By Veronique Rhys Evans, head of communications, EMEA & UK, creative network Dentsu
In the creative industries, we’re in a race to the bottom, with the constant pressure of having to create more and more, across so many communications channels, with ever shorter deadlines. At the same time, there’s less and less money around, client budgets are being squeezed, meaning we have to do more with them.
Digital media adds an extra layer of always-on pressure, too. That’s why there’s so much creative burnout currently (see this feature for the stats), and that’s before we’ve even mentioned the cost of living crisis.
I left my job at creative agency Grey London in 2017. One of the main reasons I did this is because I wanted to be more available to my children, both who have special needs, which adds emotional, as well as physical, stress.
Working until midnight, starting at 5am and feeling unavailable to my kids
I realised that I was always pushing them away, or trying to do everything and ending up working until midnight or starting at 5am. It was exhausting, especially because one of my sons has type 1 diabetes, which means for the first 12 years of his life I barely slept through the night and lived with the constant fear that he’d have a seizure, or worse.
Yes, I’ve tried nannies and au-pairs. But every time they quit, it’s like someone has totally pulled the plug on your entire life with two weeks’ notice and you realise that it’s all, actually, just a house of cards built on very flimsy foundations, barely holding together. For a while.
So, for all those reasons I left employment and set up a consultancy because my life just did not seem compatible with having a job, being there for my children, having fulfilling work and looking after my own mental and physical health. And the latter, by the way, would always get pushed to the bottom of the pile, which I think is true for many women; we just don’t have permission to stop, or say we’re unavailable.
I found the confidence to ask for what I really needed from work
I successfully grew my client base and it was working pretty well. I had no intention to go back into employment. Then one of my clients, James Morris, CEO at Dentsu Creative, asked if I’d come and work for him.
Being in a position I was happy with, which worked for my life, gave me the confidence to ask for what I really needed: the freedom of freelancing coupled with the security of employment. So I said that I wouldn’t consider it unless X, Y and Z were agreed, fully expecting those requests to be non-negotiable.
One of the things I wanted, for example, was to do drop-offs in the morning and to take school holidays off. He agreed straight away. I was taken aback. I had heard of other agencies which had said no to similar requests for fear that ‘if we give it to you, everyone will want it’.
We need to be 100% transparent if things are going to change
Now, I want to be 100% transparent about this, because I think we need to have more open conversations about this topic if things are going to change. I don’t get paid for the extra holidays I take, and I do have a boss and team that embrace this arrangement. And, importantly, leadership embraces my way of working. Dentsu is a company that has a deep and authentic commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.
I’ve obviously reached a certain seniority in my career too and – to be frank – I don’t know whether more junior staff would feel as comfortable having this kind of conversation. But I think it’s really important to make it known, in my industry and others, that this is a thing you can ask for, because I’d wager that many working mums haven’t seen this as an option.
Obviously, too, many women feel they have a lot to lose, whereas I was doing fine on my own. Which makes me conclude that these conversations are all about psychological safety. I felt safe enough to be honest about what I wanted, needed and deserved and I was confident of my worth. And I was engaging on the topic with someone I already knew to be a decent human being, supportive of women and DEI.
We need to feel psychologically safe to have these conversations
We need to feel psychologically safe – not just in these conversations about our job design with our line managers – but in our jobs in general because without this, you can’t be at your best or most productive. It’s a cornerstone of success. Especially if you’re in a job which requires creativity, like mine.
I’d speculate that a lot of women have an expectation that their employer will say no, or they have doubts about their worth. Or they’d feel ‘demanding’ or ‘aggressive’ asking, which comes down, again, to traits that are more feminine than masculine in the workplace. Women are, after all, socially conditioned to be people pleasers. And being British adds another layer of complexity – we tend to be less direct in how we communicate and transparent about being ambitious.
This whole experience has been a really enlightening and empowering one, which is why I make a point of talking about it, so other women can see the possibilities for themselves. And not just women. We need different people in the room in the creative industries like, for instance, neurodivergent people who can bring new perspectives to briefs (I feel passionate about this, too, as my younger son has ADHD and my eldest is dyslexic).
Some people are terrified by the idea of welcoming and working with people different to them
Yes, there are people in my industry – and probably yours – that are slightly terrified by the idea of welcoming and working with people who are different and require different ways of working. But things are changing. They have to.
The lines are being redrawn and we have got quite a bit of unravelling still to do. We’re collectively experiencing post traumatic stress after the pandemic. We’re experiencing a cost-of-living crisis. And there’s the war in Ukraine. We’re in hard times.
My biggest plea to working women reading this
My biggest plea to working women reading this who resonate with my story is to give yourself permission not to be perfect. Especially at this time of year where there’s so much pressure to, not only achieve at work, but create an Instagrammable Christmas, too. Don’t bother.
Preserve your boundaries. Lower your expectations of yourself. Know that good is good enough and done is better than perfect. If you’re a mum of school aged children, you’ve got through a monster Autumn term and it really doesn’t matter if you haven’t got the perfect meal for Christmas, or you decide to go to the pub or get a takeaway instead.
What is important, however, which is similarly important if you’ve chosen a creative career like I have done, is that you enjoy it. You deserve to enjoy it because – yes, as L’Oreal says – you’re worth it. I’m not just saying that because I’m in advertising and it has a nice ring to it… You really are.