The Token Man: Brand Union CEO Toby Southgate talks to Pello's Sally Henderson about moving away from 'Mad Men typing pool crap'

Toby Southgate, worldwide chief executive of Brand Union, tells Pello co-founder Sally Henderson the industry needs to move beyond outdated notions of talent, in the latest of a series of gender diversity interviews conducted by prominent women from across the marketing industries.

Sally Henderson: Thanks, Toby, for agreeing to do a Token Man interview. Given how fraught the topic can be, why were you keen to do this?

Toby Southgate: I’m flattered to be invited. As an industry, we need to make progress. That doesn’t happen if people, and leaders in particular, avoid talking about big issues. And this is a big issue.

SH: What is ultimately your role?

TS: As worldwide chief executive, my role is to lead the growth strategy for the network, to make sure our offices and people understand it and can deliver it, and most importantly of all to make sure people want to be part of it.

A huge component of this is driving reputation, driving the quality of work, and building and representing our employer brand.

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

TS: It’s a tool for change in an industry that hasn’t changed enough.

The whole industry is a bit of a 'boys club'. We tend to hire people we know or can get to very quickly, and who we are comfortable with. The industry doesn’t like to go outside and the default setting is to look for more of the same; it’s lazy.

If you get behind gender diversity, you will be different and more attractive and doing a lot better.

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

TS: The challenge of equality and respect. It’s a really hard place to be, but my God it’s a powerful one. Cindy Gallop’s whole thing about ‘changing the ratio’ is a powerful message yet people overlook it too readily.

It’s amazing how blatant the makeup of awards juries is, for example. Earning a spot is one thing; being engaged within the spot is another. Do women have an equal voice at the table? They are still outnumbered.

SH: What is the current gender split in your senior management team?

TS: We are on the precipice of real change and we’re making active decisions to build balanced leadership teams across the agency.

The managing directors in three of our fast-growth offices – Madrid, Singapore and Dubai – are female. Our chief executive for China is female. Our new managing director in India is female. All these people are the future of the agency.

It’s the same story in London, where six of the management team of eight – the biggest office in our network – are female and came from ‘unexpected’ places. A couple have grown through the agency, a couple are really non-traditional hires and two came from our partnership with Digit.

Where we really fall down is at the worldwide agency board – I’m embarrassed to say we have two women on the board of 14. I openly commit to that being a part of my change manifesto. It’s a privilege to have the chance to review and address this as the new network chief executive. And I will.

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

TS: I always want to champion talent and diversity in the form of breaking category or industry norms. We want to learn what we don’t know rather than celebrating what we do. Not just gender discipline – geography, history, education. We need to look in unexpected places for talent.

SH: What do you mean by “unexpected places"? And is there anything to be learnt from this in terms of using alternative methods to find senior talent in the business?

TS: In our little bit of this industry, 'unexpected’ simply means from outside our typical talent pool for senior hires, which is far too often about looking at our immediate competitors. I apply this statement very broadly. Our whole industry is horrifically myopic. Anything that can be done, in any hiring decision, to do something unexpected should be grasped.

SH: Can you please give some examples?

TS: Well, just because someone has worked at a business a little like yours, doesn’t mean that’s the person you should hire.

We’ve brought strategists in from consulting firms and from teaching, and creatives from record labels, architecture, and interior design businesses.

We have a creative director who used to work in a furniture store. Some of our best talent comes from smaller independents – our values include 'gutsy' and that’s actually quite hard to find in someone who’s only ever worked in an A-list agency, or who came through a grad programme. We want scrappy challengers who are up for a fight.

SH: If you could do one thing differently to support diversity further, what would it be?

TS: I hope there’s a theme of doing the right thing rather than the easy thing. I will always use that as a filter and I want it to become an embedded behaviour across the agency, a default setting for leadership.

SH: Can you please give an example of where you might have taken the easy route in the past and what the right thing would be now?

TS: We had an open creative director spot in one of our offices and one of the candidates was internal, a creative director at another office in the network. Save for the initial screenings and introductory discussions, they went through the same process as every other candidate.

They weren’t right for the position. Historically and in other places, that’s the point at which the politics or the big machine would kick in, and you’d be quietly encouraged to ‘just give them a go’. But we knew it wasn’t right. And I wasn’t prepared to make a lazy decision. So we communicated properly and transparently, and the role remains open.

SH: Ultimately whose responsibility should it be in an organisation to help drive more balanced gender equality?

TS: It has to be led by the chief execuitve – if they aren’t practicing it, it simply won’t work. The strategy needs be seen and believed at the top. But it should also become cultural and behavioural: a default setting. That’s an ambition for me.

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

TS: It varies globally in accordance with local market regulations or legislation, but I will say that it’s probably embarrassingly statutory. I’d like to think in a more innovative and flexible way about how we might evolve our support for parents.

SH: And your current policy on paternity leave?

TS: Again, horribly statutory with not enough flexibility or innovation. In certain places – Sweden springs to mind – it’s comparatively and wonderfully generous, but that’s from a UK or US perspective. In Sweden it’s just the norm.

SH: Do you think these policies need to change? Do you recognise that only until we have equal maternity and paternity leave packages will we get equality in the workplace?

TS: Absolutely I do, and it’s something we will look at. I don’t think equality is just about equal packages for new mums and new dads though.

Real equality is complete and unequivocal; it means a singular and consistent approach to every policy, every decision, every action.

SH: Given you are the worldwide chief executive, what is stopping you actually making the relevant changes to maternity and paternity pay?

Well firstly, I’m only a month into the job and working through the network’s priorities for the rest of this year and for 2016. Secondly, I honestly don’t know yet how much independence I have on some specific points of employee policy given we’re part of a big and ultimately publicly listed business.

But I do know that I won’t get to change anything unless I try. I’ll find a way.

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

TS: There’s no policy but I can say we don’t see it internally – we are, at almost every level, a genuine meritocracy from the perspective of compensation and reward.

Today I sat in the executive meeting of the biggest office in our network: including me, it was three men and six women. No one was absent. So that leadership group is 75 per cent women. I’m proud of that, and it’s not unique in our network.

SH: This is fantastic, but are you 100 per cent sure there is no gender pay gap at the executive level or any other level? Do you have systems in place to monitor this?

TS: I’m not absolutely sure, no, but I know our network well and I haven’t uncovered any glaring aberrations as yet. If I do, I’ll fix them.

Everyone in the agency has a specific performance review schedule and salary review timeline, and we run these formally twice a year from November into January and from May into July.

SH: As I am sure you know, women only represent three per cent of the creative directors in the advertising industry globally. What would be your advice for any female aspiring to become a creative director?

TS: There’s definitely a challenge for agencies, and for me it goes wider and broader than the issue of female creative directors.

It’s like Nils Leonard says, look at the bigger issue – why should great female talent want to come and work with your agency? That applies across the whole mix. We talk about getting to the stage where we have a queue around the block of the best people in our industry. It’s a way off but a great behavioural filter. And we’re making progress – in our biggest office, we now have a female executive creative director.

SH: What's the one key behaviour change men can make in the workplace that will have the biggest impact on fostering gender diversity?

TS: I would like everyone to think they are always being watched. Would you be happy watching yourself or hearing yourself in your interactions with colleagues? And for everyone in the agency to be proud to be here, at all times, regardless of gender, role, location. We just need to move as far away as possible from the 'Mad Men typing pool' crap.

Real leadership is not about a single behavour change, it’s about managing and conducting yourself with authenticity. And it’s really obvious when people are running stuff without that honesty.

Management-speak really stinks, it’s totally transparent when someone is spinning a story. If you’re guarded that probably means you’re hiding something.

SH: How can we get more men involved in the discussion?

TS: Just ask them. And if they say no, expose them. Why wouldn’t you want to have this discussion?

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

I will look very hard at the long-term make up of the worldwide agency board – I’m happy to say it’s on my to-do list anyway, and that I see change at that level as a major statement.

SH: Finally, who would you like to nominate for the next Token Man interview?

Ije Nwokorie, the global chief executive at Wolff Olins.

Token Man is an initiative from the founder of Creative Social, Daniele Fiandaca. Previous interviews have included Tribal Worldwide's Allan Blair in conversation with Bima's Bridget Beale, and a Q&A between Geometry Global's Georgia Barretta and Nils Leonard of Grey London.

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