Recently at M&C Saatchi LA, we were pitching a big piece of business alongside colleagues from across the country. It was our initial meeting—what we call a chemistry check—and attendees included our prospective clients and the pitch consultant, the agency/client matchmaker who we needed to advocate for us. I introduced myself to the pitch consultant as the executive creative director. His immediate response was, “Oh, you don’t look like a creative director.”
As an Asian American woman, immigrant, and advertising executive, I’m typically an “only” in any boardroom. Asian Americans are underrepresented in executive roles across corporate America, constituting only 7% of Fortune 100 business leaders. I’m not alone in that “only” status.
I didn’t get a chance to ask the pitch consultant what he meant. Maybe he was expressing positive surprise, but I still was taken aback in the heat of the moment. What exactly does a creative director look like? My gut says white and male. After all, 71% of creative directors in the U.S. are male, but only 29% are female.
We didn’t advance in that pitch, and the experience left me with a lot to think about regarding the archetypes people expect. How often does this happen? How do you avoid fixating on questionable comments and carry on with the business at hand? How much effort do we need to expend working through others’ preconceptions of how we should appear? At times I find myself executing mental gymnastics on the spot to figure out whether I’m safe to push my agenda or offer a teachable moment.
That’s why creating environments where people feel valued is essential to business success. If you’re a leader who wants to build a more inclusive corporate culture, here are the things that you need to consider.
1. Visibility is the first piece of the puzzle
If you can see it, then you know it’s possible. My colleague and business partner Kate Bristow was one of the reasons I joined M&C Saatchi in 2008. At the time, I was pregnant with my first child. In Kate, I saw a woman at the top of her field, equal parts strong professional and strong mother, who was raising an incredible family while embracing her passion. She was someone I admired and aspired to be like.
Finding role models—seeing people you can relate to in the real world—is crucial. For example, Asian Americans aiming for executive positions should take heart in the fact that Asian women gained 17 board seats in 2018, a rise of 39% from two years before. Consider how the people you look up to handle situations and make strides in their industries, and don’t be shy about reaching out for advice. Your role models were probably in your shoes at one point.
2. Tell people they belong
When people on my team question their value or worry about their right to be in the room, I tell them: “[This client or business] is so lucky to have you as part of this conversation.” Brands and businesses make mistakes when they don’t have alternative perspectives to help them navigate the world’s complicated landscape.
It’s also equally important to avoid calling out someone else’s “otherness.” When the pitch consultant remarked on my looks, he made it clear that I didn’t fit the creative director template he’d come to expect. If you want to encourage a welcoming culture, you can’t question the value of anyone’s differences.
At M&C Saatchi, diversity and inclusion is one of our primary business pillars. A genuine commitment from structural, leadership, and financial levels is essential to make it happen. But you need to nurture that commitment on the ground level as well. Tell your team members that their perspectives are valuable, and don’t marginalize their “only” status.
3. Empower the groups who need it the most
If you’re actively seeking opportunities to promote underrepresented demographics in your company, then you’re off to a great start. With the backing of our global network, I was able to help launch Majority, a production company with an all-women roster of directors that works to elevate women in the commercial industry.
Majority was born out of a personal revelation that, as a creative director, I could count on one hand how many times I’d worked with women commercial directors. The venture aims to fix the recruiting pipeline issue that is at the root of so much underrepresentation.
It’s a fledgling company, but it’s been embraced by the global network as one of the areas the industry is trying to get right. I’d encourage others to reflect on their companies, too. Who are the people around you at meetings? Do you have a mentor program? If you see a chance to extend your hand to those who need it, offer to help them make professional leaps.
Advertising is still a male-dominated industry. But in my corner of the world, we’re working to rectify representation, improve attitudes, and change deeply ingrained behavior. What my experience has taught me—even in the most uncomfortable of moments —is that the best way to do this is to own my experience, believe in my right to be in the room, and simply be who I am, even if others might see me as an anomaly.
Maria Smith is chief creative officer and partner at M&C Saatchi LA, a women-led advertising agency in Santa Monica, California. She’s at her happiest—and her best—when she’s helping brands, causes, and colleagues find their voices and tell stories that are authentic, compelling, and relevant.