How Creative Comeback is re-launching careers for female creatives

A new programme from Creative Equals aims to help women back into the ad industry after a career break. Founder Ali Hanan talks to Lisa Hassell about how it works

Ali Hanan started Creative Equals in 2015 with a mission to create 50/50 gender diverse creative departments at UK agencies. Her lightbulb moment arrived when a young team came to see her back in 2014. “They had been assisting different agencies and they said to me that I was the first female creative director that they had met so far that day. After googling the numbers of female creative directors globally – it was about 3% in 2008 – I realised something needed to change.”

By 2016 the proportion of female creative directors had gone up to around 14%, but this was clearly not enough. “On a personal level, I’ve experienced a lot of situations where I’m the only woman in the room,” says Hanan. “I also noticed over the years a lot of women drop out of the industry, especially after starting a family, because the industry in the past has been notorious for its lack of understanding and focus on presenteeism.”

The industry still lacks diversity in all areas, from gender and ethnicity, to neurodiversity, class, age and people with disabilities. It’s safe to say that the majority of work is still coming from a very biased point of view, says Hanan. “We exist to increase diversity and inclusion in the creative sector by disrupting the status quo at all levels. We’re working to combat all kinds of discrimination we see in the industry, from ageism to gender discrimination and a lack of representation of people from multicultural backgrounds. We believe that in order for creativity to thrive, people from all backgrounds need to have a seat at the table.”

Creative Equals now has the backing of many of the largest companies in the sector, including VCCP, Havas London, Ogilvy, The Engine Group, AMVBBDO and many more. Their ethos is simple: diverse teams equals diverse work equals diverse audiences. Inclusive cultures drive creativity, profitability, innovation and happiness. Pioneering a data-driven, people-powered model for diversity, now a kitemark, the Creative, Digital and Media Equality Standard has become the benchmark for the industry, giving companies a review, rating and a road map for lasting change.

We believe that in order for creativity to thrive, people from all backgrounds need to have a seat at the table

Their charter asks agencies to embrace creative equality standards and sign up to a list of commitments including recruiting people from diverse backgrounds, tackling the gender pay gap and putting women on diverse client accounts. Along with creating best practice, over the last two years, Creative Equals has trained 1,200 talents up the career ladder, set up a ‘shadow jury’ with BIMA and curated many juries and speaker line ups to represent the society the industry serves.

“One of our north stars is still looking at making sure we can double the number of female creative directors over the next five years,” says Hanan. “What we’ve aspired to do is find ways in which we can increase the number of creative directors in the industry, and double that figure up to 30%.”

Hanan believes that one of the key ways to achieve this is to attract back the talent that has left the industry, though this comes with challenges. “There is this notion in the creative sector that you’re only as good as your last piece of work – so if your last piece of work is more than a couple of years old or even 12 months old you’re already out of date or irrelevant,” she explains. “Male line managers in particular may assume women returning to work won’t be focused on their job; or be around to do late night pitches; all that stuff that comes in the expectation of a director role. So that’s often what is going against people returning to work, especially entering into a similar level role to the one they left.”

Persuading line managers and hiring managers to think twice about portfolios and CV gaps is an ongoing challenge, with many potential employees struggling to compete against young talent in what is already a very competitive sector. “One thing that we find especially hard is dealing with the recruiters because recruiters are often just the worst!” says Hanan. “They’ll have two CVs in front of them – one might be a returning mother, the other might be a younger, upcoming talent. They will often put the younger talent forward because recruiters are paid in commission; they are reticent to negotiate for flexible working. If you’re returning to work, one of the first things you might do is call a recruiter and that early rejection – and unwillingness from recruiters to support them to get back into work – can be so difficult.”

There is this notion in the creative sector that you’re only as good as your last piece of work – so if your last piece of work is a couple of years old you’re already out of date

With the aim to provide bridges back to work with forward-thinking agencies and brands, Creative Equals launched a two-week training boot camp in partnership with D&AD, with a brief from Diageo and upskilling from Facebook (photo from the 2019 programme by Bronac McNeill shown above). Culminating in the opportunity to pitch to a working brief from a real, paying client, Creative Comeback offers candidates the chance to gain jobs with top companies across the sector. “We worked with agencies to mentor our cohort, upskilling those agencies and brands about flexible working, onboarding returners back to work and more to ensure our returners were supported.” These agencies often provide placements, from paid work experience to freelance opportunities and full-time jobs.

Alongside mothers, the boot-camp also helped people who had left jobs for other reasons, such as ill health and caring for family, who were struggling to find employment after many months out of the workplace. “We had one lady who was hearing impaired and found it very difficult to find employers willing to take her on. For a time we had a couple of people who had had cancer, which is a long-term illness.” reveals Hanan. “One woman’s partner had had a complete mental breakdown and she took time off to look after him; we had someone else who had two parents with Alzheimers and then they died and she went into deep grief, so you can see people take time off for all sorts of reasons.”

A key sponsor of Creative Comeback, Diageo, is now taking the programme around the globe, starting with New York next year. “We train these people, help them get their confidence back and educate them on what’s new in the world of creative; we help them with their portfolios and talk to them about their work, how to reposition themselves, looking at the skills they’ve developed whilst they’ve been out of work. Recovering from a serious illness you’ve faced life and death situations – how does that change you as a person, and what does it do to you as a creative? You’re more fearless than ever; how can you channel that into your work?” says Hanan. “Trying to entertain a three-year-old day in, day out, takes a lot of creative superpower – and so I think all these skills we gain whilst we’re off are completely invaluable and transferable to the workplace.”

The Creative Comeback programme is completely free to take part in. Based in Creative Equals’ London offices, funding is available for those who need extra support for childcare or travel. When asked how Hanan finds and recruits people for the programme, she admits it’s hard to define. “They’re usually wives, friends, cousins, aunts, sisters – people we have met through the network. They’re not necessarily reading Campaign or The Drum, and often they’re not on LinkedIn. Generally it’s recommendations, friends of friends…. And a lot of women hear about the programme online. We try and target specific groups and communities, and influencers like Clemmie Telford, and Mother Pukka; social media influencers who talk about issues around work and motherhood. Rachel Gott, Founder of Apple and Ink and programme director of Who’s Your Momma London has been phenomenal in helping us get the word out, she’s now our Creative Comeback recruitment partner and is helping us find returners for the programme.”

The programme has also benefitted from networking groups such as Ladies, Wine & Design and support from Cindy Gallop – founder of MakeLoveNotPorn and former chair of BBH US – who tweeted about the programme and its effectiveness in defeating ageism. Major Players also partners with Creative Comeback and help select candidates. Hanan is especially proud of the community which has emerged from those who have taken part. “They’ve found their own tribe with each other; they support each other, share job opportunities, celebrate when someone secures a new job. It’s great to see the friendships evolve as they go on the journey together; the network that has emerged from the programme and the realisation that they’re not on their own.”

Trying to entertain a three-year-old takes a lot of creative superpower – I think these skills we gain whilst we’re off are completely invaluable and transferable to the workplace

Many of the women who have been through the programme have been offered freelance opportunities. Out of 57 returners, 38 are now in work. “If that doesn’t prove that they are qualified, competent and outstanding candidates, I don’t know what does.” says Hanan. “It just goes to show that there is nothing holding our returners back. Maternity discrimination and ageism is real, and Creative Comeback is showing again and again how it’s unfounded.”

Whilst Creative Comeback focused on women in the first year, now they are opening up to everybody – recognising the need for wider inclusion in an industry that can be unforgiving to those who have taken a career break. “Our approach has always been about inclusion and so we will take on male applicants, and more this year. Men are also affected by some of these issues; but we still really have to address the gender imbalance in creative because it has such a profound affect on society and social media and all the women we see pushed aside every year.”

For aspiring returners, Hanan recommends trying to keep your work fresh in some way whilst you’re out of the workplace. “I would say for anyone out there to just put their hand in; to set their own briefs and try to find time to do creative work in their own time; self-initiated projects that show their creativity; whether it’s T-shirts or photography or whatever they enjoy doing.” Hanan cites Adele Enersen – a former copywriter and ad designer who photographed her sleeping baby in all manner of creative ways as a good example of someone keeping their creative edge whilst still being a mum.

“Keeping up some kind of creativity, even if it’s related to your new role as a mother will stand you apart when you’re ready to come back to work.”; Lisa Hassell is a design writer and editor, and founder of Inkygoodness