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Opinion and Insight

A Guide to New-School Creative Leadership

Lara Groves, associate creative director at Impero, talks about the ways agencies can promote diversity, good work/life balance and creative brilliance like it's 2018

A Guide to New-School Creative Leadership

The creative team at London-based independent agency Impero is completely made up of women and 66% of the whole agency is female. This makes the agency an anomaly in an industry where, as the UK’s gender pay gap figures show, a gender imbalance stubbornly persists. Associate creative director Lara Groves is at the head of this team and aside from her passion for storytelling, she’s enthusiastic about changing the way a creative department recruits, nurtures and manages talent. Gender diversity is a key part of this - she supports women in the creative industries as a mentor with ‘Who’s Your Momma’, in association with SheSays, and has strong views on the issue - but she’s also got many broader ideas about how a creative business should look and feel in 2018. LBB’s Alex Reeves asked her more about her philosophy.


LBB> How did you end up as associate creative director at Impero?
 
Lara> I slid into advertising through the back door. I’d trained in theatre, only to discover that life as a jobbing actor was far removed from the boundless creativity I’d imagined! I started working on reception at a design agency, purely to pay the bills, and promptly discovered that copywriting was a ‘thing’. So, with the encouragement of the wonderful people there, I traded acting for advertising and have never looked back! Later, I was approached by Imagination to become their Content Creative Lead, and then in 2017 Impero invited me to come and lead the creative team here. If you haven’t got an advertising degree, don’t think for a minute you don’t have something to offer – it really isn’t the be-all and end-all.


LBB> Tell me a bit about your all-female team at Impero? Where do they come from and what are they like as people?
 
Lara> Our creative team is my utter pride and joy. They’re a collection of immensely talented, opinionated and driven individuals who are wonderful collaborators, as well as being strong independent thinkers. Each of them bring unique passions and backgrounds to the table, which enables us to cover a lot of conceptual ground quickly and efficiently. They continually blow me away with the fresh responses they bring to a brief – and, to top it off, they’re each obsessively consumer-focussed in their thinking, which ensures the strength and relevance of our work.


LBB> Is there any reason you've ended up with a single-gender team or is it by accident?
 
Lara> There is a very specific reason we’ve ended up with a single-gender team: each of them proved themselves to be the best person for the role. We’ve never striven to have an all-female creative team – we’ve made hires based purely on the merits, personality and potential of each individual. It just so happens that, on each occasion, that person has been female. 

I’m sure that’s an inflammatory statement for some – who would point out that such an argument is no longer considered acceptable when it comes to male-dominated teams – but I stand by it. There’s a difference between having a gender imbalance because non-diverse managers see fit to only seek out, interview and hire their own likeness. and having one because those individuals were the ones who brought the effort and enthusiasm to the table.

Any agency that blames its traditional gender skews on a lack of female applicants is frankly looking for them in the wrong places. At Impero, we currently have a 70/30 female/male ratio, plus a gender wage gap of 0% – and everyone here, male and female, is proud to be raising the bar for the rest of the industry. 


LBB> How do you make sure you lead your team to be the best they can?
 
Lara> Ownership is a key focus for me. When you hire talented people who are behind your agency’s mission, it’s crucial they’re then given the space, respect and support to contribute their unique angle, and own their own work. On some projects, we’ll work very closely together throughout the process; on others, I’ll dip in and out as needed; and on others they run it themselves in a way I could only dream of doing! But whatever the project set-up, my aim is for everyone to feel that they own what they’re contributing.
 
As an extension of this, we’ve also recently trialled ‘Autonomy Days’ – modelled on Google’s ‘20% time’ initiative – and it was a real eye-opener to see the learnings everyone came back with. It’s already benefiting the agency, with these skills creeping in to project work.


LBB> What's your philosophy when it comes to finding a work/life balance? Are there any key factors? And how does gender come into this discussion too?
 
Lara> Work/life balance is a tough one in this industry – I’m still exploring whether the unsociable hours are truly a necessary symptom of the work we do, or a sense of presenteeism that we all take some form of subconscious pride in. If we’re consistently working around the clock, it isn’t long before our creative resources are running on empty – with no new references, no first-hand awareness of emerging trends, and no ‘boredom’ time for our minds to be playing around with new creative connections (NB: there’s a great book on this by Manoush Zomorodi, called ‘Bored and Brilliant’ – one of my team put me on to it, and I highly recommend it!). I firmly believe that, if we really want to excel creatively, it’s crucial for us to realise the importance of time away from work.
 
I try to keep reasonable hours in the office and on email, to encourage my team to do the same. We’ve also adopted Google’s ‘One Simple Thing’ initiative, where each of the team set themselves a non-work goal that I’ll hold them accountable for – things like safeguarding a set number of lunch breaks per week, leaving on time to take life-drawing classes, or monthly visits to a new gallery or exhibition.
 
Gender sadly does still play a part in the work/life balance discussion, as outside factors that still carry gender biases – such as caring for children and elderly parents – come into consideration. At Impero we make considerable effort to be mindful of each other’s personal circumstances – and I hope that, as the gender balance improves elsewhere, we’ll start to see a successful industry-wide shift towards more flexible and efficient ways of working for all.


LBB> How did you get involved with SheSays and what do you do with them?
 
Lara> I first heard about SheSays at a talk given by my creative-woman crush, Laura Jordan Bambach. I’d been working in a heavily male-dominated organisation, and the prospect of a network where women supported women was music to my ears. 
 
I signed up to ‘Who’s Your Momma?’ – the mentoring arm of SheSays, run by the superhumans Rachel Gott and Casey Bird with the aim of retaining and championing female talent within the industry. Since then I’ve mentored young women looking to develop their careers, move agencies, relocate, navigate redundancy, or gain confidence in their abilities. Mentoring is incredibly rewarding, and you learn as much as a mentor as you do as a mentee. Everyone should have a mentor, and everyone should be one – no matter what career stage you’re at, there’s always someone who could be helped by your experiences.


LBB> What do you think are the key changes the creative industry needs to make to address the gender disparity in the creative field?
 
Lara> It baffles me that the industry continues to reference the fact that women influence the majority of purchase decisions… then presents us with content that’s been created by predominantly-male decision makers. If you want to reach a demographic – any demographic – in ways that add value to their lives, contribute to societal progress, or transform consumer perception of that brand, then that demographic must be reflected in the agency and brand teams working on that idea. And that extends across gender, race, sexuality, non-traditional family structures, age… the list goes on. Assumptions don’t cut the mustard anymore, and audiences are no longer at the mercy of the messages being indiscriminately pushed on them via TV. 
 
There are many people doing awesome, awesome work inside the industry to change the ratio – SheSays, Who’s Your Momma Mentoring, Creative Mentor Network, Ladies Get Paid, Creative Equals, Cindy Gallop (just an all-out legend across the board), The 3% Conference, and Golin’s ‘Have Her Back’ initiative to name just a few. But our best chance of ending disparity in our industry is through demand. 
 
So, if you’re a brand manager, ask your agency what their diversity ratios are – and if they’re lacking? Don’t use them. As a consumer, demand to see society being represented by relatable people in the ads you’re targeted by – and if you aren’t? Don’t buy them. If you want to see change, then vote with your cash. That’ll land the message far quicker than the odd diversity category at award shows. 

 
LBB> Any final thoughts?
 
Lara> If you work in an environment that lacks diversity, find someone to champion you if you’re in the minority, or be a champion for someone who is. Give credit where it’s due, and reinforce each other’s opinions where insightful or valid. The more you elevate each other’s voices, the sooner others will start listening. 

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