Fast Chat: 4A’s CEO Nancy Hill

On the slash generation, reluctant females and inevitable tax reform

Advertising Week is a time for those in the industry to ponder the challenges and changes facing the communications world—kind of like what 4A's president and CEO Nancy Hill does every week of the year. As New York City gears up for more than 200 Advertising Week events, Hill spoke to Adweek about shifts in the hiring scene.

Adweek: Does this industry still hold the same appeal in attracting young talent?

Before there were the various career options we have now, we were a very attractive business for someone with a creative leaning. But now we’ve got so much more competition from creative environments that are business driven. You’ve got things like Google and Facebook and others out there, so I think we’ve become buried in those other options when it comes to young talent. As an industry, we have to do a much better job in promoting our industry as a career option.

The 4A's is trying to do that, having been a major force behind the creation of The High School for Innovation in Advertising and Media in Brooklyn, the first of its kind.

When you talk to those kids, they know advertising, but they don’t think about it as a career. That runs the gamut. They could be doing music scoring for advertising, they could be solving business problems, they could work on Fendi and, believe me, they know those high-end brands. But they don’t ever consider that this is something they could do for a living. I’m not sure why that is. Even for me growing up, I never thought of advertising as a career. I just sort of fell into it. To me, Darrin Stephens (the ad exec character in TV’s Bewitched) was fiction, so it never dawned on me that it was an actual job.

Are agencies doing enough to cultivate and grow talent?

There are some major generational differences. Whereas our generation really craved training in a formal way, this generation wants more experiences. I call them the slash generation because if you ask them "What do you do?" they might answer something like this: "I’m an account executive at Ogilvy, but I write a fashion blog and I’m a DJ on weekends and, oh by the way, I cater parties." This is how they define themselves. If you had asked me the same question at that age,  I would have just said, "I’m an account executive at an advertising agency." There was no slash, slash, slash. So as an industry, we have to be much better at recognizing that this generation wants a collection of experiences. We can’t just give them the tedious and menial work that we all started with as entry-level people and expect they’re going to toil away at that while they’re being trained. That’s not the way they see things. For them, it’s "Give me more responsibility. I see myself as an entrepreneur, so I will take this on and get it done." That’s going to require a mind shift in the culture of the agencies in order to facilitate the growth of these kids.

You recently posted an open letter expressing frustration over the lack of response from women who you’ve tried to get involved in 4A's events. What kind of response?

It’s been overwhelming. We’ve had people saying, "I want to raise my hand," which is gratifying and exactly what I was hoping for. But since I posted that letter, I’ve talked to a lot of women, and their reluctance is a combination of things. Beyond just being a breadwinner, women are tasked with taking care of family, so for many of them making a choice to travel to a 2-3 day conference versus taking care of their kids is a conscious choice they make very differently from the way a man might make it because a man says to himself:  "My wife is at home; she can take care of it." That’s a different struggle and certainly not something where I would say you’re making the wrong choice because that’s not true. The way we’ve been raised as women in business is that you have to make the right choice for yourself.

Why aren’t we seeing more women in top agency management?

It’s the same issue we have with diversity in general. It’s tough because it’s very complex. When you acknowledge the dominant culture in the industry has been that of white males, that’s a very specific culture. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong; it’s just very specific, and it makes it difficult for any other culture, whether it’s female, African American, Hispanic, Asian, gay or lesbian, to adapt to that culture. In the past those others may have said, "I need to become more like that white male culture in order to succeed," but now you see a generation that says, "I’m not going to adapt, and I’m going to be successful anyway." I think that’s a good thing.

Female creative execs say they often don’t have the same access to the sexy award-winning client accounts or have the kind of agency mentors their male colleagues do.

That’s a tough one. If you talk to any woman creative who has been successful, she will tell you it’s because she did the best work she could no matter what she was working on. That said, there’s still a dearth of females in agency creative departments, and there’s got to be an underlying reason for that. I think that because the juries at award shows tend to be more male, they’re always going to look at work through that lens. Until we get to a place where the lenses we use to look at the work are as diverse as the world population, you’re never going to see a shift in the sensibility of the work that wins and that trickles down to who’s successful in the creative department, etc.

Are industry compensation practices fair or have they gone too far in the opposite direction?

This is also a very complicated issue. Procurement is here to stay; we can’t fight it. Agencies who have embraced it and said, "I’m going to find a way to work with procurement" are faring much better in the negotiations than those who are still chasing at what procurement represents. Having said that, there are some companies who have really bad procurement practices and are unfair to the agencies to the point where there is no way agencies can make a profit based on the way procurement departments approach things. Where it works best is when you have agency representation at the highest level, and when I say that I don’t necessarily mean just the CFO but also the CEO and the people who are critical to managing the scope of work. They should be negotiating not only with the procurement people but also with the actual client they’ll be working with. You can’t come up with a fair practice if you don’t have all interested parties at the table. We do a lot of joint work with the ANA on things like new-business practices, compensation practices, contract negotiations and come up with guidelines for what is right and fair. My biggest pet peeve is that we can issue all the guidelines we want, but if agencies don’t say no, then it doesn’t matter. Every time an agency gives in to an unfair practice, they hurt the entire industry.

What impact will tax reform have on the marketing communications industry?

Regardless of who wins the election, there will be tax reform. That is very much on both parties’ radar screens. They have to find ways to reduce the deficit. In Washington people are already looking at it and initially everything will be on the table. As an industry, we have to ensure they understand the impact that could happen with, let’s say, the (elimination or amortizing all or a part of the) deductibility of advertising as a business expense and what financial impact that might have in every single congressional district in this country. We have those statistics, we have the details right down to the congressional seat. We can tell you Miss Congresswoman, in your district it will impact this many jobs, this amount of money that is flowing through the community and you seriously need to think about whether that is something you want to do. I also think there’s a possibility that some of the big companies will say, "If you give me a lower tax bracket, then I will put advertising deductibility on the table." There’s so many different scenarios because there’s so much "If you give me this, I’ll give you that."

Where do we stand in D.C. as politicians push for greater protection of consumer privacy online?

With regard to privacy, we are still in a fairly good position with the politicians because we as an industry—not just the 4A's but also the DAA (Digital Advertising Alliance)—have done a fairly good job educating the politicians, the FTC, the FCC. Where we have an issue is with outliers who have recently announced their own programs. I’m thinking specifically of Microsoft and Do Not Track…It’s muddying the waters, and it’s going to get confusing to the politicians as well as consumers as to what it all means. We regret Microsoft took that step because it’s going to require a major educational effort for consumers to understand. That said, it’s incumbent on the industry to make sure the Digital Advertising Alliance program that we formed is enforced as much as we can because there will be bad players out there who will go against what is being held as the standard for self-regulation, and we just have to make sure the body rejects the organ, so to speak.