MediaCom's Karen Blackett: 'You can't morph into somebody else in order to succeed at work'
The Token Man is a series of interviews conducted by prominent women in the marketing industries as they quiz men on their views and policies on gender diversity. In this edition, the format is flipped on its head as founder of the initiative, Daniele Fiandaca of Creative Social, catches up with MediaCom chairwoman Karen Blackett.
Daniele Fiandaca: What do you understand about the Token Man initiative and why did you agree to get involved?
Karen Blackett: I genuinely believe that women and equality isn't a women’s issue. It's a social issue, which requires everybody to get involved to change it, especially smart men. I think we tend to have lots of women networks, which is great and supportive and we cheerlead each other, but we need to bring in men in order to make a difference and make change happen. I think the fact that you're doing this is fantastic.
DF: It would be good to talk first about your own personal experiences. What have you found during your career to be the biggest barriers, and how did you overcome them?
KB: I have been very fortunate. I've worked with some very smart men in my career who just saw talent and didn't recognise it according to gender. Everyone who I’ve worked with at MediaCom has always wanted to nurture, uncover and promote talent. I have never felt as though I didn't get a role or position because of gender, or that it was an issue.
Saying that, I have learned how to be flexible with my style to get a point across, as well as my environment. If a pub made my boss more comfortable, then I was happy taking him to the pub to chat.
DF: On that point, people make assumptions that the only way to be successful in the media industry is by behaving like a man. How would you describe your leadership style, and have you changed it at all?
KB: I know it's an overused word but I talk a lot about authenticity. You can't morph into somebody else in order to succeed at work. A recent study by Deloitte University found that 61 per cent of people said they are “covering” on some personal dimension (appearance, affiliation, advocacy, association) to fit in within their workplace. I just think if you're doing that, you're going to end up being miserable at work.
DF: Certainly. This is something that one of our Token Men, Michael Brunt, talks about in terms of being a massive issue before he came out.
KB: The figure for somebody who identified as gay was 83 per cent, and for women it was 66 per cent. I've never felt I needed to emulate a bloke to succeed. I've had to flex my own style in order to make my point land, but I still do it as me.
I always talk about a story where, when I was more junior in my career but still senior (I was on the board and I was a business director, so I was leading pitches), we pitched for a well-known breakfast cereal. We didn't win it but in such a small industry, you sort of know who your opposition is in the media agency that did win. They took the client out for dinner and asked them, as you would do (and I’d do exactly the same thing), “What did the other agencies do?” so you get a little bit of competitive insight. And they asked about MediaCom.
The client, two blokes; a Scottish bloke and a South African bloke, said, “MediaCom were actually quite good, but there's no way we would ever have had a female business director, let alone a black one.” I would be lying if I didn't say that that was incredibly hurtful. That was personal. And that was in 2002. It wasn’t about the work that we had created as an agency.
I not only felt hurt but I felt guilty because I'd lost the agency a piece of business because I'm a woman, because I'm black. It was awful. Then thinking about it rationally, if we had won that account and I'd been forced to work with those two people day in, day out, I would have been miserable because I would have been trying to cover and not be me. And I don’t want to do anything about my gender. I don’t want to do anything about my ethnicity. I'm actually very happy.
DF: How did your agency react to this? Were they supportive?
KB: They were pleased we didn't win the client in the end and reminded me of karma - both individuals had left the organisation within a year.
DF: I think diversity is the biggest issue facing the advertising industry right now. What do you think it can learn from the media industry, which seems far more progressive?
KB: I think we absolutely recognise that we need to widen the doorway we recruit talent from. I think media agencies were much quicker to look at non-grads as well as grads coming from other universities, not just the Ivy League universities. Ad agencies tended to fish from the same pond. I also think that there's more flexibility in media agencies in terms of how we work because there are so many different roles now. We attract different sorts of people. You can be a data strategist, an econometrician, a content producer, a social media expert or work in international at a major agency. I just think the roles are more diverse, which attracts a more diverse kind of person.
I also think on the media agency side, role modelling has really helped. Now we've got a lot of women running media agencies in the UK, which makes people believe it's possible, However, there is still a long way to go. Nabs recently did a study that showed 55 per cent of women who weren't yet mothers thought that becoming a mother would be prohibitive to their career progression.
It’s like, if you have a kid, you're not going to progress in your career. I think that says a lot about our industry that that perception is still around. And it’s perhaps why only 12 per cent of our industry is over the age of 45. To me, that points to the fact that we don’t embrace working parents in the industry. It's too hard. There's a perception that you can't be a parent and work in this industry, which has a massive impact on gender equality and diversity. I see the lights go out in some of our new mums’ eyes, like, “How the hell am I going to do this?” because we are a service industry, and we do have clients. It is important that we front up to difficult questions from clients and make it clear that flexible working hours is how we keep our best talent, especially as I know how productive working parents are.
DF: And what have you specifically done at MediaCom?
KB: Quite a lot, actually. Over the last 12 months, we have been piloting a programme called Project Blend, which is an app that allows conversation between a manager and their team members to help them understand what the most important blend in their life is – the important elements, and to understand how to blend those elements with work. It is trying to combat this idea of ‘work-life balance’, which I have banned because it makes it sound as though there's a winner and a loser, and it's negative.
For me, it's all about blend, and it doesn't matter whether you're a working parent or not. We have piloted it with working parents – men as well as women. I genuinely think men want to go home and read the bedtime story, have bath time, attend the school assembly and make sure that they're there on sports day, just as much as women do. They just don’t show it or they don’t talk about it.
We also have a female leadership course at the agency called Shine, where we send people off on a residential course. They all go to Lyme Regis and come back confident, empowered, and assertive, which is brilliant. In June, we are also launching Inclusion@MediaCom, which is a program for anybody (not gender-specific) who wants to come and talk about the various issues we all face working in this industry.
Finally, we have an apprenticeship programme to make sure we've got social mobility and diversity coming into the industry. We're including traineeships this year too. It's really important.
DF: Project Blend sounds fascinating. Can you tell me a bit more about it?
KB: As I mentioned we piloted the programme last year initially aimed at parents (mums and dads) but it soon became clear that this was something that could have a much wider impact on our business. We did a small follow-up with talent that weren’t parents, including a triathlete. We soon realised that this was a fantastic tool to help managers and talent have discussions about what was important in their blend. What motivates staff in life – both inside and outside of work – contributes to a happy and productive work force and it is important for us to understand that.
We are now rolling this out and it is being made available for all managers and above. We are officially launching the next phase of the programme in July. The great thing about this tool is not only will it facilitate these important conversations between managers and talent but it will also give us a true understanding on the wellbeing of our talent. We want the best and most engaged talent to work at MediaCom and we think Blend will help us do this.
DF: So what has been the impact of these on your business? What are the percentages of men to women? And on the board?
KB: Across the whole agency we are 57 per cent women. At a senior management level the stats fall slightly and are as follows:
- 48 per cent senior management women (director level and above)
- 33 per cent managing partner level and above
- 44 per cent exec board
DF: How do you feel about those numbers?
KB: I think we need to ensure we maintain equality at all levels of the agency. The drop from 57 per cent to 33 per cent needs more focus.
DF: We have seen a very small percentage of fathers in the industry taking shared parental leave. What do you think is driving this?
KB: I genuinely believe fathers are just as interested, just as keen, just as focused, and find it just as important. They just don’t talk about it, or don’t feel as if there's permission to talk about it. There's still some sort of stigma, but I do think that's changing. Certainly I'm hoping I'm raising my six-year-old to be a new man and that he feels comfortable talking about these things without any sort of stigma.
I also think it takes a role model to make the change, to allow for permission to be given for men to take it, as it can still be frowned upon. I do think Mark Zuckerberg taking four months’ parental leave is brilliant. It was a powerful message to the rest of the business. To a certain extent, it’s why I am taking my three-month sabbatical. Not just because I want to do it, but also I want people to see that if a chairwoman can do it, then everyone can do it. It only takes one person to start, and then it cascades.
DF: Going back to MediaCom, what are you doing on the parental leave side?
KB: Our parental leave policy is the same whether it's for men or women, which took a lot to push through because whatever we do in one market sort of has to apply globally. We get the same in terms of the gold package, which is elevated pay once you've served a longer period of time at the agency. Also a baby bonus when the baby’s born and an increase in pay for the first month when you come back, to help with childcare costs.
DF: Brilliant. I know quite a lot of parents who would have appreciated having something like that. So, I keep on hearing from men that they are scared to speak about gender diversity. How do we change this?
KB: I think part of the issue is that we've all become a bit P.C. People are scared to talk in case they get it wrong. But part of it, like anything you do for the first time, is putting your toe in the water, isn't it? Go along to a few events, go along to a few initiatives, write an article about how you really think. It's just a toe in the water and making sure that it's all right. It's learning. You've got to start somewhere.
DF: What other ways can we create change?
KB: Get brands involved. Whether it's as a sponsor, champion, ambassador, whatever you want to call it. Get them involved in the issue because they should be demanding the best work from the most talented teams, which should be a diverse fruit salad of a team. Get clients involved.
I also hope that the league table initiative by the IPA is going to help. There's nothing like a league table. Knowing that it's going to come out again in a year’s time, and if you look equally as shocked as you did the last time around when you find yourself in the bottom half, you’re going to look rather stupid. We are in a competitive industry and I am hoping this initiative will tap into that spirit.
DF: Going back to role models, which female business leaders have most inspired you?
KB: From outside my business, I would say Tess Alps. As a female sales director, she broke boundaries. I think she was a pioneer at PHD in terms of the craft of planning, and media not just being about buying. I think what she created at Thinkbox shows her skill at collaboration; getting loads of different forecasters to come together as one is a skill. And she’s a cheerleader. She’s a cheerleader to men and women. As is Cilla Snowball, who I adore. She was one of the first people who wrote to me when I got my OBE, and she’s always been a massive cheerleader. I think for her to have such a sustainable business and be on top in such a role, shows a lot about Cilla and her character.
Then in my own organisation, Jane Ratcliffe and Sue Unerman have been my boundary pushers because they set the mould for me to be a great working mum; they are as committed about their career and progression as they are about their families. I don’t think either of them has morphed into a man in order to do it. They've been themselves.
DF: Being a working mum yourself, what advice would you give all mothers coming back to the workforce?
KB: Make sure that you prioritise and fight for continued training in the workplace. I read somewhere that according to new research, women are less likely to receive workplace training than men, and men are more likely than women to receive a pay rise following training. There is no doubt that this is having a significant impact on the gender pay gap.
DF: Name three things men can do to support women in the workplace.
KB: Come along to some networking events. Know your own stats for your own organisation. Go through unconscious bias training.
DF: Who would you like to nominate for the next Token Man interview? They can be male or female.
KB: Jon Woods, general manager of Coca-Cola GB&I (client view), Dave King at the Telegraph or Eileen Naughton at Google (media owner view) or Ben Fennell at BBH (agency view).
DF: Thanks Karen. And thanks for all your tireless work on changing the diversity ratios, both within MediaCom but also within the wider industry. Never has it been so important.
Previous interviews in the Token Man series have included Facebook's Steve Hatch, James Whitehead of J. Walter Thomson and WPP's Sir Martin Sorrell.
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