When new ad agencies are born, usually a group of (occasionally disgruntled) employees from a behemoth have decided that, freed from the constraints of bureaucratic structures, they could do things differently, more efficiently, better.
But that’s not the case with Now. In 2011, none of its founders had directly worked together before. That’s unusual. I’m with two of the founders, Melissa Robertson and Kate Waters, respectively chief executive and chief strategy officer – both women, which, unbelievably in this day and age, is also unusual. Only 25 per cent of executives in AdLand are women – let alone founders.
“I have to say I wasn’t expecting to do it,” says Robertson. “I had literally just come back to work after having my third child, and so doing a startup seemed slightly mad. But actually, it was a sense of feeling the click, and thinking ‘yeah, let’s be in control of our own destiny a bit’.”
Between the pair (who are not unusual people at all, by the way), they have taken up the mantle of speaking up for women, not just in the industry, but in wider society.
“When we started so many people said ‘that’s brilliant that you’re doing it as a woman’. That took me by surprise because I didn’t think there was anything different about doing it as a woman,” says Waters.
The role of Now as a bastion of female empowerment was never intentional – Robertson says she is a “reluctant feminist” due to modern misinterpretations of feminism.
But as it picked up traction for that reason, the pair embraced it. Does it ever feel like they’ve been put on a pedestal?
“We were just sort of muddling along trying to do the right thing and then suddenly it creates some attention, and you realise that actually it’s incredibly important to be somebody that other people can look to. I want to be accessible, to be normal, to be vulnerable, to be human. And all you’re doing is just trying to help other people understand that you can be all of those things and still do well.”
The pair have worked in the creative industries each for over two decades, in which time social norms have certainly changed. There are undoubtedly more women working in advertising, but still very few at an executive level. Sexism still exists, but far less. Unconscious bias, they tell me, is more pervasive. But does advertising have a diversity problem?
“Short answer, yes,” says Robertson. “And clearly for us, we talk a lot about the gender side of things, and that has a huge impact, particularly in the creative department. But broadly, diversity is a problem in terms of race, colour, disability, even class.”
Despite improvements, there is still a long way to go. I ask Waters what it is that stops women reaching the upper echelons of advertising. She says that while there are still some who will give you explicit examples of active sexism, it’s the job itself that can often impede progress.
“As an industry we all work incredibly hard, long – and often not very family friendly – hours which can be a barrier to people wanting to carry on. So you do find a lot of people who change their working pattern, decide to go and do something else when they’ve had kids, and that can be really difficult.”
The pair’s work for gender equality can be seen in the advertising Now produces. They make the ads for the Women’s Equality Party’s campaigns – the infamous Vagina Purse advert, for example.
“I think what we wanted to do was just shout really loudly. We had some really shocking statistics, but we didn’t want to whisper them, so we were consciously looking to create standout communication that people would notice.”
Following the launch of that particular ad, for the Liverpool mayoral elections, they say they were expecting controversy – that was sort of the point – but the bile became quite abusive.
“There were personal insults,” says Robertson. “I was quoted in an article and then in the comments on the Independent, there was somebody who basically told me to go and crawl under a rock, or take a long walk off a short pier. And you see someone using your name and you think ‘god that’s just aimed at somebody at the agency’, not the poor woman who’s standing for election. The shocking amount of abuse that they got is 10 million times more than any man would get.”
It proves the point of the campaign though, right?” I say. To which the pair reply in sighed unison that “it certainly does”.
Interestingly, Waters adds, it wasn’t the deliberately shocking imagery that caused the most polarisation. Reading through the commentary it was the statistics about the gender pay gap, and subsequent denial that one existed at all, that received the most vitriol.
Earlier this year, the government introduced changes that require all companies over 250 people to publicly publish their gender pay gap statistics. Despite having fewer than 50 people, Now decided to find out its own statistics.
“I guess what slightly shocked us in a female-led agency was that there still is a gender pay gap here that we will consciously look to rectify. So at some point in the next few months, we want to publish it, alongside a list of very coherent things that we’re going to address it. I think it’s definitely better than in many other companies, but it surprised us that it was the level that it was.”
Elliott Haworth is business features writer at City A.M.