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Words to Action: Leading Change in Advertising with Becky McOwen Banks
Becky McOwen Banks is Creative Director at FCB Inferno and the most recent winner of the DLD Scholarship for our Executive MBA in Creative Leadership. We checked in with Becky after her first module to ask about her class experience so far, her insights as an advocate for gender equality in advertising, and her thought on what make or breaks great leadership in an era of fast digital change.
Tell us a little about your career in advertising and your experience of becoming a leader in the creative industries…
I’ve been in the Ad game for over 17 years now. I was always split between arts and science at school, with a dash of psychology on the side at A Levels – a career in advertising seemed to pull all of these together. It’s all I ever wanted to do.
I’ve always had a holistic approach to creating campaigns. It never simply stopped at the TV or film (and at lot of the time didn’t start there either). So, I bring rounded thinking to the table, where every new media released is an opportunity.
Becoming a leader – a female leader – in an industry that still has a huge gender bias (only 14% of Creative Directors in London are female) has been an eye opener. I always said I didn’t ever want to be Creative Director, but looking back, what I think I meant was that I didn’t want to be the ‘usual’ Creative Director; the ones I grew up with. Their style simply wasn’t mine or something I felt comfy aspiring to. I travelled extensively and had the luck to have an amazing Creative Director whilst working in Sydney. CJ taught me that you can be a woman and lead, that you can be yourself and lead, and you can do it your own way – in your own style.
That was still only one female Creative Director in all my years of growing up through the system. Yet, gender wasn’t something I was aware of until I made Creative Director level. That was when I looked around and asked where everyone else had gone! So, my leadership has involved me trying to change the system; actively make it better for others coming behind. I’ve started initiatives, I’ve mentored, I’ve put myself on stage at talks and around tables at forums. My leadership isn’t about me. It’s all about enabling everyone to improve, progress, feel appreciated and brave – to do the best work they can.
You have been an advocate for better representation of women in the creative industries. What kind of steps do you believe creative leaders should take to empower more diverse voices in advertising and in wider business?
I’ve been a strong campaigner for many years now. Trying not only to enable the industry to see that there was an issue with ‘adland’ simply not representing the world any more – and that importantly, diversity was good for business – but also to provide tools for agencies to simply start changing the system. Enough of the talking! It really doesn’t take much to begin to change the system. One example I speak of often is putting junior females as the first interview for new potentials, this has resulted in an immediate more diverse set of people making it to second interviews.
Speak up and speak out – Change the language of the company. This is a bit tougher in some ways, but check all the usual collective phrases we use like ‘the guys’ and replace them with non-gender specific ‘the team’ or ‘the creatives’. And call out unacceptable language – not by starting arguments but by correcting language of others and making them aware when old habits start to create discomfort or exclusion.
Do an audit of who you have and where you need to improve – Make this a company-known mission. You can’t improve if you aren’t aware of exactly where the issues are lying.
Understand it’s not a top-down game – That saying you are changing won’t just change things. You need to really look at the processes and see should a more diverse team come on board, where they may be made to feel that they don’t quite fit in – then change those areas/questions/review-processes.
There is a growing interest in the role that technology and AI will play in the future of creative work and human innovation. What challenges and opportunities are these topics presenting in the advertising industry?
I’m a big follower of the AI debate – watching as people run screaming from the room, ‘the robots are coming’ style. I’m excited by the opportunity it offers. We need to get up to speed quickly and see where we can use the processing power of the machines to help us keep on making the magic. Sarah Golding, the president of the IPA, had a brilliant programme running in her tenure about this called ‘The Magic and The Machines’. It has to be about how we can use them better – it’s not an ‘us vs them’ conversation.
There are lots of applications where we can see AI coming to assist us: Researching and trend-patterning would be a great help; research data analysis, upping our game in the programmatic delivery of creative too, so we get learnings more quickly and can make the creative even better. I’m sure the bit we won’t be fighting over at the moment is the creative concept – the joy of finding a perfect fit for our clients’ briefs and engaging people emotionally. It’s the understanding of human behaviour and centuries of semiotics that create the ads we all remember and love.
With so many factors to navigate, what are the key qualities of an effective creative leader of the future?
Curiosity is my big one. Whether that’s questioning why things have to be a certain way, digging to find out what is actually possible and inspiring, seeing if there’s an expert we can get in to shed new light on an old subject, all the way to wondering why a member of the team is quieter today. Being open and hungry to new answers is a joy that builds brilliant teams.
Confidence has to come in to play too. With so many opportunities and elements changing, you have to keep your eye on the ball and know when to call ‘time’ or pull things back on course. This also touches on your understanding of you – having faith in your own ability, and place in the world, and what your role really is about. Possibly not a usual reading of confidence, but I think it touches internal and external manifestations.
The Berlin School EMBA takes its participants out of the day-to-day work environment. What leadership challenges do you hope to explore at the school to infuse back to your professional or even personal life?
The joy, right from the first module, is full immersion in the course and the people. There are so many people to hear and learn from. People with similar or indeed totally different challenges that have resonance with your thinking and experiences.
I’m looking forward to better understanding myself as a leader (as I’ve kinda winged it this far!) and combining that with better business know-how that enables my leadership success to map to commercial success too.