Dentsu Aegis UK & Ireland CEO, Tracy De Groose: 'We can only change things through positive action'

In our latest Token Man interview, co-founder, Daniele Fiandaca, interviews Tracy De Groose, chief executive, Dentsu Aegis UK & Ireland.

Daniele & Tracy DeGroose

DF: Perhaps a good place to start is for you to tell me what you understand about the Token Man initiative and why you agreed to get involved.

TG: Up until recently, everyone saw gender diversity as a woman's issue, which is short-sighted. I’ve always believed that it is imperative to involve men in the conversation because men are equally part of the solution. However, it was not until my husband decided to opt out of his career to pursue a different path that it really hit home and made me realise that to truly affect change, we have to start supporting men having choices too. By giving men more choices, women have more choices. Championing gender diversity for me is equally about opening doors for the roles men can play, as it is opening doors for the roles women can play. My blissful vision of the future is when men and women can sit alongside each other and are free to live their lives the way they want to.

DF: In October 2015, you said, “It’s not gender imbalance but a lack of overall diversity within businesses’ talent bases that will prove harmful to the future of creativity.” Have you seen much change and is it happening fast enough?

TG: It's not happening fast enough. We're all talking about it. Not enough of us are doing things to combat it. We need more activists.

At Dentsu Aegis, last year was our biggest year of initiatives aimed at addressing diversity within our business. I don’t believe the answer can be found in one single initiative. I think you need a multiplicity of things that infect a culture and make a difference. Three examples that we launched last year – our Women & Leadership programme, Gender Equality Network and LGBT+ Network – came from our people rather than me. I think that's when you can start seeing the importance of culture –you're doing something that's working because you're encouraging others to make change.

We are also championing shared parental rights for men and women and actively driving agile working. I think that's a huge thing. Two-thirds of our people now work in an agile way. We are also looking at new business models through agencies like fortysix – an agency of millennials for millennials – not just dropping a handful of diverse talent into businesses and hoping they will instigate change.

I think the only way we change things is by positive actions and interventions across our industry. Last year, Kevin Roberts suggested that it was all done and that we were there. It's quite the opposite. We're just beginning. The movement is gaining momentum and with that momentum comes actions and with actions come results. Have we got the results we want so far? Not anywhere near, but I think the actions are beginning to show progression, which is great.

DF: In that same interview you talked about unconscious bias and specifically the need to not hire lookylikes. How else have you seen unconscious biases manifest themselves in the workplace?

TG: I think there are biases all over and you need to constantly have a level of awareness in everything you do. People tend to connect more, engage with and recognise traits in people who are similar to them.

For example, we spotted bias in our recruitment process when we launched forty six so have completely abolished the need for CVs for entry-level talent. It's much more about doing and creating than it is about face-to-face, one-on-one interviews. We've completely shifted the way that we do that and we’re already seeing the results with more hires from more diverse backgrounds and a drop in resignation rates across the group.

For me, it is a consequence of rethinking how we hire. Rather than hiring people one by one, we are thinking about hiring teams. It's only when you consider the group that you guarantee a good mix. Do you have a team that reflects society? Do they all look slightly different? When you're just replacing one-on-one, you don’t necessarily consider that.

Also, when I first took on this role, I knew we were struggling to hire enough female CEOs. So we introduced a programme to ensure that we're developing our existing female talent as well as creating support systems to naturally get them into CEO roles.

DF: What does this programme and support system look like?

It started last year with a cohort of 15 senior women who went through a year-long programme of coaching, mentoring and networking events. It helped raise the profile of women across the group who might not be as good at merchandising themselves.

As part of their graduation in December, the 15 women presented back to me and it almost made me weep. The difference in their confidence levels was remarkable. By providing them with their own support network as well as raising their profile across the group, they are all accelerating their careers. But what I am most proud of is that the program has taken on a life of its own –it has expanded to include women at all levels and is now being led by the previous year’s participants. Things like this are driven by the people in it, not by the CEO or the group.

DF: Have you done the unconscious bias test yourself?

Yes. I have a slight automatic association for ‘male with career’ and ‘female with family,’ which left me a bit gob-smacked. My mum worked longer than my dad. My husband and I also buck the trend; I am a female CEO and my husband has opted out of corporate life to look after our boys and support me. And I’ve spent years championing women.However, it’s clear that unconscious bias goes much deeper than that – it’s embedded in our psyches and you can’t change some of that. But you can be self-aware and make a conscious effort to continually challenge your choices. Great leadership is about understanding yourself and how your actions and decisions affect the bigger picture.

DF: What changes do businesses need to make to compensate for these biases?

We need to have a much more transparent conversation about the inherent biases in the system, that have built up over time. For our teams, we need to depersonalise it, remove blame and work together to change the system.

Ultimately, what we need to create is less control and more empowerment to enable everybody to recognise the role they play and how we move forward. I think that's what we should be working towards, a workforce where everybody feels connected, and everybody has an equal voice – a role to play in a much bigger system.

DF: Coming back to your business, what are the percentages of men to women across Dentsu Aegis? And on the Board?

Intake wise, it is about 50/50, if not more women than men. At MD level, we are over 40% women. When you get to CEO level, it drops to 27% women.

It is incumbent on all leaders to find ways to change the statistics cs as people move into more senior roles. I believe we need to change the mindset, we shouldn’t be asking HOW do we get more diversity into leadership roles, but WHY would diverse talent choose to be a leader in our organisation. If people look up and don’t see enough role models, both male and female, who are leading the way they want to lead, then they write themselves out of the equation.

We need to build a culture where people believe they can look up and say, I don’t want to do it like that. I’m going to do it my way.

DF: What initiatives have you implemented that have made the most significant difference in your business?

The Women & Leadership program is one, fortysix is another. I believe that the only way we can truly change things is by positive actions and interventions across our industry and fortysix is a great example of that.

It is a new kind of creative agency, built for the digital economy. We’ve taken untapped, raw digital talent, given them the freedom to define their own ways of working and build an agency that solves clients problems by addressing the question, “How do I market to people like you?”

Too many agencies think the solution to diversity is to drop a few people from different backgrounds into the agency. The problem is they feel isolated, they don’t have a voice, they don’t feel connected. Inclusivity is about culture. Making it work or making people feel comfortable that they have a voice.

By creating fortysix, we gave the team a bigger voice. We gave them confidence and a sense of purpose because we want to run it as a business, not as a CSR, diversity or doing-good initiative.

What the team is achieving is amazing. I gave them a clear mandate at the beginning;don’t let the group affect you. Make sure that you affect our group. And they have done that in spades. I think contrary to the common misconceptions people have about digital natives and millennials, they do it with style, with manners, with humility. They're just lovely to have around.

DF: You are one of the few agencies that I know that has a Diversity & Inclusion Manager. How successful has this role been? Would you recommend more agencies make such appointments?

TG: Massively successful. I think when you make it a permanent role, not an add-on, you've got somebody who is the conscience of diversity. They need to influence not dictate, inspire not fear, and bring men into it, not just women. Diversity is not just gender, it’s much broader. It's another action. I think a lot of people misinterpret action for quotas, which I'm not a massive fan of, but I am a fan of positive action.

We need more positive voices championing diversity because I think for a lot of men, when we get it wrong, they feel beat up about it and feel they're part of the problem. Don’t make them part of the problem. Show them an opportunity to change things.

DF: I hear a lot from HR Directors and CEOs that diversity is one of their biggest priorities but when I ask them what their budget is, they look at me blankly. Have you allocated a budget yourself?

Yes. We are heavily investing and we're seeing an ROI on that investment. fortysix has driven us business while Women &Leadership has saved us headhunter fees as we have retained talent and promoted internally. It's about looking at impacts rather than just financial ROI. We have to learn new ways of measuring success so that you can prove it is working and keep measuring progress. We are putting our money where our mouth is and we will continue to do so because that's how we make positive change.

DF: What advice would you give to anyone who is struggling to get gender diversity initiatives signed off?

TG: We have to do what we advise lots of our clients to do. Be brave, accept failure and learn from your mistakes. We've got to start doing and stop going through an approval proposal because it can be really hard. You've just got to do it and prove it works. Don’t ask permission. Beg for forgiveness.

DF: What’s the one thing you have learnt/done in your own career that others can learn from?

Putting my hand up and pushing myself forward for opportunities, which I sometimes did in pretty challenging circumstances. At different points in your life and stages of your career, you are given the opportunity to be brave. Sometimes those points are obvious, others take reflection to recognise. Sometimes it takes someone else to point out your bravery. We are told that men are twice as likely to take risks as women, but everyone has the capacity to be brave. If our future leaders, both men AND women, were inspired to be just 5% braver in their choices and decisions, just how amazing would that be?

DF: Finally, who would you like to nominate for the next Token Man interview? Either male or female?

TG: Nick Theakstone. CEO of GroupM.

Read further instalments of The Token Man series here.

Get The Drum Newsletter

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

Come on in, it’s free.

This isn’t a paywall. It’s a freewall. We don’t want to get in the way of what you came here for, so this will only take a few seconds.