The Token Man: MullenLowe Profero's Wayne Arnold discusses positive discrimination and more with Octagon creative director Liz H

Wayne Arnold, co-founder and global chief executive at MullenLowe Profero, speaks to Lizi Hamer, creative director at Octagon, in the latest of our Token Man series of gender diversity interviews conducted by prominent women from across the marketing industries.

Lizi Hamer: Wayne, thank you for your time today to discuss a challenging topic – gender equality. Why were you interested in taking part?

Wayne Arnold: I think it's fascinating because it's an uncomfortable topic. I'm kind of obsessed by uncomfortable topics. If you're not squirming at some point, it means you're not being honest about the answers. Gender and ethnic equality are one of the last big taboos in our industry, that haven’t been addressed fully. The more a spotlight is put on them, the better.

LH: Straight into the detail. What is the percentage of men to women at MullenLowe Profero globally across the business?

WA: We are 60% female, 40% male globally across the whole business, which sounds good, but it differs per market and alters at leadership levels.

Looking at senior management in APAC, we're also pretty good. We're 50/50. Interestingly, and I'm not sure if this is by art or design, where we've got a male leader, our number two is a female leader and vice versa.

Unfortunately, when I start to look at the executive level, we're not doing so well. There are five of us and we're 80% male and 20% female. Our global head of legal counsel is the only female currently on the exec team.

LH: Do you have a gender breakdown of your creative departments?

WA: Over all the creative teams, it's about 60/40, female to male again. But if I look at creative leadership, again, it varies by market. In the UK, our last three creative leaders have all been female. But our creative leaders in New York and in Australia, for example, have all been male.

What I don't know, and it's a good thing to work out, is does the cultural bias of the market have a positive or negative impact on the leadership? That would be an interesting study.

Globally for creative directors, we have more male – 75% male, 25% female.

LH: With your exec team, you have a panel of five, so you've got one female and four males? Has that always been the case?

WA: We have the executive board, which is the day-to-day management of the chief executives. That has historically had that kind of split but interestingly, we've always had an advisory board. That's basically older, wiser heads and they've historically been predominantly female.

LH: What triggered the nomination of a female onto the executive board?

WA: To be perfectly honest, she simply earned her place. It wasn't a conscious decision to say 'we need a female on our board.' She earned it by doing all the things you would hope somebody earns it by – by being commercially smart and bringing a different point of view.

LH: How do you feel about the ratios mentioned previously?

WA: On an executive level, I'm happy with the elected team but when you say an 80/20 ratio, it doesn't feel right. However I think you need to be careful using a ratio to determine roles especially when you are talking small numbers. You have to ask, who is the best person for the role? What's the right skillset that we need?

Profero as a business has always been a promote-from-within business. If you've got the promote-from-within philosophy, you need to get the base correct. If you don't get the base right, you're not going to get the right talent at the top or the correct female to male ratio.

LH: How do you make sure you bring in the right talent?

WA: For me, it comes down to the right values. Your personal values define you. Your company values define the kind of business you grow and the kind of clients you work with.

Our number one core value at Profero is to be globally curious. Global curiosity for me means diversity. That diversity is not just in terms of sex, but diversity in terms of ethnicity, your outlook on life, your openness to new things.

When we recruit, the person has to be able to fit our four values: globally curious, self-starter, balanced optimist and value team effort. Skillset comes second.

Those who live the values, as well as do a great job, are more likely to progress in the company quicker. You could be a brilliant technician, but if you're not a team player, or a self-starter then you're probably not going to progress very far. I am proud of the fact that we are one of the most ethnically diverse agencies on the planet, as judged by IPA and within the IPG group.

LH: Profero was previously known for having a laddish culture. Is this still the case?

WA: If you think about when we started, we were 22 and 24 years old. It was the dotcom boom. The average age of the team was early 20s and so the average twenty-something in London at that time would be out drinking and partying.

I don't know if it was laddish – more 'play hard, work hard'. You could go out until whatever time in the morning, but you had to be in at 8am. That was the culture we had at the beginning.

Then I think we grew up and matured. We realised that as we became less London-centric and more global, that kind of culture in China, Singapore or Japan just doesn't work.

When you're in one market, you can control that culture quite easily because everyone knows it, you can feel it in the air. But when you are opening an office in Chengdu and you're recruiting people, you need to create frameworks like the values.

I think there's a correlation between doing this stuff and our performance getting better. Our bar bills went down and our profits went up. That helped drive a more rounded culture too.

LH: There's an interesting element to advertising – the thinking, 'work hard, play hard'. How much of that impacts on the people that don't want to play hard?

WA: You rarely see many 40-plus talent in our industry outside of the executive or senior management suite. Some leave and some are forced out as they can find themselves in an uncomfortable situation. They are often seen as expensive compared to younger talent, and perceived to not be as committed because they aren’t willing (rightly so) to do all the crazy hours. This is partly driven by the industry's economics being driven on fairly thin margins so it over-compensates by running talent on long hours.

If you’re over 40, you could be looking over your shoulder knowing there's someone 28 to 34 years old who will work 7am to midnight, five nights a week plus the weekend and/or the partying with the clients, and at half the salary.

So I personally think we need to address the issue of how we get paid for the value we deliver, and get better as an industry at teaching people to manage their time and work flow effectively while judging effectiveness. People fall far too quickly into 'I’m hustling 24/7 so I must be doing a great job' and dare I say, some managers see busy equating to good work.

Personally, by moving often thousands of miles to new cities and cultures almost every four years, I have learnt to reassess how I work a little each time. I know I have become better at being the most effective I can be, rather than the most busy I can be. It is an important distinction.

LH: Is there a way to challenge this industry issue?

WA: I think we need to make advertising and marketing a profession.

If you ask most graduates 'What is a profession?' they'll say 'banking, law, consultancy, being a doctor'. Advertising and marketing will come way down. That's why those professions charge more.

They have professional qualifications that you have to have. You complete every qualification and when you do, you charge a client more for their time as your experience is seen to be worth more. But the marketing industry does not focus enough on building itself as a profession in my view, which means we don’t charge as much as we should do, so it drives the economics of the businesses.

LH: Would you ever consider positive discrimination?

WA: I would hope the answer is no.

I think you should look at the demographics and data and ask 'why?' Why is our exec team 80/20? Is that something we're comfortable with or not? Why are we 60% female versus 40% male globally? Have we gone wrong? I think it's fair and right to look at the data but then ask questions like: 'What is the data telling me?' I don't think it's right to positively discriminate to make the stats look better.

Ultimately, the best people should be put in the best jobs. You see a lot of boards where they've gone down the chart and said, right, we need an Asian staff member, and more women or younger people on our board. You can see that they've picked the board by the photograph versus by the actual talent they need to run that business.

I would hate to think that we start selecting leadership by photos. I think we need to ensure we're asking ourselves the difficult questions in terms of why we have the leadership we have, and is that the right balance almost by market?

LH: OK, I probably need to pick up on your 'best person for the job' remark as I know that this is one of the issues Token Man has identified as holding back diversity. The consensus is that if you truly believe in the power of diversity, you need to be recruiting for the best person for the team rather than the best person for that particular role. So looking at your board, the view would be that if a position freed up, the best person to fill that role would be a woman as currently you simply do not have a truly gender diverse board. I would love to know your thoughts on this.

WA: I see this slightly differently and maybe my view is slightly bias as our exec team has been together for over eight years so I hope everyone’s view is clearly heard no matter the gender, due to the time and respect we all have for each other.

As a result, as a business, we are constantly building teams with different talents and points of view. To use the band analogy, you need to build the perfect four or five-piece band where everyone knows their role and brings something different to the party. If you looked at our exec team from afar, most would think it should not work but our extreme differences some how complement each other so well, it works brilliantly.

So if an opening came up in our exec team, I personally would be looking to understand what the skill and perspective is we are trying to fill, which could come from any gender, ethnicity or age group.

LH: What are you doing internally to promote female role models?

WA: If I am being honest, we do not do anything gender specific consciously. We don’t place specifically female leadership on pedestals.

Our executive creative director in London is female, but we are conscious not to put her on a pedestal. She attends the MullenLowe Creative Council to represent Profero because she’s the best person to be there, simple as that.

LH: Do you believe that only when you have equal maternity and paternity will you get equality in the workforce?

WA: Is the answer 'it’s only more equal when everyone's the same?' I don't think it's quite as simple as that. I think it's more complex. I think it's more about considering the relationship in that household.

What's the right thing for the baby? Can we support parents to get back to work better? Those kind of questions are probably the right questions. The human truth questions, rather than making everyone equal.

LH: As part of this process, we have asked you to take the Harvard Gender career Implicit Association Test, which means gender related unconscious bias in the workplace. What were your results and what did you think when you received them?

WA: 'Your data suggest a slight automatic association for male with career and female with family.'

I wish it said I was neutral but I guess I am not 100%.

LH: How did these results make you feel? And do you think it might change your behaviour now that you are conscious of this?

WA: A bit disappointed in myself, if I’m honest. When we set out to build the business our aim was to build one of the most globally curious businesses on the planet.

In some respects, we are doing well. For example, our Singapore business represents 28 different nationalities, which I think is extraordinary. So I guess these results show that no matter how careful we are, and no matter how many best practices are put in place, deep down in our cultural DNA, we are always a little bit biased.

I would love to take the test in 12 months' time and see if it has changed.

LH: What processes have you implemented in the business to combat unconscious bias? Eg Facebook does not allow anyone to interview for new recruits unless they have had unconscious bias training.

WA: Being honest, we have not done anything specific. Our standard recruitment process involves multiple interviewers, and back to our values, this is the biggest filter. But it is a very good point and something I will look at.

LH: Name one thing you're going to commit to doing as a result of this interview?

WA: This week in San Francisco, we have all our managing directors and senior leaders together. It's where we set the agenda for the whole year. One of the key topics is talent, and everyone is coming with their golden eggs – the most interesting, edgy and progressive talent. The future business leaders.

What I'd like to do is look at that list and analyse it in more detail. Is it living up to our values and our diversity question? If I look at it and go it's 80% male or 80% female, that's a problem. If I look at it and go, they're all blonde hair and blue eyes, that's a problem. I'll actually be looking at that and asking why it is the way it is. If it looks perfectly balanced, then why have we got to that list? Is it that we've learned to feed the talent coming through in the right way or is it by chance? If it's by chance, that's not great. If it's by nature of the business, then that's a good step forward.

LH: And finally, who would you nominate for the next Token Man interview?

WA: David Mayo, who is the group chief marketing officer at O&M in APAC, and Roy Capon, chief executive at Lavender in Australia.

Token Man is an initiative from the founder of Creative Social, Daniele Fiandaca. Previous interviews have included WPP chief executive Sir Martin Sorrell in conversation with The Drum's Diane Young.

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