Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Meet the next generation of digital leaders – more representation, more perspectives, more kindness

By Chloe Hawking , CEO, Reprise Group UK & Ireland

“Tell us about your journey to CEO” is a common question I am asked on panels or in interviews. It was linear and full of hard work, but not particularly inspiring is often my immediate thought. Looking around I understand why the question is asked – the representation of females in CEO positions across digital agencies remains appalling. 

Of the top 20 digital performance agencies in the UK, there are only three female CEOs (- that’s including me). This is far below the wider media agency average where we have trailblazing CEOs such as Philippa Brown, Rachel Forde, Susan Kingston-Brown, Natalie Bell, and Karen Blackett among many other inspirational leaders of multi-accolade Agencies of the Years.

Beyond gender representation, ethnic diversity is woeful in digital agencies’ C-suite positions, and I can only assume there are gaps in other representation areas too.

Despite this sobering reality, I have great faith in the next generation of diverse digital leaders – but I also believe agencies have a part to play in finding, cultivating and celebrating these future game changers

Opening the door to a digital career

I always felt lucky that I was the first in my school to have a home computer. I spent many hours searching in Lycos, waiting for pages to load in Netscape and later spent far too much time in chat rooms. I can likely attribute some of my digital prowess to that early online experience. 

However today, digital, unlike some other media, is the greatest democratiser. 98% of the UK’s Generation Z have a smartphone and internet access is free in many Wi-Fi spots, libraries and even cafes and local takeaways. Users are able to direct their experience, create unique content and build whole communities. The result is this generation of digital natives, who are comfortably positioned to envision a social experience, assess a personalisation strategy and conjure up innovative campaign ideas. Their problem-solving through Google and social forums accelerate their learning. They have the native skills already and pairing that with the right attitude, development path and commitment, a rewarding career in the digital space is theirs for the taking.

To ensure we are supporting that start in the digital marketing industry, we launched our MOTION Digital Apprenticeship Programme across the UK. This programme is focused on bringing underrepresented groups into the industry, via Reprise. The programme offers rotations between different disciplines whilst studying towards a Level 3 Advertising and Media Executive or Digital Marketing qualification. The speed of learning and budding confidence of our apprentices is inspiring. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw some of these individuals as founders and CEOs of their own digital agency start-ups in the not-too-distant future.

The right support at the right time 

There were points in my career when I had no idea what to do next, questioned what my strengths were, and even let imposter syndrome creep in. Thankfully I had incredibly supportive bosses early in my career (all males – allies for the win) who offered direction, reassurance and coached me to reach my own conclusions. 

It is well-documented that imposter syndrome has been found to be more prevalent in women and underrepresented racial, ethnic, and religious groups in the workplace. To ensure we give an extra level of support to our future diverse leaders at Reprise, this year we launched our Represent Programme. It’s a 12-week coaching programme for high-potential individuals from under-represented backgrounds in leadership (within Reprise and our industry). The programme offers professional coach support to work through personal development and practical day-to-day workplace challenges.

The feedback from our first cohort has been really positive, and we hope many of the individuals go on to be successful leaders in our business. Wherever they go from here,  we’ll be proud to see them achieve their goals and hopefully change the face of digital leadership. 

Providing pathways for future leaders

There is a clear trend in most agencies – the entry level presents an increasingly balanced representation, but the further up the ladder you look, diversity wains. According to LinkedIn commissioned research, during the first decade of people’s careers, for every one woman that makes it into leadership, nearly twice (1.8) as many men make it. 

I know there is much work being done by our agencies’ peers and holding companies, and here at Reprise, to ensure our future leaders aren’t staying on the sidelines, we launched our AccelerateHER initiative. This six-month programme provides future female leaders at Reprise with mentoring, leadership training, personal development and inspirational sessions – preparing them for the next step up. AccelerateHER not only provides practical support but also creates community support through the intimate groups and relationships that are established. 

Hosting a celebratory lunch for the kick-off of the programme this year, I was humbled and inspired by the women taking part. I am excited about what they will bring to leadership that is so often missing, kindness created through lived experiences and an appreciation for diverse perspectives. They also show a desire to do things differently and better, especially when it comes to supporting diverse talent like themselves. 

I look forward to moving aside at some point to make way for the next generation of digital leaders. In the meantime, I will continue to do my best to be an ally, a cheerleader and a facilitator of diverse talent development so that their “tell us about your journey” story is a positive and inspiring one.