International Women's Day: Claire Bridges asks four women what it takes to be a creative leader

Unless you’ve been under a rock, you’ll know last week celebrated International Women’s Day.

The theme this year is #betterwithbalance and whilst there are lots of positive changes to encourage inclusion and diversity in the workplace, with initiatives specifically geared towards working parents, whatever is happening is not enough - nor fast enough.

Figures released this week by Campaign and Creative Equals make for grim reading:

  • Creative women are 2.5 times less likely than their male counterparts to be in a senior creative role
  • 12% of creative women are planning to leave the industry
  • Women's creative work is 10% less likely to be submitted for awards*

*(Ali Hanan, Founder Creative Equals, Campaign, March 2019)

And whilst the research above relates in the main to the advertising industry, public relations own is not faring any better. 

According to Now Go Create’s research for the Creativity in PR Study, which last ran in 2017, there was a rise in the number of agencies employing a creative director — to 56% from 37% in 2016.

Disappointingly, there was no positive movement in terms of the gender balance of creative directors. If anything, the proportion of female creative directors decreased 30% that year, from 35% in 2016* (Holmes Report 2017). 

In my view more research needs to be done in this area to uncover the facts and drill into what’s driving the issues.

I asked some of the women that I most respect for their views on being a creative leader. 

Each of these brilliant women has inspired, influenced and encouraged me in different ways and trailblazed creativity for the PR industry.

The Women

I met Elise Mitchell at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity in 2014 when we were on the PR jury, and we’ve been firm friends ever since.  She is a force of nature! She founded Mitchell Communications Group which grew more than 500% in five years under her leadership, sold to the Dentsu Aegis Network in 2013.

Nik Govier, Founder of Blurred and I worked together in our early agency and PR lives at Ketchum. Nik has gone on to champion creativity everywhere she goes – she relishes a challenge and leads from the front.

Angie Wiles, Founder, The Difference Collective and I met at Cohn & Wolfe. She was then, as she is now, a formidable leader with amazing vision. Always ahead of the curve, she is challenging the way the PR industry works and consults via the Difference Collective.

Frankie Cory is more ‘in-touch’ with her creativity than almost anyone I’ve ever worked with. She fizzes with it! We also worked together at Cohn & Wolfe and Frankie would always be original and brave in her thinking, encouraging the team to do the same. 

Q: Do you think being a woman in a creative role makes any difference to the creative work?

Elise Mitchell: “Yes, I do. Women in general tend to think more holistically, and that can definitely help us excel in the creative industry. Neuroscience research shows women are often quite adept at using both sides of their brain, integrating both analytical and intuitive thinking. You can see that in the way women readily connect the dots between ideas and people. We often sense what’s going on around us very naturally, and we usually are more expressive about our thoughts and feelings.  These are all essential qualities of great creative leaders.”

Nik Govier: “Yes I do – it’s important.  Just like it’s important to represent all groups across gender, race, religion and sexuality.  No one wants to see work produced from only one perspective.” 

Angie Wiles: “I’ve thought about this a bit and I don’t really think so, no. I do think that some women are more empathetic, more intuitive, more gutsy, more visionary than others but equally some of the most impressive people I’ve met in the creative industry have been men that have made a real impact. So, whilst (in public relations) we might outnumber them, my sense is that the men in our industry are there because they have valuable skills to contribute and are meant to be there. So no, I think our industry, possibly more than others, is asexual and what matters most is the skill base, expertise, ingenuity, empathy and vision you bring to industry and the desire to make a difference.” 

Q: What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken in your career?

Elise: “Starting a company from scratch at my kitchen table in a very small market. My husband and I moved to Northwest Arkansas 20 years ago for his career. I had a plum corporate job at the time. I thought this move would be a dead end for me, but it was really only a detour. I turned down more secure job offers to start my own agency and never looked back. Entrepreneurship became the ride of my life. Sure, I faced a lot of obstacles not being in a major metro market, for example lack of talent, inaccessibility and few peers. But overcoming those challenges only helped me become a better, smarter leader. I’m glad I took the leap.” 

Nik: “Leaving Unity, a company I co-owned and which had a strong reputation for creative work. But when something’s not right it’s not right and I have no regrets.  Unity now feels like a leg of the journey rather than the destination.” 

Angie: “I’ve twice left full time paid roles, when I was the major bread winner in the household, to go it alone… firstly leaving Edelman to set up as a freelancer, and then laterally leaving Cohn & Wolfe to set up Virgo Health, one of the most successful healthcare communications agencies in the UK. And then again, I recently set up a new venture, The Difference Collective, the first-of-its-kind virtual consultancy in healthcare communications.” 

Q: Which women inspire you?

Nik: “A group of my besties referred to lovingly as ‘The Cult’ (a name coined by an ex). The four of us started out as assistants at Ketchum, at the tender age of 21, where we bonded over photocopiers, cheap wine and belly-aching laughter over the ludicrous situations we often found ourselves in. Fast forward 20 something years and every major life moment has been shared. We’re god parents to each other’s children and the contents of the ever-chiming WhatsApp group could feed a mini-series.  

Crucially we’ve all found our own way. Nick became a global partner at Iris before ditching the industry for coaching. She’s now a NED of Blurred. She’s the Wendy Rhodes to our Axe Capital (TV show Billions – it’s great, look it up) and to quote Axe himself “she’s this company’s fucking spirit animal”. Olivia is now on the global board of Ikea in the Netherlands. The actual board. And Anna founded Allbright – the group behind the private members clubs for working women (she’s launching new clubs in Mayfair and LA this year). We’ve all evolved yet we’re also still exactly same.” 

Angie: “I love an underdog, someone that proves everyone wrong. So I’m a huge fan of Victoria Beckham for her complete and utter reinvention, the way she quietly took herself away and learnt her trade, and the way she has so stylishly launched and lived her brand, as well as taking the mickey out of herself. She is her authentic brand and is living her purpose.” 

Frankie: 
“I’ve been fortunate to work with some brave and fearless women Lisa Nelson, Kelly Walsh, Debbie Klein, Gemma Moroney, Daniella Bertolone, Helen Calcraft and in an industry surrounded by so many more Jo Carr, Mandy Sharp, Nik Govier, Carolan Davidge – the list goes on…but I will never underestimate the support, belief and encouragement from the men in the industry Graham Goodkind, Damon Statt, Greg Jones, James Gordon-MacIntosh, Mitch Kaye, Warren Johnson - all of whom continue to give me the confidence to fight for what I believe in.” 

Q: What advice would you give to women wanting to develop their creative selves?

Elise: “Try ‘being’ more instead of ‘doing’ more. When we allow the swirl of the day-to-day take over, we lose touch with who we really are. We don’t listen to our inner voice like we should because we are too distracted by external things. When we are more centred, focused and comfortable in our own skin, we free ourselves to think more creatively and take more risks.” 

Nik: 
“We all start out as creative – we just let life knock it out of us. Joining the Allbright is a great place to start (granted I have a small vested interest in this as an early backer), but being surrounded by like-minded women and the constant source of inspiration through its talks and events is a great start.”  

Angie: “Complacency is the thief of time and the death of opportunity… never stop learning, networking, reading and most of all never stop listening!" 

Frankie: 
“I’ve always believed (and still do) to let the work do the talking. Be brilliant, not just because you want to be a brilliant woman but because you want to be a brilliant creative.”