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As the ad sector in the UK stalls in its efforts to bridge the gender pay gap, we explore how Mediacom and Wavemaker have managed to successfully reduce theirs.

Across the UK’s advertising industry, progress on reducing the gender pay gap has begun to stall. But while efforts at some companies and in the wider economy appear to be slowing, held back in part by the economic impact of Covid-19, there are also success stories in the statistics. 

At the few UK agencies consistently cutting the gap, formalized promotion panels, flexible work for all and strong returners’ policies welcoming staff back from parental leave are all touted as key pillars of an inclusive workplace.

In the UK, five agencies have managed to reduce their gender pay gap year in, year out since mandatory data reporting began in 2017.

DDB UK, for example, managed to bring its gender pay gap down from 34.2% in 2017 to 27% in 2018, and 25.8% in the most recent data – a net reduction of 8.4% – suggesting that policies put in place to reduce the gap are working.

With a median gender pay gap of 7.5%, Wavemaker has one of the lowest gender pay gaps in the sector. The agency has cut its gap 4.9% since it began reporting in 2018.

For comparison, the median gender pay gap in the United States is 18.5%, and the UK’s 16.0%, according to the most recent OECD data available (the most recent UK government statistics reported the national median gap as 15.9%); both economies sit above the worldwide average of 12.8%.

”At Wavemaker, we really recognize the importance of it as a differentiator and a unique part of our employer-employee proposition and also as a client proposition,” explains Rob Jane, the agency’s chief talent officer. ”We need to be representative of the clients that we service, and we need to be representative of the audiences that they in turn serve.”

UK agencies with median gender pay gap reductions since 2017

Company
Pay gap % (2020)
Pay gap % (2019)
Pay gap % (2018)
Pay gap % (2017)
Difference % since 2017

Wunderman Thompson*
21.4
38.6
38.3
44.7
-23.3

Rapp
16
20
28.2
23.1
-7.1

DDB UK
25.8
-
27
34.2
-8.4

Mediacom Holdings
4.2
5.2
6.5
11.1
-6.9

Mindshare Media UK
16.2
1.3
17.7
22.2
-6

Mediacom North
10.2
11.6
14.9
15.7
-5.5

Wavemaker
7.5
10.2
12.4
*
-4.9

Hogarth Worldwide
19.4
19.9
20
22
-2.6

PHD Media
0.1
4
11.3
2.5
-2.4

WPP Brands (UK)*
12.8
14.7
16.3
14.6
-1.8

Agencies in bold cut their gender pay gaps each year. Wunderman Thompson previously appeared as J Walter Thompson, before that company merged with Wunderman. WPP Brands was previously Y&R.

Jane says he and chief executive officer Paul Hutchison are both ”frustrated” that Wavemaker’s gender pay gap hasn’t fallen faster; he’s made a personal goal of getting its mean pay gap, currently at 11%, into low single figures by the end of 2022.

”I’m very proud of the progress that we’ve made. But we are not there. And we are still on a journey. And we are constantly evolving and learning as we go,” he says.

There’s a similar story to be found at Mediacom. Both Manchester-based Mediacom North and Mediacom Holdings (the latter accounts for most of the agency’s workforce) recorded steady gender pay gap reductions, and have cut their respective gaps 5.5% and 6.9% since 2017.

No taps on shoulders

Nancy Lengthorn, head of inclusion and belonging at Mediacom and WPP, says the media agency’s progress is the result of years of work preceding mandatory data reporting. ”Mediacom has got a really long history of female leadership,” she says. 

Unequal representation of women in the upper echelons of business is the biggest driver of the gender pay gap. As Lengthorn puts it: “The promotion process is really key. The reason we have pay gaps, or any sort of inequity in business, pretty much comes down to a system that is designed to ensure that one particular group prospers.”

In that spirit, Wavemaker and Mediacom have focused on ensuring fair processes for recruiting and promoting top-level staff.

”Historically, our industry has been really bad for taps on the shoulder, and we have put processes in place to make sure that doesn’t happen,” Lengthorn says. Promotions are justified in front of internal panels, preceded by personal coaching between candidates and managers.

”People prepare; they do a presentation, they are formally interviewed by a mixed, diverse panel of people. It’s time-consuming and a lot of us get involved ... but it means you are assessing people in the correct way and that you have a wide pool of people who are able to go for those opportunities.”

DDB UK, the legal entity which includes Adam&EveDDB, Tribal Worldwide, Gutenberg Global and Cain & Abel, releases detailed gender pay gap reports each year. The company has, since 2017, enforced a rule that 50% of candidates for senior positions must be female, as well as instituting mandatory unconscious bias training. 

Focusing on senior representation is important, Lengthorn says. She suggests earlier responses to the issue have faced in the wrong direction.

”The thing that we mustn’t do, which people have done in the past, is to automatically say, let’s get more women’s training programs in place. As a woman, I find that pretty offensive. The problem isn’t that people don't know how to do their jobs, it’s that there are systemic barriers in place that prevent certain people from getting into that top quartile.” 

At Wavemaker, Jane says the agency has set specific equality targets in its recruitment efforts, and makes use of gender-neutral job ads alongside recruitment panels. Specialist training is also offered to hiring managers. Like Mediacom, it makes use of employee resource groups (ERGs).

”We are committed to equality in our recruitment,” he explains. ”We’re building on these things all the time, but at the core we’re ultimately trying to create an inclusive workplace. We do that by trying to leverage the talents of women in our business, either in the line-ups that we have on projects or pitching, or in how we recruit.”

He says transparency around not just promotion processes, but any initiative directed at cracking the pay gap, is vital.

”Organizations that are making progress or driving change ... are open and foster discussion, debate and learning. We certainly do that and that’s at the core of why we are making some progress. But we also marry that with action. We talk about it, and we do it.”

Matter of time

Flexible working is another area that can make a difference. Rigid working practices can dissuade women from joining organizations, or prevent them from climbing the ladder, thereby contributing to the dearth of female staff at the top of companies and a wider gender pay gap.

Lengthorn says Mediacom’s MyWay policy, instituted in 2018, has been key to making its flexible workplace a reality. ”People need to be able to work in the way that suits their life,” she says. The policy means part-time working and flexible arrangements around hours and location are available to staff that want them.

While the policy helps staff work around other life commitments – in particular ones which disproportionately fall to women, such as carework or childcare – it’s open to male staff too. Lengworth says that leadership and ”internal storytelling” are important in encouraging staff to take advantage of the initiative.

”We’ve always talked about men who are either working flexibly, working part-time or taking shared parental leave. We really celebrate those men and make sure that lots of people in the agency understand that this is not a female thing, we all just need to work in this way.”

Furthermore, senior staff conspicuously using flexible working can make a difference. Lengworth points to chief executive Kate Rowlinson, and joint managing director Satin Reid, who both work four days a week.

”That wasn’t something that was negotiated after years of stored-up favors. That is something that we are really open about on all of our job descriptions. We’re explicit about saying we’re open to different working patterns. Being overt that this is a job that you can combine with an actual life is key for attracting women.”

Returning from work after an absence – whether for parental leave or another reason – is also factored into the flexible work policies of Wavemaker, Mediacom and DDB UK. The latter offers shared parental leave and reports more men taking that option than ever before, including joint chief exec Mat Goff.

Lengthorn says Mediacom offers coaching for staff before and after taking parental leave, which she says helps ”really make sure that people feel like returning to work is viable, and also a really positive thing”.

Cultural change

Looking ahead, she suggests this flexible working will become commonplace throughout the industry after the dust settles on Covid-19.

”People have proven that the job can be done from home and a lot of the myths that were in place about flexible working have been disproven. There’s been a cultural change,” she says.

Jane says that Wavemaker is currently finalizing its post-pandemic work model, but says: ”Covid, ironically for all its challenges, is actually presenting opportunities for us to really think about what flexible work means.”

He’s keen to emphasize that Wavemaker’s work isn’t just directed towards reducing its gender pay gap, but ensuring a fair workplace full stop: “At the heart of it is trust and empowerment for your workforce to be able to ultimately own and have accountability for how they run their lives.

”That is going to mean more flexibility for people moving forward, not just around location, because it’s not just about working from home, it’s about how you work, and how you deliver in your roles. That’s definitely gonna be part of our proposition moving forward.”

”Ultimately, our commitments around the gender pay gap and around gender equality are only one of the commitments that we’ve made about diversity. It’s about creating an inclusive sense of belonging within the workplace. If you focus on attacking that then the other things fall into line.”

While Mediacom and Wavemaker’s initiatives are backed up by the institutional muscle of WPP, Jane insists that many of his agency’s initiatives are “absolutely, 100%” available to smaller companies.

He explains: ”At the end of the day, the investments that we’re making aren’t unique investments, they’re the right investments. They’re an investment that any business that wanted to have an inclusive workplace would make.”

Businesses of any size, he says, should be making the inclusiveness of their workplace – and their work on pay gaps – crucial to their proposition.

”Having diversity within your workforce is now a strategic fundamental requirement to drive growth in your organization. It directly relates to growth and success culture.

”It’s no longer a debate ... it is a fundamental cornerstone of your business, whether you have 50 people or 500.”