BBDO GM Farrah Harith McPherson on the real issues women in adland face

General manager of BBDO Malaysia, Farrah Harith McPherson (pictured) is a familiar face in the industry. Working her way to the top, was no easy feat but her belief in collaboration and team work has seen her climb through the ranks.

All in all, she has over 17 years of experience in the industry. As a branding and communication specialist, McPherson has worked with some of Malaysia’s most iconic brands, honing her skills as client services director at M&C Saatchi Malaysia.

In this last International Women's Day feature, McPherson shares with A+M the tips and tricks to mastering the balance between an empathetic, supportive and at the same time, a decisive and action-oriented female boss.

A+M: What has been the toughest thing about being a female boss?

McPherson: Being a female boss is like constantly being caught in a catch-22 situation. If we are too hard on our teams, we are labelled as bossy and aggressive. Too soft, and we are labelled as pushovers. We need to strike a delicate balance between the two and find a way to lean into our strengths as women (empathetic, supportive) while displaying characteristics typically associated with male bosses (decisive, action-oriented).

It is also important to find a balance between juggling the demands we have in the office and at home. We are often pulled in many different directions, and need to remember that all eyes are on us. What we do sets the tone for the expectations from others in our team.

With more women coming into the workforce, the onus is on us to show a successful model of work-life integration. To show others that while difficult, it is not impossible to juggle your career and your family. To be honest and share our challenges and difficulties. Glossing over things and making it look too easy is a great disservice to other women in the workforce. Admit that it takes a village, and that support is everything. Be that support.

A+M: Staff members aren’t always the kindest to opinionated female leaders, how do you deal with this?

McPherson: Women bosses are often subject to passive-aggressive behaviour from their subordinates. This can even be as harsh as open criticism. I pride myself in being a very direct person, able to have an open conversation or a difficult discussion if I have to. Sometimes however, I feel that taking the high road is best. Keep calm and carry on, they say. It hurts – of course, as we are only human. And women (maybe more so than men) have a natural desire to be liked, so this sort of situation is neither easy on the heart nor the ego. That comes with the territory of being the boss. I wish I could say it gets easier. It doesn’t (well, at least for me). I just try to remember that I will never be able to please everyone but as long as my intentions are for the best of the agency, then my conscience is clear.

A+M: What are some of the biggest challenges women on top in the ad/marketing world face?

McPherson: The industry used to be more male-dominated – but now you see more and more women both on agency and client side. This helps.
However, women always have to work a little harder and speak just that little bit louder to be heard.

We live in a superficial world where snap judgements are made (and once made are hard to shake off). Impress people with your substance and let them hear what you have to say. Break the stereotype. Don’t reinforce it.

A+M: A tip for ambitious women

McPherson: I have more than one!

  1. Form a network of strong support (men or women) who will be invaluable to your journey along the way. I have been very lucky to have found this support in my current and past bosses, clients and colleagues and in my friends. Their experience and their point of view are priceless. Sometimes, getting a different perspective on things really helps. Nothing can substitute experience, even when it isn’t your own. Leverage on that.

  2. Always be authentic in who you are – make no apologies for your personality and let your achievements and work ethic speak for themselves. There is nothing wrong with being pretty awesome. You don’t have to pick one or the other.

A+M: Is sexism and harassment in the ad/marketing industry an issue in Malaysia? Do you see tides changing locally since the emergence of the #MeToo movement?

McPherson: I think sexism and harassment in the ad/marketing industry is an issue everywhere! The #MeToo movement certainly created awareness of this issue amongst audiences in Malaysia in general. However, perhaps more within our market centres than anywhere else. It could also be that cultural and societal taboos do not allow such incidences to surface, so what is actually reported or talked about may not be an accurate reflection of what the issue might really be like.

Sexism and sexual harassment in the office is often subtle, therefore very hard to prove. In an environment where women try hard to be “one of the boys” the tolerance for such behaviour might be higher as there is a pressure to “fit in” and not be seen as “sensitive”. As more women find a voice – largely thanks to the empowerment of seeing what can happen when you speak out – hopefully people will be more careful about what behaviour is actually crossing the line.

At BBDO, we have a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour. We believe in fostering a safe and conducive environment for all employees. Talent without respect has no place in any industry.

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