Token Man: Grey London’s Nils Leonard speaks to Georgia Barretta, UK design director at Geometry Global about why the ad industry needs diversity to meet the ‘ferocious need for varied thinking’

In the latest of a series of interviews on gender diversity, as part of a new initiative from Daniele Fiandaca, founder of Creative Social, Georgia Barretta, UK design director at Geometry Global, catches up with Grey London’s Nils Leonard to discuss tackling gender imbalance in the industry.

Georgia Barretta: So, you are chief creative officer and chairman of Grey London. What does this mean?

Nils Leonard: Ultimately, I’m a person trying to create a communications agency that real people are glad exists.

GB: Why do you think gender diversity at a senior management level, and across the organisation as a whole, is important?

NL: The best work happens when very different minds and disciplines come together. Creative collisions are how new things happen. The ferocious need for diverse and varied thinking demands we have the same diversity in the makeup of our companies.

GB: What is the biggest challenge for women currently sitting in a minority at senior management level?

NL: It depends on the company. I don’t believe that companies wake up thinking ‘I’m going to promote a man today,’ but I do believe that as the company grows, they’ll revert to type if possible, often promoting those who mirror what’s worked before. Because of the shape of our companies, that doesn’t tend to be women. And if you care about a diverse team at the top, that needs challenging.

GB: What is the current split in your current senior management team between men and women?

NL: Our exec team is made up of three women, five men and a shredder.

The senior management is made up of 55 per cent women, 45 per cent men – and a dog, if Vicki Maguire has her way.

GB: Is the split something you are actively addressing and if so, how?

NL: We always look at the makeup of all our teams. Gender is one element but we study other stuff too.

GB: What have you done personally as a leader to help solve the issue of gender equality?

NL: I’ve hired the sort of department I wish existed (very mixed); I’ve given my point of view in interviews and public speaking events. More than just gender, we’ve also removed the uni and college from our applicants’ CVs so that we vary the pool from which we hire with no bias.

GB: If you could do one thing differently during your career to support diversity further, what would it be?

NL: I’d remove the conventions around how talent enters our industry. We need a new word for apprenticeships, and we need to question harder whether uni in the creative industry is a powerful use of four years and £30,000. We get the same people from the same places. So I’d drive a change there.

GB: Ultimately, whose responsibility do you think it should be in an organisation to help drive a more balanced gender equality? The chief executive? HR? Senior management team?

NL: It’s down to the culture and those who support that culture. Ultimately, everyone in a company can and should be a force for change.

Although it’s tempting to contact those in power, any real cultural change happens bottom up. It’s always a response to talent. Market to the talent and the money, agencies and leaders will follow.

GB: What is your company’s current maternity leave policy?

NL: In a nutshell, maternity leave is for up to 52 weeks and maternity pay is up to 39 weeks.

We offer an enhanced maternity package for mums with qualifying service (one year by the 15 weeks before the baby is due).

Our enhanced package is:

  • 12 weeks at 100 per cent base pay
  • Six weeks at 55 per cent
  • The remaining 21 weeks follows statutory maternity pay

We also offer our mums to be maternity coaching from maternity coaching experts, Talking Talent. This is in the form of three sessions (before, during and after maternity leave). We also have a mums network and a champion in Nicola Wardell.

To ensure we have an ongoing programme of support for working mums, we have started to hold Survival to Sustainability workshops, run by Talking Talent, which are aimed at those who have returned from maternity leave 1+ years.

As new the Shared Parental Leave system came into force this year, we are looking to broaden our working parent coaching support to our dads.

GB: What is your company’s current paternity leave policy?

NL: In line with the UK standard.

GB: Do you think these policies need to change? And if so, who is driving the agenda for this change?

NL: Yes. I think, having studied them, that we could not only create more opportunities for the working mothers in our business but also innovate in ways that might up our creative product overall.

GB: Does your company have a policy on the gender pay gap?

NL: No. I'd argue our culture and cultural investment in issues like this runs through every area of our business, with our executive makeup being indicative of this mindset.

GB: As I am sure you know, women only represent a small percentage of creative directors in the advertising industry globally. What would be your advice for any aspiring female creative director?

NL: Please see the Adweek article, Why the Perfect Modern Creative is Fierce, Fearless and Female. But also, I'd say that the companies attempting to reinforce the current status quo nowadays would fail. A different question might be ‘why would any talented woman want to work at your company?’. If you can’t answer this, then worry because you will soon be left behind.

GB: Name the one key behaviour change you think men can make in the workplace that will have the biggest impact on fostering gender diversity?

NL: Stay open. Remember that the more varied and powerful your colleagues, the more you grow.

GB: How do you think we can best get more men involved in the discussion?

NL: They’ll have to come around if creativity matters. The slower ones will progress slower. Hold up top female creative talent. And generally try to have an open and humble approach. I’m sure most men think that somewhere in this conversation is a moment they don’t understand that will make them uncomfortable, and are scared of that. Take the sting out of it all, open up and move things forward together.

GB: What’s the one thing (if any) you commit to doing as a result of this interview?

NL: Look more closely at the seemingly standard policies we have as a company that might be holding our progress back. Looking at how we can innovate here and succeed is more than just an effort to win more female talent; it could radically improve our business.

Finally, any suggestions for future interviewers or interviewees? Who do you know that has the most power to make a real difference in helping to redress the gender balance?

Although it’s tempting to contact those in power, any real cultural change happens bottom up. It’s always a response to talent. Market to the talent and the money, agencies and leaders will follow.

More information on the Token Man initiative can be found at the dedicated website.

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