Tracy De Groose Carat Diversity & Inclusion

Battling the bias: Dentsu Aegis CEO Tracy De Groose on losing the 'lookylikies'


By Jessica Davies, News Editor

October 28, 2015 | 7 min read

Dentsu Aegis Network’s Tracy De Groose believes the ad industry must abandon its tendency to recruit ‘lookylikies’ or risk stifling creativity. Here she talks about the new face of leadership, the importance of building a culture of trust, and her experience battling breast cancer.

It’s not just gender imbalance but a lack of overall diversity within businesses’ talent bases that will prove harmful to the future of creativity. Dentsu Aegis Network UK and Ireland chief executive Tracy De Groose believes it is diversity that will safeguard future innovation, and companies not aggressively addressing this now are in for a hard time.

Stepping up to the role as head honcho to agencies Carat, iProspect, Isobar, McGarryBowen, Posterscope and Vizeum took some adjusting, she admits. But a year and a half into the job she already has five UK acquisitions, including content agency John Brown Media, under her belt. An exhausting process by anyone’s standards, yet De Groose only has eyes for the next growth charge.

The areas in which the network has invested – social, mobile, content and commerce – are indicative of the biggest market trends, with De Groose stressing that in today’s environment where ‘disrupt or be disrupted’ has become the status quo, the role of the media agency has evolved “beyond belief”. She adds that the slew of acquisitions has put it on stronger footing as an alternative to network giant WPP.

“It has a very strong position in the UK market and it is to be admired in many ways, but you don’t want the market to just be about one group. Clients want choice.”

The marketing landscape has never been more challenging but De Groose’s life was brought into sharp focus a few years ago when she was diagnosed with breast cancer – an ordeal she says irrevocably changed her perspective on life. “I was in complete shock. Nobody in my family had it and I was at that age when you think you’re invincible. But one day I got a test and they told me there and then. I didn’t go back to work for six months.”

At the time De Groose was chief executive of Carat and by the time she had come through it and returned to work she had been promoted to chief executive of the entire network, in charge of some 3,000 employees. She believes the decision to promote her to the most senior role in the UK immediately after being ill demonstrates the importance of trust between employer and employee, and is what underpins great leadership.

“When they trust you it’s amazing what you give back, and for me, as a leader, that is really important.

“The challenges in life are the things you don’t anticipate or allow for – the curve balls. Getting through that and then coming back to a promotion – it’s times like that when you realise how important culture fit is and a value system that matches yours.”

The overall structure and role of leadership is shifting away from the command and control, micromanagement tactics that previously dominated workplaces, to one which focuses on fostering a diverse talent base and creating a culture of trust in which people are rewarded on performance rather than hours clocked. De Groose is a big believer in payment by results – a model increasingly popular within agencies as a means of responding to client demands to be more accountable and transparent.

She welcomes this change, admitting that the industry as a whole has been guilty of operating “too rigidly”, with agencies calling the shots and clients having to fit around how they work. That’s changing as clients begin to probe more and ask different questions. It has also shone a spotlight on marketing’s accountability as a whole, which she believes can only be a good thing for businesses.

Yet there are still outdated modes of thinking, especially around gender, which must be crushed if agencies are to compete in the war for talent. “Women can be true to themselves and find a way to be a leader in any organisation, and succeed on their own terms, as opposed to the old days when people thought women had to behave like men to succeed. And yet that mentality still exists.”

She refers back to when WPP chief Sir Martin Sorrell blundered by telling a room of female business leaders at a London WACL event that they must be more aggressive if they want to be successful. This statement “incensed” many people, says De Groose, by implying women must emulate characteristics unnatural to them. “It is our difference that will make us successful,” she stresses.

“It is possible to operate in a senior role and have a family and a life in a way that isn’t trying to fit into a male way of doing it. Women must back themselves more. It’s not a confidence issue, it’s a belief issue – it’s a voice. Find your voice that works – it doesn’t need to be a voice that works for men. Women often appear in a way that makes out they are not confident, but they are – they just aren’t expressing themselves in the same way.”

She points to a current hot topic around unconscious bias – or “the stuff under the radar people don’t realise they are doing or saying” – something both men and women are guilty of and which, left unfettered, fosters latent sexism.

With the rate at which technologies continue to iterate and shake up established business models, companies are likely to be in a state of flux for some time. As such, despite the rise in automated advertising and algorithm-centric marketing, a diverse talent base will invigorate companies.

Yet currently the industry is “incredibly risk averse”, too often opting for candidates similar to themselves, with creative directors particularly guilty of this recruitment bias.

The statistic that only three per cent of creative directors are female is harmful for overall diversity, according to De Groose.

“As an industry we are guilty of appointing ‘lookylikies’, and the people most guilty of recruiting in their own image are creative directors. And it’s not because they think men are better or ‘people like me are better’, but when operating at pace and under pressure you end up defaulting to what you know – tried and tested stuff. But you have to shift that mentality because diversity drives innovation. Having different thinking coming together is what will drive ideas and creativity. It goes beyond gender, but will be driven by gender.”

It is something companies must consciously work towards, but without succumbing to the notion of filling a quota. De Groose feels that the responsibility for ensuring Dentsu Aegis cultivates diversity and empowers its own people lies with her, and will be a core focus for her in the coming years. “We need to start putting some targets behind diversity, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”

This interview was first published in The Drum's 28 October issue.

Tracy De Groose Carat Diversity & Inclusion

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