The Drum Awards Festival - Digital Industries

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By Kyle O'Brien | Creative Works Editor

September 22, 2016 | 6 min read

“Assume your opinion matters, because it does.”

That quote sums up the philosophy at Swift, a Portland, Oregon-based agency that bucks the trend of the traditional Mad Ave. agency. What makes this quote – taken from a video showing the many women and some men in the agency talking about how great and open the company is – matter is that it is from an employee at an agency that is run by two women and employs many women.

But Swift isn’t just about being a women-run company in what has mostly been a male-dominated world; it’s about how the agency is run. Ideas flow freely and opinions really do matter, without regard to what level you are at in the company. The fact that there is equality and parity in the agency is second nature to the two founders, Alicia McVey, CCO, and Liz Valentine, CEO.

The company decided to make the video, “We work best together” which touts the equality within the company as said, unscripted, by its employees, because instead of just being the diverse group that works with big companies like Starbucks, Google, Pandora, Adidas, Stouffer’s and Twitter, they wanted to help lead the conversation about being diverse and different.

“I think that our approach has always been not to talk about this subject really,” said McVey. “It's just who we are. It's a part of our DNA. I think that for a long time it was just really important to exist and we didn't need to be out there in the world to talk about it. I think with everything that's been going on within this year, the past year, and it bubbling up, it seemed like it was the right opportunity for us to talk about it. We're really proud of what we've created here.”

Valentine continued: “The spark is just how loud the conversation has been around inequality in the industry: wage inequality, sexual harassment. There's a cacophony of conversation around this inequality plaguing advertising. I think that's a bit of a spark this year. We actually have an incredibly strong point of view on the power of gender equality and it was just time for it to be told,” she said.

One of the reasons Swift, a Possible agency, made the video was from a recruiting perspective, trying to cull the best and most diverse group they can in a town that features many successful creative agencies.

“It’s a really good recruitment tool as we continue to grow. In the video you heard a lot of people saying, ‘You don't know what it's going to be like until you're here and it is really different,’ and that's something that I think gets more and more challenging to convey in recruiting people from New York or from L.A. It's something that by having this video, having the actual people who work, live, and breathe everyday here can give that kind of testimony of what it's like to work here,” said McVey.

What’s important to them is that they put a call out to the staff to see who wanted to participate. Nothing was forced nor scripted, and all the answers are the genuine words of the staff.

“It was very open-ended and totally unscripted. The fact that the themes that emerged did emerge, a real unified body of themes, totally unprompted, totally unscripted, was pretty amazing and surprising. It just felt incredibly genuine,” said Valentine.

“We have around six hours of footage of just allowing people to speak with very little structure. That it all comes from the truth of their stories makes it compelling. It was like trying to find the best nuggets that could string a story along, that had an arc, and that truly represented as many people here as possible,” added McVey.

The answers from numerous staff members are telling:

“A good idea can come from any person.”

“Male or female…it seems like you’ve made a contribution.”

“I’ve worked on a lot of campaigns where I don’t think we would have gotten to the level of work that we got to if a woman’s voice hadn’t been taken into consideration.”

“Here, I feel it’s a lot less competitive and more collaborative.”

That last quote has some heft for the company. One thing that gives some perspective on the video is that both McVey and Valentine worked in the cutthroat agency world out east.

“Having come from the east coast, and Alicia's from the east as well, one of the big differences to me is the east coast is very competitive. For us, it's about, ‘How do we all work together?’ It's collaboration. It's balance. I think inclusivity was something that you heard loud and clear, and having come from the northeast, which is a very intense, competitive, exclusive place, that's something that drew me to Portland that I love — that we can work together and not necessarily be trying to one up each other,” said Valentine.

The video has been a positive experience, both internally and externally.

“What I got from that is that it seemed really hopeful to me. There are some younger women here that have never worked anywhere else where they've had the challenges that some of the older women have. It was great to hear that from some of these young women and be really proud of what we've created here, and also be really proud of how the world is moving. Still, a lot needs to be done, and a lot needs to change, but it was easier for me to see that progression that we have made as a society,” said McVey.

The video has gotten positive feedback within the industry and on social media, which should be a boon to recruitment and growth for Swift. So where do they go next? With six hours of footage, the group wants to highlight some of the topics that came up during the interviews and possibly do a video targeted to companies that share Swift’s values.

“I do think that if you can authentically create a video like this, there's, to me, no way that it's not going to turn into business development growth. We have what clients are looking for when it comes to that diversity. There's just power in having it and having captured it in such a beautiful way to turn it into a conversation,” concluded Valentine.

Additional reporting by Doug Zanger.

Advertising Diversity & Inclusion Swift

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