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Karen Kaplan: What women want (not the movie version)

Karen Kaplan joined Hill Holliday as a receptionist, hoping to save enough money for law school. Three decades later, she’s had just about every job there is to have at an agency, gaining valuable insight into how to approach each business challenge with a fresh perspective.

A key player in Hill Holliday’s significant growth as a national powerhouse, Karen is now Chairman and CEO, overseeing the network of three agency brands: Hill Holliday, EP+Co, and Trilia Media. With an executive team composed of over half women, Karen is also one of the few female agency chairmen in the country.

Honored by both Business Insider and Ad Age as one of the most influential women in advertising, she’s helped the agency develop a proven ability to help brands fight a daily share battle in the noisiest categories. The proof lies in the successes of such key clients as Bank of America, Johnson & Johnson, and Novartis.

She has been a contributor to and featured in numerous publications including Ad Age, Adweek, Forbes, Fortune, Huffington Post, and Inc., and is a sought-after speaker appearing on stages, television, and radio outlets around the country. She serves on the board of directors for the Ad Council and several other civic and professional organizations, and is a Trustee of Fidelity Investments’ Strategic Advisers Funds and a director of Michaels Stores.

As a woman, mother, and agency CEO in this business for thirty years, it would be reasonable to assume I know what women want — that I’m keenly attuned to the needs of our agency’s female talent, potential employees, and those of the female consumer, right?

Well, maybe.

One thing I do know is that nobody knows everything. And there’s never been a more important time for agency leaders to park their egos at the door, ask what they could be doing better, and be open to new ideas.

As #TimesUpAdvertising grows, every day I think about how we can make our industry a place where women and people of underrepresented groups want to work, and where they can thrive and do the best work of their lives. I’ve come to understand that that begins with empathy. Like the best of advertising, it’s a simple idea, yet infinitely complex.

We recently conducted a research survey of women between the ages of thirty and forty-five, never married, and without children. We wanted to understand if we were missing opportunities for our clients, or worse, misrepresenting a critical consumer segment. Some of the results shocked me. Most noteworthy: Over half of the women surveyed would not share in a professional profile whether or not they wanted children.

Additionally, and despite the progress of hard-working initiatives like the ANA's #SeeHer, the Geena Davis Institute’s See Jane project and the 3% Movement, 47% of the women we surveyed say that they are “non-existent” in advertising. A similar percentage (43%) think that when women are represented in advertising, it's not done fairly. Almost half said that women “often” decide not to pursue professional opportunities due to sexual harassment in the workplace.

So what does this mean for our CEOs, CCOs, and CHROs? Agency leaders can join the industry’s positive momentum toward gender equality, but we can also take steps to deliver what women want by employing the holy grail of all human communication: empathy. And we should start with the work we do.

There may be no better indicator of how we honestly feel about women in our culture and our workplaces than the work we put into the world. Creative departments should have a system of checks, no matter how informal, to protect against tone-deafness. Gut checks are not enough if all the guts are of the same gender, race or ethnicity. When you have a voice from an underrepresented group – and it doesn’t matter which underrepresented group – that voice provides a crucial filter that could end up saving you from a social media disaster or PR crisis of your own making.

I’ve said this before but I think it bears repeating: It’s never great work if it offends anyone on a personal level. Historically, our industry has enjoyed a long leash when it comes to sacrificing empathy in favor of “funny” or “edgy.” Humor doesn’t have to be cruel or discriminatory to be effective, neither does advertising. The best work never is.

You may not have a chief diversity officer, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be empathetic and innovative in how you recruit. We can step outside our comfort zones, forge new alliances with organizations, individuals, and different networks than those upon which we’ve historically relied. Here’s another way of looking at it: if you ask only your inner circle for talent referrals, chances are those referrals will all look like your inner circle. Just as your work should be representative, so should your hiring efforts.

Here at the agency, we talk about the idea of ‘cultural add’ vs. ‘cultural fit.’ A lot of us came of age when getting hired and hiring the best people meant someone was the “right fit” for the agency and vice versa. ‘Cultural add’ means something more – what different perspectives and creative voice could this candidate bring? What can her unique experience add to our agency to help us broaden and deepen our cultural point of view? By the way, you will also get better creative and business results with diverse and representative opinions and solutions, because they encourage – guess what? Empathy.

If your agency offers excellent benefits as one way to attract and retain the best talent, it’s a good idea to accommodate a variety of needs. Be conscious of unconscious bias. It’s possible that some women aren’t going to rush to your agency based on your maternity leave policy or college savings plan, but instead on your retirement savings plan or flexible work schedules. Benefits planning for “Me,” not necessarily “We,” is another consideration – not every woman is on the 'marriage + children' track. Don’t assume you know what’s best for women at your agency unless you’ve asked.

Most importantly, establish a rock-solid HR policy on creating and maintaining a safe and harassment-free work environment for all. Make sure new hires are aware of the policies and processes designed to protect them. Encourage and reward transparency.

Finally - equal pay. Do I even need to mention there is still a gender pay gap in our business? If you want to hire and retain the best female talent, make sure your agency doesn’t have one.

So, what do women want? For starters, equality, transparency, and the opportunity to do great work. How do you deliver that? Empathy. If you genuinely want to know what the women in your agency want, ask them. Or they may go work for someone who does.

Karen Kaplan is chairman and chief executive officer at Hill Holliday in Boston.

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