Making the Advertising Industry a Better Place
If you’ve seen Mad Men, then you know all about the stereotypical advertising agency of yore, complete with cocktails at noon, non-stop cigarette smoking and rampant sexism. If you stuck with the series through its conclusion, however, you’ll also know that its lead female characters—Peggy Olson and Joan Holloway—managed to carve out successful careers for themselves amid all the misogyny and eventually started a business together. At Swift, a Portland-based advertising agency, women also rule: The company was co-founded by two women and 60 percent of its 140 employees are female. Swift, whose clients include Starbucks, Google and YouTube, is actively supporting the “Time’s Up” movement to combat gender discrimination in advertising and other industries by contributing its creative services to the effort. Within the organization itself, the company strives to create a welcoming environment for people from all walks of life—working parents in particular, says Chief Talent Officer Maren Elliott. Elliott, a working mother herself, says that despite the demands of a notoriously competitive industry, Swift stays true to its core tenets and values—which it calls “Swiftology”—by helping its employees navigate the roles of being good parents while also being good employees. In the following Q&A, she explains why “respect” is one of the most important qualities she looks for in job candidates and why working parents represent a tremendous source of often-untapped talent for the industry.
What sort of talent challenges is your agency, and the advertising industry in general, facing?
Keeping talented folks in advertising is challenging, ensuring they see the space as having long term professional growth. Work/life balance is a challenge—our industry is known for late hours and long nights, which is obviously not conducive for balance, so creating a space that has longevity for talent has been hard for the industry. Here at Swift, we’re female-founded and our leadership team is about 60 percent female. When I first started, the CEO had a newborn and she was bringing him to the office and nursing him there. Although our work here is incredibly important, the founders and everyone who works here have lives outside these walls, and our policies reflect that. We give 16 weeks of primary caregiver leave and a three-month transition time for new mothers to work 30 hours a week while getting full-time pay. We also offer four weeks of paid family medical leave if you have parents or others who need care. From a careers standpoint, we’ve created a skills matrix in each of our departments to look at what growth and progression looks like and how employees can grow from one position to the next.
Why do you believe working parents making a career comeback are advertising’s biggest talent opportunity?
For a number of reasons. First, when you’re coming back to the workforce after being out and starting a family, not only are you tremendously motivated but you bring a deep experience and perspective that goes beyond just the work. Having just gone through the transition and evolution of being a parent, you have a different perspective on work, which I think is invaluable. When you’ve got small children at home, things move quickly and you’ve got a lot of balls to keep juggling and that translates perfectly to this industry, where you’re juggling different accounts, managing competing priorities and working to meet those challenges. There’s the stereotype that working parents aren’t as committed to the job, but what I’ve seen is that new parents and working parents are totally committed to the job at hand because they know they’ve got to support their families. There are certainly times when you’ve got to pull all-nighters or jump on a plane to go meet with a client, and that requires extra planning for parents. Our managers are really supportive to them at those moments, and they work with their employees to identify in advance those ebb-and-flow periods and support them in different ways. Sometimes it’s using videoconferencing in place of an in-person meeting or bringing in extra resources when a team is super-swamped with work. Now that it’s summer, especially, you’re likely to see someone’s kid in our office. Our creative director’s daughter takes dance classes across the street; in the afternoons, she comes here and hangs out here and that’s totally accepted. In fact, people love it.
Tell me about candidate interviews—why is it important to listen for the word “respect”?
I had an experience recently where our CEO, Liz, and I were interviewing a candidate and he asked her “What is something I would need to be successful here?” Her response was that you would need to operate with respect: respect for coworkers, clients and the people we’re creating marketing campaigns for. I don’t think that’s a common success metric that’s talked about much in the corporate world. When we evaluate candidates, we’re looking for whether they operate with respect: How do they treat the receptionist, how do they treat others during the process? When I interview candidates, that’s also something I’m looking for when I ask them about times they’ve had challenges with coworkers or differences of opinion with some they worked with or a client, and how they navigated around that.
Was it with the understanding that the other person was coming from a different perspective, or was it void of that, blaming the other person or totally centered around how their position was right? It’s really about understanding their ability to collaborate, and respect for others exemplifies that.
What steps have you taken to ensure the candidate experience at Swift is as positive as possible?
My goal is for every single person who comes through Swift, whether they’re hired or not, to come away feeling it was a positive experience. It’s making sure each person feels prepared for their interview, that they’re getting regular communication from recruiters on who they’re interviewing with, how to prepare, what to expect, and constant follow-up via phone, not just email. We also do interview training with hiring managers to ensure they understand the most effective way to interview and that the candidate expects to be treated professionally, respectfully and taken seriously. Finally, it’s about making sure we’re evaluating people on the basis of whether they’re going to add to our culture and improve it, not on who’s going to fit with the culture. I think it’s important that you evaluate candidates not only on their skills and experience but on whether they can bring a diverse perspective, not just on who fits into a box.