Wavemaker's Allison Coley: Women's status in the agency industry

As part of our International Women's Day coverage, Marketing talked to Allison Coley, CEO, North Asia of Wavemaker about how women can impact the industry, as well as the opportunities and challenges women are facing and her career.

Over the years, what has changed since you first joined the industry?

"I joined the industry straight out of university and have only worked in three agencies since [Coley has been with MEC/Wavemaker since 2004]. Naturally, the industry has massively changed over the years – things like programmatic and eCommerce didn’t exist when I started.  As an industry, we love to obsess over how dynamic and fast-paced our industry is (which is accurate). But in many ways, nothing has changed – clients expect and deserve smart, energetic and passionate people to look after their brands.  As agency leads, this means we must be focused on finding diverse and ‘unexpected’ talent to keep us moving forward. We need mavericks – people that we are drawn to, even if they scare us slightly – in order to keep us at our best."

What leadership traits should women adopt or demonstrate in the industry and generally, what skills are needed in leadership for all genders?

"Woman leaders (as well as leaders in general) must be receptive and open-minded. Sociology shows us that people are predisposed to show favour to people who are like them and to be biased against people who are different. In order to recruit and retain people who bring a diversity of perspective, thinking and approach, it is critical to actively seek out ‘different’ and celebrate individuality."

What is the importance of female leadership and the trends in the industry?

"Everyone looks for role models – this is true across gender and age.  So in order for us to maintain women in the industry throughout their career lifetime, we need to make sure they’ve got a positive role model.  For me, that role model has confidence, passion and knows when to be firm and when to nurture. I am heartened to witness the industry taking a more open and receptive approach; more discussions about gender equality, more women stepping up to power, being seen and heard. For instance, in Wavemaker, 50% of our Asia Pacific leaders are women; of whom over 40% of these women leaders are CEOs.  But there is still more to do – particularly when it comes to the keynote or panel speakers at most industry events."

Are there any biases or stereotypes still hindering women reaching the top at media agencies?

"Unconscious biases are hard-wired into our brains and despite our best conscious intentions, they can be challenging to circumvent. Biases are ‘mental shortcuts’ to help us make sense of the millions of pieces of information we are faced with at any given moment. And whilst these shortcuts are meant to help us process data at an incredibly fast speed – our brains are not perfect and we too often make spurious assumptions about people.  We cannot undo these basic instincts, but by raising awareness of this human tendency, we can consciously make more informed decisions.

So most of the time and conversations are on ‘teaching’ women how to be strong/confident/have a voice. But I think we need to spend equal or more time helping men learn to be aware of any biases they may have.  This isn’t just about women changing their behaviours in order to thrive in a ‘man’s world’.  It has to go both ways in order to reach true equality."

What are the major challenges women in the industry are facing today?

"Everyone, men and women alike, faces workplace challenges – client deadlines, getting the next promotion, navigating politics, being a good person outside of work. The way these stresses manifest themselves tends to be different across gender/age/ethnicity/etc.  So rather than call out the challenges that women face vs. men, I prefer to focus on the dialogues on how leaders can identify the specific challenges someone in our teams is facing and then work together to sort it out.  My role as a leader is to help everyone in our business have the best career they can – and that will look different for different people.

As WPP, we have signed a partnership declaration with UN Women in September last year to take continued steps and efforts in supporting and celebrating the successes of women. Wavemaker has supported UN Women’s initiatives such as the ‘Buy to Save’ program in Singapore, and upcoming plans are in place this year to ensure that our outreach and partnership deepens. Wavemaker is also a proud partner of the Women Leading Change Awards – a 2-part event where diversity issues are discussed at conference, and successful women who have made an impact in their industry and community are celebrated."

What is the importance of having a “right mix” in the office and nurturing young female talents?

"Research (and common sense) tells us that diversity and gender balance leads to a better working environment and better work for clients. The improvements in work stem from a more energetic and dynamic culture that fosters creativity and innovation If you fill a room with like-minded people, you will only ever get one idea. Throw in some mavericks into that room and the ideas are endless."

Any advice for women in media agencies to pursue their careers and increase their chances of success?

"Be a role model or hero to a young female in the business. Everyone needs a cheerleader in their corner and if you aren’t taking the time to do that for someone in your company/team, then you are only contributing to the problem.

Be brave enough to be uncomfortable: We all have a tendency to ‘like people like us’ (this is an ‘affinity bias’); it’s comfortable to surround yourself with people who are similar to you. Unconscious bias operates when there is a lack of information, so push yourself, and your team, to seek out opportunities to immerse yourselves in environments where you may be out of your comfort zone."