Maternity Leave at Ad Agencies Is Slowly Improving, but Not All Moms Feel the Love

When a workaholic culture clashes with new parenthood

Parental benefits are getting better at agencies, but some women say there's still plenty of room to improve.
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“I can totally understand why people decide not to have kids.”

So says Sophie, a staffer within the Saatchi & Saatchi network and mother of a 2-year-old daughter. As a new mom, she recalls the confusion and frustration she felt leading up to and during her maternity leave—which at the time was just one week paid.

Prior to her due date, she paid a friend in HR to review her agency’s maternity leave paperwork because, as she put it, “I didn’t have a lot of faith in what my own agency was telling me.” To make matters worse, her employer insisted she work all the way up to her due date “when that was going to physically be impossible,” explained Sophie, whose name has been changed for this article.

Sophie’s story (like other mothers who shared their travails with Adweek on the condition they remain anonymous for fear of reprisals) is in no way an anomaly. Women across the advertising industry have described similar sentiments when it comes to maternity leave. It’s difficult to navigate, state policies are often confusing and offer little compensation, paid leave is a perk and sometimes new moms find their work is scrutinized.

As agencies are increasingly challenged to retain and recruit talent, it’s become clear to many employers that there is a real need to improve benefits if they want to keep the next generation of parents–millennials, who are now 20-36–happy. Especially now as tech companies and brand marketers are dangling generous parental leave packages to woo prospective employees. In fact, 38 percent of U.S. millennials said they would move abroad for better parental leave benefits, per a 2015 study from Ernst & Young, and a whopping 80 percent noted parental benefits are a key reason they would remain at a company.

A public pledge 

A number of agencies decided last summer it was better to ban together to address the parental leave problem than to go it alone. Eleven agencies joined forces to try and solve the absence of any uniform policy within the business.

Agencies including global digital product studio ustwo, New York-based Doberman and brand consultancy Wolff Olins founded Pledge Parental Leave—a program designed to implement a universal parental leave system across agencies. Now the group has added over two dozen names, including MDC Partner’s 72andSunny, New York-based Kettle, digitally led ad agency Wondersauce and creative agency Zambezi.

To join, agencies must provide three months of paid leave for the primary caregiver, six months of job security and three months of guaranteed medical coverage. Additionally, all participants must make their pledge public on the company website.

“We want to be an inclusive company and value our people over everything else, but we can’t do that without actually supporting our mothers and fathers in the most important event of their lives,” Gianpiero Puleo, managing director and co-owner of ustwo, said. “While there are added benefits to Pledge Parental Leave, including money saved from the cost of hiring and on-boarding a new person, to me it still really comes down to actively being the type of company we want to be.”

While in the grand scheme of things two dozen shops is a small sampling, it marks a step in the right direction.

How bad is the problem, really? 

For many new agency moms, parental leave is a struggle with little support. Adweek spoke to several women about their experiences on maternity leave and their return to work. The stories they shared illustrated that not all agency employees are treated equally and that having a baby can often make it more difficult to succeed at work.

Alicia, a New York agency employee, felt the need to leave her role at a well-known digital shop less than two years ago after giving birth to her first child because of how co-workers treated her post-maternity leave.

Prior to her maternity leave, Alicia said she consistently received glowing feedback and her bosses promised a promotion and the prospect of moving to another city. When she left to have her baby, “everyone was really supportive,” Alicia said. The transition seemed like it was going to be easy.

But when Alicia returned to work, things changed. She noticed some of her direct reports were assigned tasks or trips to other offices without her knowledge. “People were going around me,” she recalled.

When she confronted her manager about the possible promotion during a routine review—after her son was born—she learned the option was no longer available because, as her manager told her, she “chose having a family over a career.”

Then there’s Julie.

Julie was working at an independent agency in Chicago when she had her first kid. (The agency has since been acquired by a larger holding company.) She was three weeks pregnant when she started and initially waited to share the news with her colleagues.

Like the other women who shared their stories, when Julie left for maternity leave, her managers were all very supportive. But the “time off” proved to be anything but.

From the get-go, Julie said, her supervisor emailed about work. A few weeks postpartum, Julie was asked to come into the office (and bring her baby) so she could go to lunch with a new client. When Julie arrived at the office, her supervisor told her to leave her daughter behind. A coworker would watch her newborn.

Then, two-and-a-half months into her maternity leave, the agency made a bigger ask.

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“We won another client that I had helped pitch before I went out for maternity leave,” she said. Julie was still nursing and recovering from a caesarean section when her boss told her to fly to Indianapolis to meet the client. No discussion. Just do it. “She had me travel to Indianapolis with my daughter and stay in a hotel with her, with her sleeping in a pack-and-play,” Julie said.

“She made it clear that I didn’t have a choice. Other people at the office knew and nobody said anything. I hadn’t been there long enough to have any sort of feeling of comfort or sense that someone would have my back.”

A few months after returning from maternity leave, Julie learned that her boss gave someone else a promotion that was promised to her. “You said it was just a matter of getting the paperwork done,” she recalled saying at the time. Her boss responded by saying, “You have your baby now, and I really need someone who is going to be able to really own this.”

Both Alicia and Julie have since moved to new agencies and neither made a formal complaint at the time for fear of being persecuted even further.

No industry standard

Part of the problem stems from the fact that, like in other industries, there’s no standard when it comes to paid leave. Take Publicis Groupe. Agencies within the holding company are free to make their own policies, leading to inconsistencies. At Leo Burnett, new parents get two weeks paid leave, with adoptive parents receiving an additional two weeks at full salary. For birth mothers, the agency says “short-term disability typically covers a large portion of their leave,” and the number of weeks a woman is eligible for depends on her tenure with the agency.

Meanwhile, at Fallon employees receive six weeks paid parental leave and a lot of flexibility when they return. The agency eases parents back into the workforce with a flexible eight-week schedule with full pay as long as the employee works 40 hours per week. Travel is also kept to a minimum.

But a standard across the industry may not be an achievable goal.

“For any company it’s always going to be an individual policy based on what that company wants to do. You don’t really see standard policies in any one industry,” Marla Kaplowitz, president of the 4A’s, said. The 4A’s figured the best way it could support new moms was by launching its Mothers@Agencies program in February. The virtual coaching program helps them learn to balance being a mother with being a successful businesswoman.

“I don’t know that we need an industry standard, but I think that there is an industry recognition that when you are in a client-service business, you need to also figure out how to accommodate people and give them flexibility,” Kaplowitz added.

Keep up with tech firms 

Meanwhile, agencies need to consider the allure of tech firms. Tech companies have long been poaching talent from agencies, and their new-parent policies certainly give them a run for their money. Etsy offers new mothers, fathers and adoptive parents 26 weeks of paid leave post-birth, while Apple and Facebook offer women the opportunity to freeze their eggs if they decide to put motherhood on hold. (Of course, there’s some work-life balance controversy around that benefit as well.)

That competition is putting pressure on agencies to step up.

iCrossing doubled its paid time off for parents in the last year. According to the agency’s chief talent officer David Santos, the company “had been behind the times, and our people, even those that have yet to take advantage, have shared feedback of how important moves like this are to their livelihood and willingness to invest in us as an employer,” Santos added. “In these times, that’s exactly the type of sentiment and experience we have to strive for in order to compete with these types of companies that we do for talent.”

Now new moms receive eight weeks of paid time off and dads get four.

When asked if iCrossing would consider increasing its leave more, Santos said the agency “wanted to make a bold move and felt that doubling the amount of paid leave was a bold first step.”

“This was just a first step,” he added. “As we collect feedback and hear that we need to make further steps for parental leave and other benefits, we’re committed to doing so.”

CP+B recently made a similar move, beefing up its parental leave policy for all employees. Previously, dads received two weeks paid and moms could take six paid weeks off. Now all parents can take 12 weeks paid after a birth or adoption—a move that acknowledges dads need time off to bond with their new families, too.

KBS recently enacted a policy that merited a gold standard label from The 3 Percent Conference. It offers three months of paid leave and an additional three months unpaid with job security, plus flexible work schedules. Outside of job security and pay, KBS is taking a tip from tech firms like Apple. Instead of offering egg freezing, the agency introduced an assisted reproduction benefits program. That offers up to $10,000 per employee over the course of his or her tenure at the agency to assist with procedures for infertility, ranging from diagnostic testing to artificial insemination.

“The group of people that are coming up through companies now have a very different threshold and low interest to work in a company that isn’t empathetic and socially sensitive,” Michele Prota, chief talent officer at KBS, said. “Our policies need to evolve and our communication needs to be transparent, and we will continue to ensure that we are at the forefront of that to retain and hire and develop the best people that we can.”