Today’s Agencies Need a Wake Up Call on How to Address Parenting

Marketing often falls short of reality still

An illustration of a woman with a baby on her back trying to type on a laptop
Parents are a valuable bunch, both as employees and as people with rich perspectives. Getty Images
Headshot of Dria Barnes

In recent years, marketers have gotten on board with portraying the less-than-perfect parts of parenthood (also known as reality).

A current diaper ad shows a mom on the verge of a meltdown cradling her newborn, who, naturally, has just spit up on her. Then there’s one of a dad (well played, ad creatives) with his baby on a public restroom changing table, only to discover no wipes in the bag. Another scene shows house lights on while the neighborhood sleeps, with a cut to a laptop revealing a Google search of “Why does my baby…”

These images resonate, especially if you’re like me, a parent for whom those early moments are indelible in your memory. I applaud the intention and progress. But has that changed anything in the way that the media and marketing industry actually supports parents trying to thrive in the workplace and at home? For example, I’d also love to see the camera follow that parent for a few more years as she juggles a demanding job, her relationship with her partner, childcare snafus, illnesses, school issues, housework, activity schedules, her own health hurdles, moving homes.

As every parent knows, it never stops. Nearly half of two-parent families in the U.S. have both parents working full-time. Ask any parent trying to excel at work and family, and they’ll tell you they never really leave one and pick up the other. Family occupies our mental to-do list long after we’ve dropped our kids at school, and from there, it’s full speed until we hightail it out of the office for the childcare hand-off.

With two children under the age of six and a leadership position at a high-growth company, I know this hustle well. Arlie Russell Hochschild’s 1989 book made the proverbial “second shift” famous. But feeling like I have two jobs doesn’t quite do this justice. Now in our fully connected universe, I, like many, often start shift number three (work again) after the kids go to bed.

I’m aware that everyone’s situation is different. But this concept of balance has never worked for me. Balance implies a state of grace, like a ballerina in sustained pirouette. It also assumes succeeding at one thing comes at the cost of the other. Reality isn’t that black and white.

Empathetic leaders who value these benefits themselves are necessary to making our workplaces more amenable to family life.

Instead, I like to think of this tight rope walk as work-life integration. We’re bringing two very different, yet important, parts of our lives together and trying to end each day feeling as if we’ve given our best to all of it.

That’s a tall order, which is why it’s important that companies fundamentally understand what matters to parents and do a better job helping to make work-life integration a reality. For example, sleep pods, which some companies have installed to much fanfare, sound great but I have yet to meet a working mom or dad who regularly manages a power nap in an egg-shaped contraption at the office.

Some companies in the media and marketing industry do a wonderful job helping parents integrate their lives. Others can learn from them and offer game-changing benefits and values, including the following.

Daycare

Several big brands, like Nike, Google, Valero Energy and Prudential Financial, provide onsite daycare, which is a parent’s dream benefit. Others offer subsidies for offsite daycare or have relationships with daycare services for backup care.

Extended leave

Netflix won much praise a few years back when it instituted unlimited maternity and paternity leave. Some companies, such as Procter & Gamble and General Mills, responded by upping their benefits to new parents. But these are still outliers. One survey found that in 2018 only about 40% of employers offered paid parental leave, up from 25% in 2015. That’s an improvement, but we still have a long way to go.

Work from home flexibility

Increasingly, companies are letting people work from home. This is huge for parents, as flex time is priceless. If you have the type of job where you can get your work done at any hour, companies need to recognize this. So long as people can keep up their work, employers shouldn’t care where they are or what time they’re working.

Management that walks the walk

This is the most intangible, yet perhaps the most important, piece of the integration equation. Companies that offer any of the above benefits must have leaders that leverage the policies themselves. Offering flexibility is meaningless if the executive team demands constant face time. Who feels safe taking needed time off when bosses are always in and always on? Empathetic leaders who value these benefits themselves are necessary to making our workplaces more amenable to family life.

While the advertising industry itself is producing some more realistic ads, one survey found that nine out of 10 moms agreed that “the advertising agency is a challenging place for parents.” Many of those moms surveyed (80%) also said they were considering leaving the industry mainly because they need more flexibility, and 64% of the dads said they were considering leaving for the same reason.

Addressing this is urgent, and not just among ad agencies. More than a million millennials are becoming moms each year, according to Pew Research Center, and that creates an opportunity to begin a cultural shift that supports working parents. Parents are a valuable bunch, both as employees and as people with rich perspectives. Moms often decide what to buy, after all. So treat them well, corporate America. Not only will you see better ROI on your ad campaigns, but you’ll also have happier people and better retention within your organizations.


@driadebotton Dria Barnes is the general manager at Healthline Parenthood.
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