Using Mentorships to Build Up the Next Generation of Strong Female Agency Leaders

Too little emphasis is put on how to grow this group

a group of co-workers join together around a table; they are collaborating on a project
Part of what the next generation needs is guidance from the current generation in charge. Getty Images
Headshot of Karen Jacobs

Eight years ago, after two decades rising to run production teams at bigger agencies, I co-founded a small agency that would make things better. I had the confidence to do it because I was continuously challenged along the way by people with more experience and status. They gave me the message that my thinking mattered and that I could solve important problems.

There wasn’t any formal program, and some didn’t know they were mentoring me. They were just inviting the perspective of a younger person and pushing her to raise her game because it made sense to advance the work and the agency.

Our industry spends too much time talking about gender inequity and way too little focusing on how to actually develop the next generation of women leaders. As a result, advertising misses how simple the change can be.

Advertising success springs from confidence, which requires a combination of skills, experience, challenge, freedom and confirmation. My mentors built my confidence with real engagement. They provided a blueprint for me and others to follow.

Teach people to seize opportunity

Our industry spends too much time talking about gender inequity and way too little focusing on how to actually develop the next generation of women leaders.

Nothing gets handed to you in business. The earlier people learn this, the better they’ll be prepared to seize unscheduled opportunities to contribute and deliver outstanding work. Far more than commanding performances, it’s this everyday rising to the occasion that shows someone is ready to advance. The best way to develop that ability is to routinely challenge people on the work so they have to stand behind their thinking and what they were putting forward. Make it casual and non-confrontational. Do it in groups when you have them assembled and let everyone join in the discussion.

Train people to express themselves

Invite younger people into conversations on work beyond their function and do so routinely. If you have creative work in process, bring a media or production staffer to talk openly with you. If it’s a media plan, bring a young copywriter, art director or designer. Tell them you want candor, and take the feedback seriously, like you would from a client. It’s important to do this one on one, not in a big room where people might compete for attention or try to sell their ideas. You want to develop their confidence that they can speak up and that their opinion matters regardless of specialty, which encourages them to build fluency in the broader language of advertising.

Show people how the business works

Bring functional and specialist leads to financial meetings on accounts, then bring them when you meet with the business people. They’ll experience firsthand how clients rationalize advertising and what matters most for agency profit, and they’ll contribute to a greater understanding among clients that often aren’t sure how agency teams get to cost. You’ll find the specialists start to budget projects in ways that streamline approval, then step in to explain the details to client procurement people. Those that can take the mantle of agency leadership will show themselves quickly.

When this was done for me, I got to see that the CMO or CEO weren’t grilling me because they doubted me personally; they needed to arm themselves with answers for the tough questions their boards were bound to ask.

Put them on the spot

Advertising is problem-solving. So, bring your team members problems outside their current projects. Make them ask for the information they need and come to you with the idea and plan for getting it done. Challenge them, then prod them to challenge you.

Show confidence

Apprehensive people don’t make great advertising. It takes real confidence to engage younger people, encouraging their contributions. You have to give up any need to have the biggest ideas, the most credit or the false validation of underlings sucking up. You have to truly want the kinetics that comes from diverse points of view focusing on the same problem.

Live experience is the only real developing ground in advertising, so hold nothing back. Let young women touch and contribute to the whole business in the informal everyday ways that make advertising come together. The more you look to them for a solution, the more they’ll grow their understanding and get the message that they matter. The more you show them it’s OK to speak their minds without apology and accept feedback, the higher they’ll turn up the volume on your business.

Karen Jacobs is co-founder, business and production lead at Greatest Common Factory.
Publish date: March 28, 2019 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT