The Token Man: James Whitehead of J. Walter Thompson on why 'diversity of thought comes from diversity of talent'

James Whitehead, joint chief executive of J. Walter Thompson, and Caitlin Ryan, executive creative director at Cheil Worldwide, discuss how the advertising industry can become more inclusive in the latest of a series of gender diversity interviews conducted by prominent women from across the marketing industries.

Caitlin Ryan: Thanks for agreeing to do a Token Man interview, James. Perhaps a good place for you to start is for you to tell me what you understand about the Token Man initiative and why you wanted to be involved.

James Whitehead: I’m a big advocate for the need for diversity, equality and gender balance, not just at J. Walter Thompson, but also more broadly across the whole industry. I keep going to industry events on the subject and find that it’s primarily women talking to women, and often it’s not very action-based. It’s really important that the conversation is more rounded and has equality and balance – and should involve men more than it currently does. So when I was introduced to Token Man at The 3% Conference, I leaped at the opportunity. I think it’s a really great opportunity for men to get more involved and encourage other men to do so too.

CR: Now, let’s talk a bit of data first. What are the percentages of men to women in J. Walter Thompson?

JW: Obviously we’re on a constant journey on this and the percentages keep shifting, but in the right direction to make them more balanced, which is the way we want it to be. Overall, we have slightly more women than men. About 53 per cent of all the staff are women. About a year ago we broadened out our management team and we made it more open and more inclusive. There are seven of us now sitting on the management team, three of whom are women.

CR: OK, and what about your board?

JW: When you go to the more senior third of the company, there are about 35-40 per cent women. I understand that’s dropped from probably about 50 per cent at a more junior level.

CR: And what is the ratio in your creative department?

JW: The creative department is anywhere between 20–25 per cent, depending on the month, with the variance being due to freelancers.

CR: So, a quarter of your creative team is female?

JW: Yes, and seven of the 10 hires in the creative and tech departments this last year were women.

CR: How do you feel about these ratios?

JW: We’ve got to keep working at it, and we’ve got to keep putting programmes in place that make sure we’re seeing the right action. There are four key areas of focus for action – both for us, but also across the industry.

The first of those is encouraging more young women to take an interest in and join the industry. The second is supporting and inspiring women to progress their careers to the highest levels. The third is attracting and retaining more and better female creative talent, and the fourth is generally creating an environment that delivers a manageable work-life balance for women, and for men as well.

CR: There’s been a lot of recent focus on hiring practices, blaming the ‘in my own image’ as a reason for the lack of diversity. Do you think this happens at J. Walter Thompson, specifically in the creative department?

JW: Our heads of account management, our head of project management, our head of operations and production, our head of new business and marketing and head of talent are all women.

The expansion of the management team to involve more women has really helped shift the dial considerably. So, we don’t see that as a significant problem across the agency. Yes, there may have been potentially some issues relating to that in the creative department, but we’re making changes within our programmes and our policies to make sure that that doesn’t exist here.

CR: What are those changes?

JW: We are making sure that we are involving our female senior management staff in senior hires within the creative department.

We’re making sure that there’s always a balanced amount of male to female candidates for any new role within the creative department. We’re making sure that 50 per cent of all the placement teams are going to be female. There are all sorts of other mentoring and training and coaching programmes that we’re bringing in. They will make sure that both women and men within the creative department feel that it’s an environment where they’re really supported.

CR: They sound like great initiatives to get women in. Do you see there’s a drop-off of women in the agency as they move higher up?

JW: Yes there is, and as I said, the numbers overall probably drop from about 50 per cent to about 35-40 per cent as people get more senior up through the agency.

CR: Why does this happen?

JW: I think there are a number of reasons. We have seen quite a lot of drop-off around the maternity period, so we’re making sure that we’re putting in all the support systems that we can to encourage women to come back when they become mothers. We’re actually putting in similar systems for fathers too.

CR: Are you doing anything else specifically around helping women ‘stay in’?

JW: We need to look at making sure that we have the right role models at a senior management level – that’s really important. It’s important for women in the industry to be able to look up to great female role models and have the confidence that they can have those positions themselves.

CR: So which women do you think are the real role models in the industry?

JW: I don’t need to look further than the women in our own management team who together, are great role models – we are one of only a few agencies to have exceeded the IPA benchmark of 40 per cent of senior management being women – together they are showing the way towards what balance really looks like.

CR: Your wife is a senior woman in the media industry. Has your enthusiasm for this subject and diversity and helping women ‘stay in’ been influenced by her?

JW: Very much so. Being able to talk really openly with her about all aspects of the diversity and gender balance issues – with her as a senior working mother – has really helped.

CR: What does J. Walter Thompson actively do to encourage mothers to come back into work after maternity leave, and does it work?

JW: About two-thirds of our mothers returned to work this last year following maternity leave. We have very active mentoring and career planning that happens before they go and then when they return. We encourage mothers to take keeping-in-touch days, which help them to gradually reintroduce themselves. We generally accommodate requests to return to work in a flexible working arrangement. Then we have what we call ‘JWT Family’, a spread of initiatives and programmes that are there to support parents when they come back to work.

CR: Your boss, Sir Martin Sorrell, suggested that women need to be more aggressive to succeed in this industry. Do you agree, and if yes, why? If no, do you think women need to change in any way to succeed?

JW: Like everyone, they need confidence and the right support to be the best they can be.

CR: But that does not equate to being aggressive, does it? A confident man is not the same as an aggressive man. Would your advice to a woman in our industry be to be more aggressive?

JW: Everyone has their own way of operating and their own style to achieve their goals. Being aggressive may work for some women or men, less so for others. It comes down to supporting each individual in their choices.

CR: What do you think the biggest challenge is for women when they are in the minority in senior leadership roles?

JW: It was interesting when I was at The 3% Conference. I was, depending on the time of the day, one of between five and 10 men in a room with what felt like hundreds of women. That was an incredible experience for me.

I think that the challenge and the need for women, as it is for anyone, is just about confidence to be themselves. Senior leadership coaching and mentoring really can help support and bring that out. I also think that unconscious bias training is important as well, which is something that we’re starting at the agency this year.

CR: Can we talk specifically around women in the creative department? Two reasons often given for women not moving up the ladder are the laddish, competitive culture and women who have children not being able to put in the hours needed for pitches, shoots, etc. What are your thoughts on this?

JW: We just have to make sure that we are creating the right environment and are giving the right support for people to be the best that they can possibly be. And finding the right balance for both them and the agency. We have a scholarship called the Helen Lansdowne Resor Scholarship, which offers up to about £150,000 worth in total as scholarship funds to support budding female creatives. This is a great step for us as an agency. We also need to show that we are very supportive of programmes and systems like The 3% Conference, which we are also involved in and sponsor. The unconscious bias training is a very positive move, but the focus needs to be on productivity and output rather than on effort, and great people just stand out.

CR: How important do you think diversity is to the quality of the work?

JW: It’s essential. Diversity of thought comes from diversity of talent and so I think that the quality, the relevance and the acceptability of our work is driven by our talent. If you have an imbalance and a lack of diversity, that’s going to adversely affect the work.

CR: So, do you think your work would change if you had a more equal balance?

JW: Yes, it would. And it’s not just about the creative output. It’s also about the thinking and the insight that goes into it. One of the things that we’ve recently done is that we have really looked at TGI and some of the statements within TGI. We’ve partnered with Kantar Media to rework some of those statements and categorisations about women to make sure that they are as real and contemporary as possible. We’ve also undertaken a significant piece of global research into modern femininity, and that completely re-categorises what it really is to be a woman in 2016.

CR: Would you worry about losing a pitch if clients were to walk into a room of all-male agency representatives?

JW: We just wouldn’t do that, so it’s not a worry to me.

CR: Why would a senior creative woman want to come and work at J. Walter Thompson?

JW: You can come here and create incredible work on the best client list in town, work with an amazingly talented team and a progressive cultural and support system for you to be the best that you want to be.

CR: Which women in your career have most inspired you?

JW: There are too many to mention. But right now I am certainly inspired by Carmen Bekker, Dani Bassil and Cathy Little as partners in our management team. Our global planning director, Rachel Pashley, is inspirational in leading the thinking and research on our research programme on women and female capital.

CR: If you could do one thing differently in your career to support diversity further, what would that be?

JW: I think I’m doing it right now. I think that using my influence to make things better, not just at the agency, but across the industry too, is that one thing. If I could, I would have started earlier.

CR: What would be the one thing, if any, you’ll commit to doing differently off the back of this interview?

JW: Encourage more men to get involved – not just by being more vocal, but with actions too, both at the agency and across the industry. I’m taking on an active role with the IPA to drive the diversity agenda across the board.

CR: Who would you recommend for the next Token Man interview?

JW: The IPA president, Tom Knox.

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.

Get The Drum Newsletter

Build your marketing knowledge by choosing from daily news bulletins or a weekly special.