The Token Man: Iris CEO Dan Saxby talks to Leila Bartlam about why "it should be a parenting issue, not a mothering issue."

Token Man: Dan and Leila

The latest Token Man interview in the Gender Diversity series finds Leila Bartlam, an independent production consultant, interviewing Dan Saxby, chief executive at Iris.

Leila Bartlam: Thanks for taking part. First things first, why did you want to do this interview?

Dan Saxby: It’s close to our agency agenda. Having this sort of discussion means we put Iris out there and can commit to females in our business, and hopefully learn a little bit more about the challenges women are facing and how we can collectively help to overcome them - as a business, and as part of this industry. It’s part of our ongoing people promise to ensure the best people and talent can fulfil all their career ambitions with Iris.

LB: Do you feel nervous about putting Iris out there?

DS: A little bit. We’re not perfect - I expect some searching and tough questions.

The good news is that we can have a constructive debate on where we’re doing well, and also the areas where we need to improve.

LB: I’ll start with the toughest question. Iris has a reputation as a boys club. Do you think this is true?

DS: It doesn’t really matter if I think it’s true or not, if that’s the reputation that’s out there, then it’s up to us to sort out. My hope is that it’s a historic reputation, on the basis that six out of our seven founders were men. It would have been impossible to pretend back then that we had a balanced leadership team.

However, when we really started hearing that reputation from different people a few years ago, we tried to do something about it and diagnose what the problems were.

One key problem was that we struggled to bring women back into the agency after their maternity leave. Up to that point of their careers, our analysis showed women were paid more and progressed quicker - but then we lost them when they made the decision to start a family. For whatever reason, they didn’t see Iris as somewhere that was supportive for working mums.

So we changed our maternity (and paternity policy) to include more flexible working (including carer days for parents to take off when kids are sick) and more support (including mummy mentors, financial advice and childcare vouchers).

And our London board went from 17% female to 40% female in two years, which is good progress - but we still have a job to do to ensure this carries on through the rest of the business, at all levels, in all departments.

LB: What are the percentages at Iris for heads of department, board level etc?

DS: 45% female across the agency. However when you go up to £60k, that slips to 30%. Clearly, there is still a drop off. I’m sure if we went up another level, we’d see another drop off, which we need to analyse.

Interestingly, I think it’s more of a London-specific problem. Globally, 30% of our managing directors are female and we have three regional creative marketing officers who are all female. In London, we have female leaders across the major areas of our business in Iris culture and Iris concise.

LB: It’s a problem we’re seeing across the industry – what can you do about that at Iris?

DS: We’re a generational company so a lot of the focus has been on making sure that we’ve got waves of brilliant talent coming through.

In creative, we have an amazing abundance of female talent in the mid and junior levels. We have to make sure that all these females are inspired by working with female creative directors. We have a couple of superstar senior women in our creative department, but not enough.

We’ve got a hugely successful track record of nurturing people through the business but we also need to actively go out and find the very best talent at a senior creative level to bring them into Iris.

LB: Do you think that the senior female creative talent is out there?

DS: If you go by the measure of briefing headhunters without specifically saying you are looking for a female creative, 90% of CVs that come back will be male. If that’s the representation of the market – then no, there isn’t enough talent out there. I don’t believe that is representative of the market. But you have to work hard to find those people - maybe the recruiters should enter into this debate as well.

Being gender specific on recruitment briefs might be what is necessary for agencies to reap the benefits of having a balanced company. We make sure we have the right number of producers, planners, creative technologists, creatives we need to have the right balance between men and women as well.

LB: When you say that recruiters should be entering the debate, is this not something you are actively discussing with your own recruitment consultants?

DS: When specifically briefed, recruitment consultants will come back with a more balanced gender split. It is something that you need to put in the brief though, which demonstrates the challenge facing agencies. Equally, agency principles may be unclear about the legality of positive discrimination.

LB: What is Iris doing specifically for gender diversity?

DS: We have an initiative led by senior women, Women Inc, which is a team within Iris with a voice inside the agency and outside, to support female talent and help shape the environment we are working in. We are actively investing in training at all levels, and one of our board directors, Amy Bryson, was shortlisted for the IPA Woman of Tomorrow award. As a superstar in our agency, we contributed to her grant from Women in Advertising and Communications London and funded her course with Shine.

We took a lot of advice around our parent pack on what would be best when it came to maternity and paternity packages. The main thing is flexible working. We try and accommodate both part time and flexible working. This has been hugely successful. We have already addressed pay – we give 20 weeks full pay, and an extra month’s salary for people to come back. We have a number of childcare benefits plus carer days for when kids get sick, to try and stop the unnecessary guilt parents feel about leaving the office. Two of our dads this year are taking longer paternity leave, which we absolutely encourage.

LB: What is the gap between your maternity and paternity leave? Do you think the argument that this gap needs to ultimately be brought down to zero is the only solution to true equality as a parent, is a valid one?

DS: That is the logical end goal. The question will be whether given the level of investment required, would the potential beneficiaries prefer other parental benefits such as training or more flexible working?

LB: Do you think Iris is accepting of parents?

DS: I hope so – or at least, I hope we are compassionate and understanding. As a dad of two young children (my wife also works), I see it, and I also see it through my wife’s eyes; the pressures and challenges parents face. It’s a parenting debate – not a mothering debate. As I said, the last two years have been transformative for Iris in that sense

LB: Given you both work, I would be interested to know who out of the two of you will go home early to look after the kids if they are ill? The reason I ask is that it appears that in the majority of cases this will be the mother and this can also be limiting. Do you think this needs to change?

DS: For any pre-planned parenting duties, we will divide equally.

When one of our children is ill, we have a quick discussion about who can get back or be there until family can help. My wife probably does this on two-thirds of the occasions. But yes, as I said above, it should be a parenting issue, not a mothering issue. The more we can do to encourage that view, the better.

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

DS: No we don’t. We have examined if we have a pay gap, and what we do for young talent. Young females get paid more than men in the early stages of their career. On the board, there is equality. And at the most senior level, men and women are paid equally. We will continue to monitor this.

LB: Why is gender diversity important for Iris and the industry?

DS: You don’t need to look far to see the studies that tell you - gender diversity (in fact, diversity across the board) will increase your agency performance, commercially and creatively. Agencies are looking at it on an individual level rather than macro level. We need to forget about any other agenda - the business will be better with more women in it. Creative will be better. Culture will be better. Financial performance will be better.

Creativity should reflect the people that are making purchases. Men in that respect, are in the minority.

LB: How does this discussion feed into the bigger debate around diversity?

DS: The good news is that the diversity debate has spurned lots of programmes designed to help agencies find diverse talent that would not normally find advertising as a career. We have been working with Livity and Digify to find black, asian, and minority ethnic talent to bring into the agency as apprentices. We’re working with the IPA on Creative Pioneers, which we’ve been involved in in the last two years. We’re also working with the IPA to bring STEM graduates into advertising to feed the increasing science of what we do. And we’re working on a campaign for A New Direction, to encourage better acceptance of arts and creative in inner city schools.

I’m also really proud that some people from Iris have joined the Pride AM initiative from Scott Knox and the MAA, another initiative supporting diversity in our industry.

I am proud to think that people could look at Iris and think, regardless of background, sexuality or gender, I can fulfil my career ambitions here, and there will be inspiring senior people to look up to.

LB: Do you think you have a good understanding of females in a male-dominated work place?

DS: My job is to talk to everyone in the company and to try to understand how they feel about life at Iris. And I work hard to use the insights I get from that to create a better environment and find role models within the agency.

LB: So from your chats, what are the biggest challenges for women in a male-dominated environment? And what are you doing to help to break down these barriers?

DS: From speaking to female colleagues at iris, they don’t see Iris as a male-dominated environment. However, part of my role as chief executive is to ensure a balanced gender split across the agency. My focus is to improve this in the senior creative ranks, so that the junior creatives have more female role models they can look up to. As I said, supporting this is Women Inc, an initiative within Iris in London which supports female talent, creates opportunities for training and mentoring, and helps to shape the environment we are working in.

LB: Do you wish you’d done anything differently in your career to help solve the issue?

DS: Throughout my career, I have been passionate about and focused on the diversification of the agency – both internationally and by discipline. That means I’ve always searched for top talent in tune with local cultures and expert in their fields. In my time abroad driving global growth of the network, I built teams and agencies that had gender equality, but not by design.

In my role leading the London office, I recognised that we were spoilt in terms of talent. We really do have the best people and talent in the world here. But looking around the leadership team, I found myself (not by design again) surrounded by a lot of men. It takes time to ensure you can find or nurture talent into senior roles so starting earlier on that journey would have meant that we could now be leading the industry on female equality. In reality, that remains our ambition.

LB: Why would a talented successful female want to work at Iris?

DS: Hopefully for the same reason anyone would want to work here, which is to fulfil their career ambitions. My job is to help people do that – that doesn’t matter if you’re male or female. I think the main focus I have now is to find those people who want an adventure in advertising, not just a job in advertising.

LB: What does success look like for a senior woman in Iris?

DS: Is that for me to decide or for me to ensure the environment is supportive for senior women to fulfil their career ambitions at Iris?

LB: We’ve been very focused on women – how do you bring men into the debate?

DS: Bringing young leaders into the debate and into the journey – the men and women that are going to shape the agency of tomorrow – that is where we should be focusing our attention. They are the people that will have the biggest impact over all. Those aspiring leaders should be passionate about driving through that change. We need to create female role models in all departments, give them freedom to really make change and let them get on with it.

LB: But coming back to men, name me the one key behaviour change you think men can make in the workplace that will have the biggest impact on fostering gender diversity?

DS: Focusing on finding talent on an individual level. It needs to be on a macro level. I’ve heard debates around hiring ‘the best person for the job.’ It is essential to consider not just the person, but the make-up of the department or agency. We know that diverse agencies are more successful. So a macro view to ensure diversity of skills, diversity and gender is critical.

LB: Do you think there is a risk that the Kevin Roberts debacle will stop more men getting into the gender diversity discussion?

DS: It shouldn’t stop men at all. It should be the challenge for all male leaders to step up and show that we’re not all part of old school, boys club networks. Many of us are taking action to ensure females can reach the top of our industry and as a result, make our agencies more successful.

LB: One of the things that comes up is the lack of female role models for women to aspire to. Who are the women you find inspiring and why?

DS: Michelle Morgan, co-founder and chief executive of Livity. Michelle has created a highly successful agency that remains true to her passion and reason for starting it in the first place.

Emma Jones MBE at Enterprise Nation. Emma is an inspiration. She continues to be a figure-head for start-ups in the UK, a key advisor to government and is an absolute pleasure to work with.

Claire Humphris, one of the original founders at Iris, for her passion and enthusiasm over the last 16 years of the Iris journey.

Nina Taylor, one of our superstar creative directors and set for the very top.

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

DS: Accelerate the careers of our most talented females.

LB: Finally, who would you like to nominate for the next Token Man interview? And if so why?

DS: Maurice Levy. He’s been reported on a great deal in the news around gender equality recently. Sir Martin Sorrell has been the Token Man. It’s timely for Mr Levy to be given a chance to provide his views.

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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