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Walk The Talk

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In 2016, Maxus Global launched Walk the Talk: an intensive coaching experience that aims to lead a change in gender equality in the advertising industry. By exploring the barriers that women face in business, it gives participants the chance to focus on their ambitions, arming them with the confidence they need to take steps towards their ‘bigger game’.

More than 800 women have completed the course and 22 secured promotions within eight months. Its success has inspired other agencies and clients to take up the initiative, while WPP plans to implement the programme for 60 senior EMEA women.

Gender inequality is nothing new.  But it’s been around for too long and, as one of the few agencies with a female global CEOs (Lindsay Pattison), we had an opportunity to lead by example and not just talk about what was going on, but actually do something about it.

This is a huge problem to solve and therefore would need a big solution, so it wouldn’t work with Lindsay supporting the proposition on her own, there had to be a business case and a tangible outcome.  The good news was, there were plenty of metrics to backup such a proposal:

Once we took this data and looked at Maxus through this lens, our problem became clear.  Whilst 40% of ‘Client Service Director’/’Head of Department’ positions were held by women, just 24% had made the next step up to board level.  So this was what we had to address: what was holding women back and what could we do to change it?

We had to speak to those being affected and see what was happening.  We identified over 200 top women across the network and reached out to them.  We sent them a survey and asked for their opinions and two clear factors came back that were preventing them from success:

External factors.  These were local laws, policies and procedures around maternity leave / paternity leave and flexible working.  Women found themselves having to choose between a career or having a family.  A lot of these things can’t be changed by a single media agency, but we can make a start, so we created Mind The Gap – an initiative reviewing pay, flexible working, maternity and paternity policies. Maxus now offers 26 weeks paid leave for either mums or dads and the option to take up shared parental leave with a partner, as well as both permanent and temporary flexible working hours to help employees with childcare requirements, change of circumstance or simply to fit in with personal choice.

Internal factors.  This is where self-limiting beliefs, lack of confidence and a lack of clarity of ambition were hindering women’s progress, leaving them feeling locked out of the top jobs. We received quotes like:

Being bossy and pushy goes completely against my nature, yet there is a perception that women who are successful need to also be these things.  We need more female role models – who are successful whilst just being themselves – feminine and powerful – without being labelled.”

These were factors that we could very much address, so this is how Walk The Talk was born.  A custom coaching programme split across three two-day events (one for The Americas, one for Europe, Middle East and Africa and one for Asia Pacific) all held within a month.  220 Maxus women attended the first Walk The Talk; every single one of our female leaders, along with the next generation of stand-out talent.

It was crucial to choose the right facilitators to deliver the Walk the Talk events. We treated the process exactly as we would a pitch. Three top providers came to fight for the contract. We chose Shine 4 Women as they had a proven track record of success in delivering female empowerment workshops for many years.  We worked extensively with Shine 4 Women to create a bespoke programme – one that embraced Maxus’ working values and then supercharged them to ensure we got the very best out of the participants.

What we created in Walk The Talk was an environment for discussion and a place to address the things that hold were holding women back, and then providing a framework for which they can identify what they’re hungry for, who is going to help them get there, and what bold moves they need to take to get there.  It should be noted that none of this programme was intended to be at the expense of men, it was simply to empower women to get to a level playing field.

There is a Walk The Talk WhatsApp group where participants talk about their bold moves, as well as hold each other to account on the promises they made during their time together at the events.  Quarterly newsletters were emailed out to the whole Maxus network showing progress, promotions and new initiatives.  By doing this a continued network of support has been created, constantly giving confidence, praising success and ensuring momentum is maintained.

Even more than that, the community emboldens its members to go out and speak to others, including their teams, their local press and the industry at large, about their experience.  We have created over 200 ambassadors to light the path for others to learn from and to follow.

Even in such a short space of time, the results have been astounding.  A promotion is not something that can be pushed through at the drop of a hat, and yet 22* women from Maxus made a step up – over 10% of the original 220 participants – within eight months of the course beginning.

Of those that participated, 95% feel more empowered to lead change in the area of equality and 91% are more likely to ask for support to achieve their ambitions.

What we have created is a genuine movement within the agency that is already making waves across the industry.  From the 220 women who originally participated, some have run their own versions of the course for the women in their local offices, expanding the programme to more than 800 people. 

In addition, after a presentation from our CEO explaining Walk The Talk to the 100 top executives across the WPP network**, they have now bought into the movement, with fifteen of our sister agencies already creating their own versions.  WPP themselves are doing a preliminary study with 60 of its top executives across Europe, Middle East and Africa in Q2 2017, with a view to creating something that could be rolled out across all of the 423 companies within the group.  Some of our top clients have been introduced and we have even had one of our biggest competitors come to our office to discuss it.

All of this has been done at no charge. We believe gender equality should be available to all so we are holding no intellectual property rights – as long as the company does the programme justice they are welcome to use it.


*These 22 were promotions that explicitly would not have happened if it had not been for the course.  Part of the programme is that each participant has to leave with a ‘bold move’, many of these were asking for a promotion that they previously would not have gone for.

** WPP is the parent company of Maxus and is the largest advertising network in the world

Quite simply, we haven’t seen anything like this created at this kind of scale before.  From Los Angeles to Istanbul, from Sydney to Shanghai – women of all ages, creeds, cultures and stages of their career have come together for a single purpose of making themselves better.  We have not looked at quick, short term gains, but invested in the future of the agency.

We encountered questions and eyebrow raising from some of those not invited (men) – ‘how can this be equality when you’re only inviting women?’  We remained unapologetic and simply referred back to the stats – there’s an imbalance and it’s time we addressed it.  Yes the investment is large, but the return will be worth it.

If your company follows through with something great, then it empowers your employees to do that too.  We have created an incredibly passionate workforce, one that knows Maxus recognises that success for its employees means success for the company – which is why it is willing to invest a large amount of money to support that.  The title of the programme epitomises that attitude – we don’t just talk about gender equality, we have stepped up to actually change something and then opened it up to the whole advertising industry. Our Global Chief Talent Officer, Rudi Symons, has written 5 steps to creating a successful equality initiative:

  1. It starts with raw data

You have to start with a very clear ‘Why?’ We know that companies that have a third or more of their board seats held by women are up to 52% more profitable, thanks to a better balance of energy and diversity.

Then we audited our own company stats. Lindsay Pattison, our global CEO is the only female global CEO in our parent company (GroupM).  And despite being a young, agile company, we move from an overall gender split of 54% female and 46% male to having just 27% of our top (CEO/MD/Board) level spots filled by women. So, we needed to do something about this.

  1. It comes from the heart

Lindsay’s absolute dedication to making a difference in the area of equality saw her standing up on the stage at each event talking from the heart about her own experience.  There is something very powerful about a confident, influential, global leader opening up about the ‘gremlins’ which sometimes make her doubt her worth.

  1. Clear, consistent messaging, backed by all leaders – male and female

Our best male senior leaders were 100% supportive and openly encouraged their female peers to throw themselves in.  Of course we encountered a lot of “how is this equality if it’s not focussing on men too” questions – so we brought them right back to the stats.  The message was – there is an imbalance here that needs addressing, and we are going to do something about that, without apology.

  1. It is backed by proper investment

Equality can’t be achieved in a lunch hour in a spare meeting room. We invested a great deal in Walk the Talk, another reason why buy-in across the board was crucial. It was really important to take participants out of their day-to-day environment and provide a space for them to get creative and think bigger than ever before.

  1. You’ve got to Mind the Gap

Even the most inspiring equality programme won’t bring about change unless supported with progressive policies that promote choice. For example, a lot of thought has gone into our new Maxus UK parental policy, offering 26 paid weeks leave for both female and male employees, along with agile working that supports everyone to live the life they want to live.