Aussie Adland Is Upping Its Parental Leave Game

Difficult work. Tired young woman looking attentively at the screen of her laptop while a pretty child sitting by her side
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When you picture adland, no doubt you think: hectic pitch deadlines, long hours at the office, working on the weekends, boozy pub lunches and plenty of late-night events … all things that are not exactly conducive to life as a new parent.

Parents don’t exactly fit into the blueprint of adland.

And, while the advertising industry perhaps used to be a nightmare for to-be parents, the good news is the sector is undergoing a cultural shift to make sure when women and men have kids, they don’t immediately opt to exit the industry searching for something more flexible.

In Australia, the maximum period a mother is paid parental leave by the government is 18 weeks.

The father or partner is also given payment for a period of up to two weeks.

However, oftentimes, it’s not so much about the money as it is about the flexibility of a company and how easy they make the process of re-entering the workforce with a child in tow.

According to a report by The Australian Human Rights Commission, 49 per cent of Australian mothers have experienced pregnancy-related discrimination at work at some point during pregnancy, parental leave or on return to work.

And, 84 per cent of mothers who experienced discrimination experienced a negative impact — for example, on their mental health or finances — as a result of that discrimination.

B&T wanted to uncover what it’s really like for working parents returning to adland, so we asked a handful of returning mothers and fathers to share their experience of returning to work after taking maternity and paternity leave.

At BMF, as of Jan 2019, parents receive three months of paid parental leave, which is an extra month up on previous years.

On what it was like returning to work post maternity leave, producer at BMF, Jane Winnick, said: “My bosses were amazing.

“They have allowed me to be flexible around when my son is sick or has doctors’ appointments.

“I was very anxious because I used to work late a lot […] but BMF has been very accommodating in reducing those for me”.

BMF group account director, Aisling Colley, said returning to work post maternity leave was one of the hardest things she’s ever had to do, but that didn’t have anything to do with her employers.

“I had 12 months out of the game – 12 months of raising my baby and talking a completely different language every day to the one I knew so well in advertising.

“But insecurities aside, that daunting feeling didn’t last long.

“My manager, team, colleagues, and clients all welcomed me back with open arms and eased me into it exceptionally well.

“After three months, it felt like I had never left!”

When it comes to being flexible around parental needs, Colley said BMF were very accommodating.

“On returning back to work I also changed my hours to start early and finish early, with one day from home every fortnight – that way I got to spend a few more hours with [my son].

On the notion of creating a more diverse workforce, Colley believes adland needs rethink the old fashioned core ‘office’ hours and agency structures.

“Gone are the days where 9-5 is actually a thing. Enabling people to work where they want and when they want is integral to engagement and productivity – as long as they are getting the work done and are contactable.

“Mental and physical health is more important than ever, particularly when we’re strapped to our iPhones or iPads, working at all hours of the day.

“In this day and age, we’re typically working longer hours than we’re contracted, so we should be OK with people taking a day at home to get some head space, whilst working in their PJs instead of heels!”

Over at Wavemaker, employees returning to work are also finding it easy and hassle-free.

With four months’ paid leave and 12 months’ of overall leave, Claire Butterworth, national head of investment at Wavemaker, said she is constantly reminded how lucky she is to work for an employer who is so flexible.

“As every working parent knows, balancing work and family is a constant juggle, which is why having a supportive employer is critical.

“In talking to other mothers in and out of the industry, I am continually reminded about how lucky I am to work for Wavemaker and GroupM, which have such a strong maternity leave policy in place but who also provide a huge amount of support and flexibility in managing our workload”.

She also acknowledged the industry has evolved for the better in terms of the meeting the challenges working parents face.

“Our industry has come a long way in recent years, acknowledging the challenges faced by working parents through improved policies for maternity and paternity leave, flexible hours and critically in closing the gender pay gap to create a more even playing field for everyone”.

However, she conceded there is still work to be done.

“Agencies need to find a balance between servicing clients and the wellness of employees.

“Thankfully many of the challenges faced by both are very similar and I think agencies are leaning in more to clients and explaining how they will best find that balance”.

Head of content & partnerships at Wavemaker, Shivani Maharaj, said when re-entering the workforce, it’s important to have a support team around you.

She said: “It’s not difficult to return but you need to have a strong team around you to ensure you are supported.

“It’s hard to predict when you’ll need to have a day off – sometimes more than one – because your child is sick.

“This industry never stops. You have to manage yourself and those around you to ensure the best possible use of your time”.

She said Wavemaker have been incredibly flexible and has made her return to work as easy as possible.

“When I left to have my baby, we had just started a merger so I wanted to ensure I was part of discussion and decision-making.

“I even contributed to a panel at AdWeek last year before I returned to work, which was a great way to re-immerse myself in the industry.

“I came back at nine months and Wavemaker has been completely accommodating around my needs”.

Maharaj also believes agencies need to rethink the idea of core office hours and agency structures.

“Flexible working benefits everyone. Our industry never stops. It shouldn’t matter what hours you work – I’m a huge believer in the work getting done, however it gets done.

“If you want to work in the evening, do that. If you want to work from home a few times a month, do that. I’m really flexible with my team and all I care about is delivering great work to our clients”.

Strategy director at Precinct, Drew Usher, also found his return to work post-paternity leave relatively easy.

At the time of interviewing Usher, he was still on paternity leave, his second time of doing so.

He said: “Precinct offers two weeks paternity leave, so I took time off in the first week after my son was born, but we had a pitch so I came back to work for that and then I’ve taken the rest of the time to finish that leave.

Usher also had a positive experience when it came to returning to work after his first son was born.

He said: “The companies I’ve worked for, I was at Maxus before I was at Precinct, were both very flexible.

“The industry for me and the agencies I’ve worked for are very family-friendly, so they do understand the need for flexibility.

“My first born was born two months early and the agency I was working for was very flexible.

“They said while they weren’t planning for me to be off so soon, they were really accommodating with my need to take time and come back and then take more time later on.

Yet when it comes to creating a more diverse and inclusive workforce, Usher thinks the industry has a way to go.

“I think all industries at the moment are going through a period of exploring remote work and more flexibility, like working 12-8pm or working from home, and as an industry, we should be doing more of those things, simply because we are a problem-solving industry and we should be applying the creativity and the smarts within the industry to create solutions for the industry”.

Wanting to get an agency perspective, we spoke to Nicole Barry, director of people at CHE Proximity.

At CHEP, primary carers are entitled to six weeks paid leave after they have worked at CHEP for a year, nine weeks if they have worked between two to three years, and 12 weeks if they have worked three or more years with the agency.

Barry said CHEP has made an effort to improve their programs that actively promote flexible working arrangements, such as their “5 for 4” initiative, which is where they offer returning primary carers five days pay for four days work for the first year back.

She said: “A number of years ago, we identified a growing challenge of great female talent leaving both the agency and the industry as they approached parenthood.

“We have made a concerted effort to improve programs that actively promote flexible work arrangements and introduced financial incentives to reduce the financial impact of them on the individual.

“But our flexibility policy isn’t just about reduced hours, it also invites flexibility around where and when you work – with ad hoc and ongoing options to accommodate the broad range of requirements of working parents.

“As a result, we now have a 98 per cent return rate of primary carers”.

CHEP furthermore believes in a diverse and inclusive workforce, which is why they offer such extensive flexibility for not just working parents, but all employees.

She said: “We are far more concerned about defining success around clearly defined outputs, not ‘time at your desk’.

“And we welcome side hustles, family life and all manner of interests to blend alongside the deliverables of their role with us. It’s what keeps us creative and interesting.

“So we focus on hiring the right people and entrusting them to get on with it, rather than controlling every aspect of it.

There is clearly a cultural shift happening in adland, with the industry walking down a more diverse and inclusive path. However, there is still room for improvement.

If you’re interested in learning about how to bring more diversity and inclusion to your workforce, there is still time to grab tickets to B&T‘s Changing the Ratio event – a bold new initiative to continue B&T’s mission of making equality and inclusion the norm in Australia’s communications industry and beyond.

Grab your tickets here.

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