If the government can see the importance of properly funded childcare for working parents, the coronavirus pandemic may help ad-land retain retain women professionals, according to TABOO account director Suzi Williamson.
During this year’s B&T Women in Media Awards, presented by Are Media, we’ll be recognising exceptional people who have achieved success in their professional arenas, celebrating their invaluable contribution to their industry through leadership, innovation and courage.
Suzi Williamson is the account director of advertising firm TABOO and this year’s 30 Under 30 ‘Sales/Account Manager’ category award winner.
We recently caught up with Williamson for a candid chat about what the theme of this year’s Women in Media Awards—fearlessness—means to her, and whether this quality ought to be applied across the advertising industry during a pandemic.
Williamson also revealed one of the biggest issues that keeps her up at night—the retainment of talented women in advertising as they prepare to have children—and how she would solve it.
Suzi, what does ‘fearlessness’ mean to you?
To me, fearlessness isn’t blind faith that ‘everything will be OK’, but rather a sense of bravery and optimism in the face of the unknown.
It’s knowing there will be challenges but accepting that, and even relishing them. Afterall, every problem is just an opportunity to make things even better than planned.
Working without fear doesn’t mean you’re working without due diligence—it just means you’re not letting a challenge get the better of you.
What does this quality look like in advertising, marketing, and the media?
In the world of creative agencies, it looks like presenting an idea or strategy to the client that respectfully challenges their brief; and whilst it may not be exactly what they asked for, fearlessness is backing what you know they need and what will make a real difference for their brand.
It’s presenting a campaign so innovative and out of the box that something like it literally hasn’t been done before, but you believe in it enough that you know it’s worth the bravery and risk.
And broader than that, overall, it’s rolling with the punches in the face of uncertainty.
Of course, like any good suit, I must add a caveat that you can only act fearlessly when you have a healthy and trustful relationship with your client as an agency, or are well respected and supported as a marketer. Without that, fearlessness can be interpreted as blind faith.
Who do you know who has been ‘fearless’ since the COVID-19 pandemic struck?
I’m lucky to be surrounded by people who have shown fearlessness during COVID-19—in particular my best friend, a doctor who has been seconded to the COVID ward at the Royal Melbourne Hospital multiple times in the past six months.
I’m also lucky to be surrounded by fearlessness in the virtual workplace. We’ve not only rolled with the punches in the face of uncertainty, we’ve counselled our clients to continue delivering engaging campaigns in arguably the most uncertain time we’ll face in this lifetime.
For example, the Coopers team at TABOO pulled off a huge live-streamed live music, pub cooking and trivia bonanza over six weeks during lockdown 1.0 with around a three-week lead time.
While the TABOO Telstra team were developing, launching, and running the Telstra Australian Dice Football League (ADFL) via live-stream—all concepted during the pandemic with the backing of some equally fearless clients.
And in my own team, I was able to counsel the Transport Accident Commission (TAC) through launching our third annual Split Second Film Competition for young Victorians during lockdown 2.0, while working with Champion to deliver a fashion shoot for their world-first RE:BOUND Recycled Range just three days after the second lockdown was announced and the world was changing around us.
Fortunately, we looked amazing while working safely with our whole on-set crew repping fresh-off-the-press branded face masks.
But to be honest, everyone who has been able to keep their chin up and press on throughout this shit-show is practising a degree of fearlessness!
Is there another issue in the industry that keeps you up at night?
One issue I think about a lot is retainment of women as they prepare to have, and have, children.
We know that advertising doesn’t have a recruitment problem when it comes to young women— in Australia, women and men are graduating from creative and business/marketing courses in equal numbers.
And many agencies do make efforts to hire young men and women in equal numbers, but still the management ranks are mostly filled with men (TABOO is an outlier with our 50/50 split).
Statistically and anecdotally, it’s clear to me that as many women start thinking about having kids, they defect! Because it all seems too hard when they look up and see what being a working mum in advertising looks like, or they just don’t see it.
I’m personally fortunate that from my very first role in advertising I was surrounded by strong working mothers, and that’s something I continue to see in the amazing Tilly Hobba heading up TABOO.
Surely by now a broader range of agencies can respect the perspective mothers bring to our industry (which is about communicating and connecting with people from all walks of life) at all levels—junior copywriter to general manager!
I’m hopeful that COVID-19 might actually have a positive impact in this area if the government can see the importance of properly funded childcare for working parents, and if more employers can support more flexible arrangements.
Do you believe our industry has been fearless in 2020?
Yes and no. At TABOO we’ve certainly counted our lucky stars that our clients have been so fearless, brave and willing to try new things; however, more broadly, I think there’s too many brands who have been happy to go under the radar during COVID-19.
I would have liked to see more big brand gestures that actually help customers here in Australia like we saw in the US, and less cookie-cutter stock image style TVCs from health insurers and banks.
I was also disappointed to see how many agencies dropped swathes of their staff like hot potatoes before the impacts of COVID-19 were even hitting.
While I understand the need to protect the business, the swift brutality of some agencies’ actions was pretty hard to see, and certainly not fearless.
How can professionals in our industry be fearless in times of change, such as these?
Perspective helps. With a lot of my friends and family working in healthcare throughout this pandemic, it’s been easier than ever to remind myself that we’re making ads, not saving lives (except when I’m working with the TAC, of course) so why not just go for it!
I also think it can be strangely comforting to realise that in such a fast-paced industry where things are changing on the daily that everyone is in the same boat and facing the same challenges.
My motto— which I literally have hanging in a piece of artwork on my loungeroom/office wall—is “no one really knows what they’re doing”. If that doesn’t inspire you to be fearless and back yourself, I don’t know what will!
What are ad-land’s three biggest strengths?
- Our creativity— we’re generally able to ‘pivot’ out of just about any corner
- Our sense of humour—I think the industry is at its best when it doesn’t take itself too seriously
- Our ability to simultaneously create world-changing pieces of communication tackling complex and very serious world issues, alongside straight-forward ads for milk set in a milk bar that are quotable over 10 years on.
What are ad-land’s three biggest challenges?
- Retainment of women as they prepare to have, and have, children
- Building diverse workplaces
- Striking the right balance of long-term brand building initiatives and short-term tactical activity.
How would you solve these challenges?
On supporting working mums, some steps I’ve seen work at current, previous or dream workplaces include:
- Offering parental leave and flexible ‘back to work’ schemes equally to men and women
- Formalising working from home policies so parents who choose to do so feel clear on what is expected of them, and colleagues also feel clear, minimising any feelings of inequality or tension
- Encouraging more open conversations with teams around how they can all support parents in the workplace. Things can change quickly and by keeping the conversation open we can better support parents to ask for what they need directly, rather than it happening (or not happening) by default
- Genuinely consider options like role-sharing or structuring teams differently in order to support working parents.
On building diverse workplaces, I think the biggest solution is to stop only hiring people we already know or people who are like us, and actively searching out people with a different lived experience.
And on striking the right balance of long-term brand building initiatives and short-term tactical activity, I think this challenge will only increase as we face the ongoing economic impacts of the pandemic.
We need to continue to pay attention to the value that brand building initiatives deliver over time, while also recognising the need to ‘move product off the shelf’ to pay for that activity.
Again, from a creative agency perspective, if you’ve got a smart and brave client and a trusted relationship with that client, anything is possible when you embrace a little fearlessness.
The Women in Media Awards will be held on Wednesday 28 October 2020, at Doltone House (Jones Bay Wharf).
If you’d like more information about the event, head to this website.
You can also check out who made this year’s shortlist, here.
Thank you to all of our incredible sponsors for making the event possible!
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