It’s time for creative industries to get creative with work arrangements

Employment flexibility should not be reserved for mothers, or even just working parents, but for everyone in the workforce. After all, diversity is the mother of creativity, says Lauren Hill.

The gender diversity spotlight has been shining bright on the creative industry this past week thanks to some disturbing comments from Kevin Roberts, Saatchi and Saatchi’s chairman. He was suspended and then stepped down after he claimed the Gender debate is ‘over’ and the lack of women in senior roles was because they ‘lacked ambition’.

Lauren Hill - Flex Careers

The Comm’s Council reports only 16% of senior roles in creative agencies are held by women. Whilst alarming, I’m not surprised at all. From the recent spate of articles about agencies struggling against some internal gender related issues, this is quite clearly a problem, but I believe there is another contributing factor to the lack of women in agencies, and that’s tied to a cultural shift that needs to happen if creative agencies want to remain relevant in the workplace of the future.

It’s common knowledge that if you work at a creative agency you work long long hours. Usually with very little flexibility. Naturally, these hours are not conducive for working parents, especially women who, in our society, still assume most of the care-giving responsibilities.

Perhaps the lack of more experienced women in the creative industry is not through a lack of ambition but simply because they cannot commit to the same hours once they have a family?

So why the ridiculously long and inflexible hours? I believe the root cause comes down to the longstanding client/agency relationship that exists.

Woman Working in Dark Office

I have worked in agency life and I have worked on the client side. I have put down my bags as I was leaving the office at 8:30pm and headed back to my computer to get something urgent done for a client. And, as much as I hate to admit it, I have made the call to our agency asking for something to be turned around by the morning for an important meeting that has just been arranged at 5:00pm.

I’d even go as far as to admit that I have said ‘don’t worry, we’ll just get the agency to do that for us’ within a ridiculous time frame. The typical relationship that exists between agency and client resembles that of a master and servant – where the balance of power sits squarely with the client.

If the agency does not deliver on time, every time, at any time the request comes through, they know there is another eager agency waiting in the wings. Agency management feel this pressure and push it downward to the teams to be more creative and to work more hours, and they end up being in the office from 9:00am to silly o’clock. A lot.

In days gone by procurement contracts used to give some agencies a sense of security and promote more of a partnership relationship but the competitive landscape and proliferation of smaller agencies hungry for work means clients are now choosing to work with agencies on a project basis, and retaining the upper hand.

Sadly, it is not only the agency team members who are affected by the long hours, but their families at home who have eaten dinner on their own again and again and again.

I see this scenario being played out daily through the life of one of my closest friends. Her husband is a director at a top tier agency and with the title comes the loss of control over his time. Dropping children at school is a no-go, leaving to collect a sick child is unheard of, and attending the assembly to watch his son get a certificate is just not an option.

In organisations that embrace flexibility this would have been a simple conversation with his leader, communication with his team and a pat on the back for being such a great dad. Instead, his inflexible hours have had a number of negative impacts on their family, and also on her career, as she is expected to fulfil all the child-minding responsibilities, or outsource them.

The Works: Mothers and fathers will be eligible for the childcare payements

The Works: Mothers and fathers will be eligible for the childcare payments

Last month we celebrated when The Works announced it was going to pay the childcare fees of its staff to encourage women to come back to work. We also praised Bellman Agency for its heart-warming welcome to their new mum hires. DDB refers to their work-life “blend” and how they embrace flexible work practices on their website.

Unfortunately, these examples are the exceptions and not the norms in the creative industry. Flexibility should not be reserved for mothers, or even just working parents, but for everyone in the workforce. After all, diversity is the mother of creativity.

As many of the organisations that creative agencies serve embrace flexibility, it will have an impact on the current client/agency relationship. The hope is that clients and agencies work towards more of a shared norm of flexible work, with a mutual understanding that supports the teams working on both sides. And perhaps some of the best creative ideas might develop outside of the office whilst watching the school sports carnival.

The time is now for creative agencies to get more creative with their work arrangements. Embrace flexibility – it could be your best campaign yet!

Lauren Hill is head of marketing at FlexCareers. Previously she worked in marketing roles at agencies, corporations, private businesses and now start-ups


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