Q&A with Becky McOwen-Banks – Creative Director @ FCB Inferno and TEDx speaker on Gender Equality

SO BECKY, HOW DID YOU GET TO BE A CREATIVE DIRECTOR AT FCB INFERNO AND WHAT ROLE HAS GENDER PLAYED IN YOUR CAREER?

Well… Advertising is all I ever wanted to do. Even from school. I only ever aimed to be in advertising so I’ve been pretty single minded about that. I’ve been a CD for far too many years to remember, 10ish… Started off in London. Graduated out of Manchester where I got a 1st. I wanted to go travelling but… I got a job straight out of university at Manchester McCann. But after a while I ended up getting made redundant and went travelling anyway!

My first full time proper advertising role was in Sydney, Australia – DDB. I was out there doing that for 5 and a half years. When I was working over there the budgets were really small so it was always my challenge to do a lot with little and embedded integrated thinking. That mentality stayed with me when I came back to the UK. It’s funny, pretty much everything I said I didn’t want to do I’ve managed to do – get married haha. Become a CD haha.

In terms of gender… well only 12% of leadership positions in UK agencies are occupied by females. The stats don’t stack up. More girls graduate then men, but only 24% end up in creative departments.

I knew Ali Hannan and I partnered with her to found Creative Equals. She now dedicates her whole time to Creative Equals while I’ve had to take a step back due work commitments. What’s great is that now it’s backed by the AAR and is part of their agency requirements. We always wanted it to be the Kite mark for agencies – if you’ve got that sign, then you are doing everything you can to embrace diversity.

In terms of why we focused on women specifically, well, what we’ve found is that you get more diverse of all kinds if you get women in – it’s the key to opening up more kinds of diversity - be it religion, gender, ethnicity, education.

And why I guess I’ve taken on this mission more generally, well honestly I’ve always been that little bit vocal and won’t shut up. And now that I’m a bit older I’ve discovered how few women really are at the top. Also, from a professional point of view as a CD, diversity of people leads to diversity of ideas which is obviously really important for any agency.

 

DID YOU ALWAYS WANT TO WORK SPECIFICALLY AS A CREATIVE IN ADVERTISING?

Yes. I did take Psychology all the way up to A-Level and my brother did as well (and he’s now one of the Directors of Google & YouTube) so I could have taken a different path. Even though I’m a Creative, and always have been, I describe myself as a problem solver that happens to work in advertising.

I am an Art Director not a Designer though – I adore typography as a craft but I’m not someone that sits on stuff right to the end. I like solving problems.

 

YOU MENTIONED YOU DIDN’T WANT TO BE A CREATIVE DIRECTOR AT ONE POINT – WHY?

Always saw them as ‘OTHER’ aloof from the department. And I never wanted to be that. I’m very much part of the department and my attitude to managing. Change and inspiration comes from within and leading from the front. 

I am also very close to my older brother and I think that affected the way that I operate – it could be more of a masculine way - so I’ve never felt that I wasn’t being invited or included in things. I’ve always had the confidence to walk into a room and not think about how ‘boysie’ it was. It was just a position I could never see as reconciling with my personality and style.

Also, a lot of the CDs I encountered were the typical 90’s bastards. Throwing creative concepts on the floor, “Wtf is this?” or doorslams etc etc. And that was never a role model that I wanted to follow.

 

DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE ON HOW TO GET PEOPLE TO SEE YOU AS A CONFIDENT WOMAN VS BRASH and things like that?

It’s the negotiation skills. Find what the other party want and get them to go along or incorporate your point of view. Unless they are doing something really wrong, then you need to say something more direct. But I’m typical middle-class English, so I hate being ‘combative’ haha but I am good at facilitating big conversations and involving lots of people in a discussion. Spot the needs of others that coincide or could move parallel to your own needs – that’s not being brash, that’s being astute! Bring people along with you, show the power of your idea.

 

YOU HAVE BEEN ACTIVE ABOUT ALL THIS GENDER DIVERSITY FOR YEARS – HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT WHERE THE INDUSTRY IS TODAY? IN NEW YORK I FEEL LIKE IT’S MILES AHEAD ON THIS STUFF.

America has had to face diversity issues in a big way for ages because of the importance of race issues for many years. They’ve been fighting that battle a lot longer – and race was their first front. For us the issue of the day is gender – even though we still are woefully under-represented in ethnic diversity. We still have lots of diversity from Europe, which is great for the creative mix, but… it blinkers us to other forms of diversity.

We’ve also got the class system that is very well ingrained. I’ve got a French friend who is a creative and she is shooting ahead on this stuff because she doesn’t even pick up on class cues. The English system is complex and deeply ingrained. We’re still battling that.

You can’t get around the fact that at the top of a lot of places it’s ‘male, pale and stale’. It’s a big boys club. We haven’t had government come in and systematically affect this stuff as America has done with race – so everyone is aware of the change needed. Until the top bods in these agencies (that are very white, male) move on we won’t see change. But it will happen and when it does it will be swift.

 

DO YOU HAVE ANY PRACTICAL ADVICE THAT WE COULD IMPLEMENT TOMORROW TO EFFECT CHANGE?

Call shit out. Don’t be quiet. Make a point of it. A planner at FCB Inferno used to call out anything shady. Any language that wasn’t right or perpetuated bias. She did it without impunity which is why it worked for her – didn’t matter if it was an intern or the CEO.

Have a look at what you control – see what your operating systems are. We all have ways of getting work done quickly and out the door which can mean we rely on bias thinking, so challenge yourself where can you get more diversity of thought into that process?

Can you balance the creative department? Can you push for more women in the department or working on the account? Request specific people to balance the mix – and if you don’t have the women in creative right now, add some female voices from here you do have them. You just need a few more people in the room that challenge things and say ‘why? Does it have to be like this?’

Get unconscious bias on your agency radar.


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ON THAT LAST POINT, HOW WOULD YOU RECOMMEND DOING THAT AS A JUNIOR?

Don’t go to management. Go to HR – HR has their own budget so go have a word with them and influence them and they will be very, very, very aware that it’s a requirement. Don’t make it a department thing, make it an agency/organisational thing.

HR have to listen to you. Get them to make it mandatory training etc. They have the money to change things. They are far more aware of what they have to be doing.

It shouldn’t matter how junior you are. In fact see that as a strength - the more junior you are the greater the chance is of you being a disrupter that doesn’t have to go along with things or get sucked into the way things are. Bring in ‘strange’ and different ideas and solutions.

 

I WANT TO START AN EQUALITY INITIATIVE AT MY AGENCY – WHAT WOULD BE YOUR ADVICE?

Start talking. Start doing stuff. Just start. Now that it is an IPA requirements to measure diversity ask your agency for access to those stats so you know where you stand numbers-wise. So you know the size of the job you need to do and can monitor progress. Get a groundswell going at your agency, but make sure people feel responsible (if it’s too broad then no one pushes or responsibility for it).

Creative Equals came from us wanting to act rather than just talk about it. To show that everyone can do small stuff to make a big difference. Those small things that people can do everyday are what make the big changes.

Ali and I did a list when we started Creative Equals – did it as a poster to be printed out and shared – she still has the point on the website today so take a read there.

 

HOW MUCH OF THIS IS A CLIENT SIDE ISSUE? OFTEN TEAMS AND STUFF ARE CHOSEN BY WHAT THE CLIENT WANTS – WHO IS GOOD AT GOING FOR BEERS ETC. WHAT DO WE NEED TO DO ON THIS?

Some agencies I’ve worked at have found the opposite. Had knuckles rapped for misreading what the client wants especially when it comes to representing women. You can’t say you’re an amazing creative agency capable of diverse thought without a diverse workforce – regardless of who goes to beers.

But hey, find someone on the client’s side that has a similar agenda – they might not be at top tier level but still have influence and ambition for change. And if not, push that agenda and educate your client on why it’s good to have diversity working on their brief.

You could even organise a breakfast, or special breakfast and get a few different clients in the room to talk about diversity. It will not only make your agency look good but they’ll get competitive and discuss the issue with each other. But I bet there’ll be a couple that’ll be saying to themselves “Oh. Shit. We really need to start thinking about this stuff” and finding the opportunity exciting.

 

THERE SEEM TO BE MORE WOMEN IN PLANNING THAN CREATIVE - WHY DO YOU THINK THAT IS?

Creative has always been a boys club, it’s all about the way the game is played. It used to be such a competitive environment. It’s different to the planning department, because planners are never really pitching different strategies against each other. You’re much more collaborative and getting different perspectives and thinking into the mix to make the thinking stronger.

However, creative departments traditionally had teams working on briefs blind against each other, then presenting their ideas back blind, and then one team wins and one loses. And then the one that loses is told to go pack their bags…

It used to be that if you wanted to break through the glass ceiling as a woman you had to be more masculine and ruthless etc. than men. You had to play that competitive game, which many thought was just not possible if you are a girl. Today it’s not necessarily the case – you can be a woman – competitive but a woman! Although Creative Equals survey revealed it is still true that fewer female creatives get opportunities on pitches – so that bias about competition and hunger still persists.

 

DO YOU THINK THERE ARE STILL OBSTACLES FOR WOMEN COMING BACK AFTER HAVING KIDS?

Absolutely. I mean unless you get governmental change, until it’s solved at that level where parents are seen equally and their responsibilities are evenly balanced – well currently it’s not. It can be a toxic thing, so even when mum needs nanny assistance, she’s seen as a bad mum.

Your told as a woman to be a mum and succeed you should have ‘a very understanding partner’ that takes 50% of the parenting load. It should be encouraged by government and society that it’s an equal responsibility. You do need government action on this. I’ve seen men getting the piss taken out of them from co-workers and viewed as quirky and weird for taking time off to care for their kids. So it happens the other way round too.

Ali Hannan has helped set up ‘returnships’ and this helps people return after having kids. You get paid less initially but it’s a way of getting back in, getting back into briefs, learning new skills etc. Creative Equals has had success with that. Also the whole idea that a woman can be seen as a liability because they have to leave the office at 5 o’clock to take care of the kids… It’s not right. The building doesn’t fall down – but that’s still the thinking in most agencies.

 

DO YOU EVER SEE YOURSELF HAVING BROUGHT BIASES AGAINST WOMEN BECAUSE YOU’VE FOUGHT THE BOYS CLUB BATTLE AND THEY HAVEN’T?

Well I haven’t had kids. So maybe. I mean I lack some of the understanding that comes with kids but I do keep my eyes open. I do have biases sure but I try to be alert to what’s needed. My first CD role at an agency I actively tried to hire more men because the agency was too female. I hope I’ve been fairly open to things and what buttons I need to push to equal things out. Just screaming “I’m a woman and I need to hire women!!!”, it’s not good. The best creative work comes from not pushing one ideal, but bringing multiple perspectives to the table. That’s the ethos I pursue.

 

HAVE YOU FOUND ADVERTISING LIMITING FOR YOUR FEMINISM? AND HAVE YOU CONSIDERED DOING OTHER THINGS?

I have always considered other things. Attempted to leave a couple of times! Sold the house. Moved down to Cornwall and the first person I made friends with was an ex-planner from Saatchi. Then Falmouth got me in for a talk, then asked me to teach on the course and then… well look I’m back in London. I missed doing. I’ve gone through so many address books moving around - I go to places where I feel the interesting experiences are. I’m always explored different stuff as that what excites me – to keep learning constantly. At the moment I’m a problem solver for advertising but who knows what’s next.

But to answer the first half of your question, I don’t see advertising as inherently a bad thing.  Sure it hasn’t done good stuff for women for many years but it’s a massive opportunity. An opportunity to reach hundreds of thousands of people and change how they think or understand a specific issue with words and pictures. If feminism just involved standing outside parliament with a picket sign then shoot me in the head. I take the fact that things are like this as a challenge and an opportunity.

 

CAMPAIGNS THAT ARE EMPOWERING – THEY’RE BUILT ON TELLING WOMEN THAT THEY NEED SOMETHING TO FEEL EMPOWERED. HOW DO YOU RECONCILE THIS TENSION?

I expect everyone to be a grown up. “This message is coming to me courtesy of someone else”. Someone else paid  for it. So I expect people to understand nothing comes for free. Even the Nike LDNR work that came out this weekend which was amazing at showing different people as they are… Well, sure they’re not selling one product but they’re selling their brand. They’re saying if you value competitiveness and one-upmanship then you’re a Nike person.

Any brands that don’t belong in that empowerment space, ‘pink washing’ stuff, they’re going to get burned. They get called out when it’s done for purely manipulative reasons. It’s not always about the best product these days, the USPs in many products is disappearing, so these brands are trying to work out who they are, and what they want to say, and what they can say. Defining where a brand is allowed to play is part of our job – we should be helping at this and finding true messages that resonate instead of leaping on ‘empowerment’ bandwagons.

 

I’M INTERVIEWING AT THE MOMENT AND LOOKING FOR MY NEXT MOVE, DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE ON WHAT QS TO ASK ABOUT DIVERSITY AND MAKE SURE YOU PUT YOUR POSITION FORWARD?

The department you will see it most crystalized is in the creative department. So ask questions about it and how big it is, makeup, how many women etc. Ask subtly if you need to. But yeah, if they haven’t got a diverse creative department you can bet it’s the attitude of everywhere else in the agency.

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