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How I’m making sure my female-led agency is a platform for change

By Julie Cohen, CEO

Across the Pond


The Drum Network article

This content is produced by The Drum Network, a paid-for membership club for CEOs and their agencies who want to share their expertise and grow their business.

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March 8, 2021 | 6 min read

There is still shock and surprise when people learn I run my own agency; because I’m female. I get lots of raised eyebrows and emphatic, congratulatory reactions from people. And something else happens when I tell people, too: they bestow glorious praise on me, putting me into this ‘extraordinary’ category while seemingly covering embarrassment (or shock?) as they recalculate their preconception. I think a lot about this frequent and awkward encounter. Putting me in this category, somehow, let’s everyone off the hook. Surely, it shouldn't be regarded as so ‘extra’.

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The theme of this year’s event - #ChoosingToChallenge - must not stop after International Womens’ Day. In 2019 only 0.1% of creative agencies were owned by women. The number of agencies with female creative directors is about 11%. The stats are shocking. There is still a huge gender leadership gap in addition to the pay gap. This makes no sense in the world of advertising when we consider the fact that women drive the vast majority of consumer purchases.

For too long, the ad industry has been a haven for homogeneity and systematic under-representation - both in terms of the work and the people that make it. At Across the Pond, we have committed to hold each other to account every day when it comes to this inequity. After signing the Creative Equals open letter: Adland Commits, we engaged them in a suite of training sessions and workshops where we came together as a team to address issues openly. We also worked collaboratively on our DEI manifesto which now feels like a true reflection of the teams’ heart. We have also signed the ‘Free the Work’ pledge to ensure that one underrepresented creator out of every three creators are tapped for any given opportunity. Within ATP globally, over 60% of our staff and over two thirds of our senior management are female. Our manifesto on inclusion and diversity, in all its forms, is taped to the wall by my desk, with objectives assigned to team members and weekly meetings to ensure we are on track or discuss what needs to be done.

Committing to and maintaining this level of action has energised the team in new ways and feels extremely rewarding. It’s also harder than I could ever have imagined. We know change itself is not easy, but this kind of change is shifting the earth beneath our feet. It’s difficult, emotional and important - on an entirely different level. For this reason, the theme of ‘challenge’ feels apt.

To be able to do the work that change requires, we have to have an incredibly inclusive culture where there are bonds and trust strong enough to make progress and mistakes. And I have to be willing to get it wrong and bounce back with the conviction that we are doing the right thing. Our work as individuals, and as a collective, will be at its best when we are supporting each other to be our true selves.

Coming from a family of psychologists and therapists, I’m pretty sure that my most powerful tool in business and life in general is listening. One of our core values at Across the Pond is ‘Listen first, listen second.’ We will probably never be able to get it all right (I certainly won't!) but if we can ensure we provide a safe place for every single person to feel safe, valued and heard, we are well on our way.

To this end, we have put in place processes which enable staff to speak up and to speak out. Anonymised ‘Just Ask’ questionnaires and feedback invitations help us to learn from honest observations and address topics which may have been considered difficult to bring up.

The value of independence

We are small and independent which means we can choose who we work with, allowing us to use our reach and power to drive change towards a more diverse, equitable and inclusive industry and world. Not all decisions about who we work for start with the commercial value; instead they can be made based on social and cultural impact.

We are grateful for the commitments our tech clients, especially Google, have for their own DEI journey as well as the very high expectations they have for their agency partners.

Across the board, we seek both supplier and clients’ contractual commitment to diversity and inclusion; whilst also checking bias in writing, casting and design choices. We see it as our responsibility to ensure we are making good choices about who we work with and for.

Our global ambitions help when it comes to increasing our understanding and our ability to empathise and adapt, too. Expanding our footprint, connections and knowledge of the world (Singapore, San Francisco, London) helps keep our team and our work more diverse. Focusing on cultural knowledge generates insights and empathy – critical for effective communication.

We know all this! As advertisers, we directly impact society with what we create. Brands need to appeal to and speak to varied audiences. Consumers are more likely to have affinity with a brand that authentically reflects them. In an industry where women make 80% of the buying decisions, we urgently need to make more space for the female voice on all levels. We are the leaders the industry needs.

Julie Cohen, CEO and founder, Across the Pond


Content by The Drum Network member:

Across the Pond

We’re a global, independent creative agency helping tech brands create a better world. How? We make the complex, human.

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