Paid Parental Leave Has Long Been an Issue at Agencies. Is the Industry at a Turning Point?

Companies are waking up to the challenges of balancing work and childcare, but gaps remain when it comes to policies

Some in the industry are hopeful people's experience during the pandemic will lead to permanent change. Getty Images
Headshot of Minda Smiley

Bianca Reed is senior director of client development at Rain the Growth Agency, a shop that focuses on direct-to-consumer brands. She’s also a mom of four who’s spent the past five months working from home.

Reed, like so many parents working in advertising, has spent much of this year balancing childcare with the demands of working at an agency. In an industry driven by client demands, long hours and a penchant for youth, parents have frequently felt sidelined. The coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated how difficult it can be.

“There have been days where I’m like, ‘This is not sustainable,’” Reed said. “It’s been very stressful.”

Even so, some are hopeful the experience could be a turning point for the industry. Agencies are developing flexible schedules to accommodate parents during these unusual circumstances, and it’s possible arrangements like these will stick.

But when it comes to paid parental leave policies, which have long been restrictive and only recently started improving, the future is murkier.  

Taking a step back

Parental leave has been a pain point in the industry for some time, particularly for mothers, who—more often than not—are considered the “primary caregivers” of their children.

In a 2019 survey of nearly 1,000 agency employees conducted by networking app Fishbowl, 41% of staffers said they are not happy with their shop’s paid leave policy.

Separately, a survey of more than 500 parents conducted by the 3% Movement in 2018 found that roughly half of mothers who took paid time off following the birth of their youngest child were compensated for eight weeks or fewer. For comparison, Twitter offers mothers and fathers 20 weeks of fully paid leave, while Netflix offers unlimited time off during a baby’s first year of life.

“You see tech companies or other firms offering better [paid] leave, and it’s very tempting for parents in advertising to find an exit on the brand side,” said Mara Lecocq, Fishbowl’s brand and community director.

Editor’s note: The videos in this article were filmed in early March, prior to New York State’s lockdown orders.

To be fair, some agency’s policies are generous. 72andSunny’s policy has been lauded as one of the best in the industry. The agency offers primary caregivers six months of paid parental leave in addition to a slew of other benefits, including a Bugaboo stroller, and secondary caregivers are given six weeks of paid parental leave.

But at the other end of the spectrum, things look bleaker. Some agencies have opaque policies that involve stitching together short-term disability insurance, state programs and vacation days with whatever paid time off the employer offers, making it difficult for parents to know what’s available to them.

Pledge Parental Leave has been working to fix this disparity by establishing a minimum standard for parental leave benefits at agencies. Founded four years ago by a group of professionals in the industry, Pledge Parental Leave asks companies to offer three months of fully paid leave for primary caregivers, three months of uninterrupted health insurance coverage and six months of job security.

“It’s unequivocally true that a good parental leave policy will help you retain the best talent, and it’s cheaper to do that than it is to lose that talent to bad policies,” Jules Ehrhardt, co-founder of Pledge Parental Leave, said. “There’s a business case and a moral case.”

On the whole, policies have improved in recent years. Three of advertising’s largest holding companies—IPG, Omnicom and Publicis—offer fully paid leave for a minimum of three months for birth mothers through a mix of short-term disability and parental time off. Many of their agencies provide more.  

But groups like Pledge Parental Leave and the 3% Movement are pushing for a better standard. To become “certified” by the 3% Movement, agencies must offer 12 weeks of fully paid leave to primary caregivers, but its founder, Kat Gordon, thinks 16 weeks should be the industry standard.

“We would love to see 16 weeks as the next level in the industry,” Ehrhardt said. “Six months should be the minimum, but that is going to require state [and] federal support. So it’s not realistic to put that all on employers.”

More restrictions

But the nuts and bolts of the policies are often only half the battle. In some cases, parents are surprised to learn they don’t even qualify for paid leave because they don’t meet their agency’s tenure requirements. The requirements vary by agency and holding company, but some, like Omnicom’s, can be as long as a year. 

Tiara Puglisi, a freelancer for Argonaut, has gone through three pregnancies at three different agencies, each during her first year of employment. She didn’t qualify for the company’s official policy during the first two, instead receiving only a fraction of the paid time off parents who met the tenure requirement could take.

“I recall having to do some extreme math and negotiations to patch together some pay coverage,” Puglisi said.

After arriving at 22squared last year, vp and creative director Mara Evans learned she wouldn’t qualify for its paid parental leave policy since she hadn’t been there for a full year.

“Tears were streaming down my face,” Evans said. “I’m being told at a very vulnerable time in my life that I don’t qualify.”

She told the agency she didn’t feel supported by its current policy, and the agency ultimately “made it right,” she said, giving her the same amount of paid time off that qualified employees receive.

“Because they’ve worked with me, I am now much more of a champion for this place than I was before,” she said.

Looking ahead

When Covid-19 hit the U.S., Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which gives parents the option of taking paid leave for up to 12 weeks to care for children whose school or day care closed due to the pandemic.

However, there are caveats. Employees who opt to take it only receive two-thirds of their salary, up to $200 per day, and the act expires at the end of the year. It also only applies to companies with fewer than 500 employees.

Kirk Guthrie, svp and executive director of HR at creative agency Innocean USA, said only one of the agency’s employees has taken advantage of the act to date. He said most parents have opted to work out individual arrangements with the agency instead, given the act’s salary restrictions.

“As we get closer to the new school year, I think we’ll definitely get some more questions about it,” he said.

While the act addresses the crisis parents are facing, it’s far from a long-term solution when it comes to paid leave. The U.S. remains one of few countries that doesn’t have a paid parental leave mandate at the federal level, which is why companies determine policies.

Ehrhardt said the pandemic and its impact on the economy could stifle progress on parental leave policies, especially as agencies cut costs.

“I fear the case for paid parental leave, despite providing clear cost benefits, will be harmed by the economic environment where any policy that notionally affects the bottom line in the short term will be hard to push through,” he said.

But Gordon said it’s possible that men, many of whom have been “thrown into a work-from-home scenario where they’re really seeing firsthand all of the invisible labor of child care and household maintenance” that usually falls to women, may start thinking more about the importance of paid leave as a result.

“I’ve heard from several men in our community that this has jolted them awake in a way where they want to ensure that parents are more supported,” she said.

Be sure to check out the latest episode of Adweek’s Yeah, That’s Probably an Ad podcast to hear Heat’s executive creative director, Elaine Cox, discuss her experience with maternity leave.

@Minda_Smiley Minda Smiley is an agencies reporter at Adweek.