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Letter to my younger self: what I wish I knew as a young female creative

As International Women’s Day approaches, Lauren Lim, associate creative director at TBWA\Singapore, ponders a decade in advertising and what it’s taught her about being a woman in the creative industries.

This is my tenth year in advertising. A decade of my life in pursuit of creativity.

On the surface, a lot seems to have changed.

As women in the creative department, we’re constantly reminded that “This is your time! More and more agencies are looking to hire female creatives.”

We’re expected to feature emboldened females in our work. Women that are undaunted by laundry detergent choices and wear white pants no matter the time of the month.

And we’ve even started to hand out glass trophies for helping shatter glass ceilings.

But as I look back, I realize quite a bit hasn’t changed either.

While we’re featuring more dynamic women in our work, we aren’t seeing enough of them behind the work.

While we’ve all become hyper-aware of the things that hold women back – be it a seemingly harmless comment, unknowingly limiting us to work only on ‘mom briefs’ or bringing us along to meetings as the ‘token female’ for clients, we’re all still pretty unsure about how to call it out when it happens.

I know I’ve spent countless hours in the shower arguing with myself on how I could have reacted better. And if you’re a female who has spent long enough in the creative department, I’m sure you have as well. So, to quiet my mind and maybe to inspire you, I’ve penned this letter I wish someone had given me 10 years ago.

Dear Lauren,

So you’ve made it into advertising! And as a creative no less. You’ve wanted this ever since you discovered copywriting was even a thing. I’m proud of you. But while it’s all fresh and exciting, I’d love to give you some advice.

Here goes.

Only you are in charge of your career.

There will be people along the way who mean well. People who think that as a woman, you’ll have no interest in the beer brands and car briefs.

They’ll think you’re happiest writing about “what you know” – shampoo, sanitary pads, and mommy brands.

They think you’ll be perfectly fine being tagged along to the meeting as the token female for clients.

Before you know it, you’re boxed in as the female creative who never kicks up a fuss.

But please, kick up a fuss.

Get yourself on all the briefs that the big boys get really excited about. The sport and razor brands that nobody will expect you to know anything about. And show them how it’s done. Earn yourself a seat at your agency’s most important high profile meetings. And prove to them that nobody knows your client’s business better than you do.

Do this enough and it’ll surprise you how many people start turning to you and asking what you think instead of telling you what you should do.

Learn to be what you can’t find.

If you’re going to be handed the creative director title at 26, little will prepare you for it. People will question what you did to get there so fast. Clients will wonder if they can take you seriously. And you’ll quickly realize that there’s nobody around you that’s gone through exactly what you’re going through.

So, you’ll have to learn to be what you need.

You’ll have to show them that you can hold your own at boardroom tables filled with men twice your age and income bracket. You’ll have to prove that displaying any iota of emotion is not a woman’s weakness. You’ll have to show them that despite your youth, you’re perfectly capable of leading a team of creatives with more years in the industry than you do.

And more importantly, you’ll have to prove any doubts you have about yourself wrong.

Learn to call it out. But do it your way.

One day you’ll get asked to do something brave. You’ll get up on stage and talk about what it’s taken you to get to where you are. You’ll spend months preparing and making sure you’re saying all the right things. Then someone will raise a hand and ask you,

“How do you call out bad behaviour?”

There in the middle of an audience that paid to see you and other industry heavyweights, you’ll be left dumbfounded and unprepared.

You see, while the women you write about in your work know exactly what to say and when to say it, you’ll realize that you’re not always as brave or strong.

You’ll spend afternoons hiding in the office fire escape because breaking down in the middle of a meeting is just not something your male colleagues would do. Or nights arguing with yourself in the shower wondering what you should have said when a client made a rude comment about your age. Or take a sick day to avoid the person who gave you a backhanded compliment, “Nice writing baby girl!” and wonder if you’re overreacting because it just bothers you so damn much.

You’ll worry about being the “fun police”, so you resort to biting your tongue so often you wonder why it hasn’t fallen off yet.

While you’re told by countless workshops that if any such thing were to happen to you, you’re meant to just call them out on it. But not all women are built that way. You’ll have to learn that letting this one go only means you’re inviting it to happen to you again. And it will. So learn to call it out. But do it your way.

Find the one person you trust enough to help you with it. Or write down what you wish you said and muster the courage to actually say it. Accept that you won’t always be as kind as you like. But know that the person who said that to you will appreciate and respect you even more for speaking up about it.

You don’t need to lead like a man.

You’ll have the incredible opportunity to work alongside some of the industry’s best and most awarded creative leaders. What they teach you will take you far.

But one crucial mistake you’ll make in your career will be trying to lead the same way your male bosses have done.

You’ll learn the hard way that while male leaders wear their ambition, assertive nature, and quick decisiveness like a well-tailored suit, trying to do the same won’t fit as comfortably for you or many other female leaders.

In fact, you’ll find that many people will be unforgiving of women who do so.

So, learn to play to your own strengths and make them realize the value of a female perspective.

Admit that you don’t always have the right answers. Know that it’s perfectly right to be nurturing, gentle, and kind. Express emotion when it’s helpful or can’t be helped.

It’s OK to be you.

Lauren Lim is associate creative director at TBWA\Singapore.